Common White Fallacy #6: Unfalsifiable belief systems about race

A common fallacy of white people is to have a belief system about a non-white racial or ethnic group that cannot be falsified. Wikipedia defines falsifiability as follows:

Falsifiability (or “refutability”) is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation or experiment.

In other words, it is not uncommon for a white person to have an unfalsifiable belief system about race, and when shown evidence that refutes a held belief, the given white person engages in absurd rationalizations that “protects” the belief system from any possibility of refutability. For most white people, to be called racist entails being called a bad person, and since the self-concept of oneself as bad is unacceptable for most people, the given white person cannot accept the possibility that he is racist.

Often, the following scenario occurs:

  1. A white person believes some generalization about people of colour, i.e., all people of race R have property P.
  2. A person of colour of race R tells the white person that she does not have property P.
  3. The white person makes some accepting or concilliatory noises towards the person of colour, but then continues to believe that all people of race R have property P.

An example of this is when a white person makes the claim that all black people listen to rap music. If a black person says that she does not listen to rap (but listens to classical music instead, for example), the white person may accept the claim, but then rationalize, “but then you’re not really black.” This white person’s belief system about what kind of music all black people listen to becomes unfalsifiable, because if there is any black person who refutes the generalization, that person suddenly becomes “not black”, and the white person’s sweeping generalization is preserved.

Now this is a relatively obvious example. The white person will not always offer the rationalization that the person is “not really” a member of the group the white person generalized about. (This specific fallacy is known as the no true Scotsman fallacy.) Sometimes the white person will read the dissenting comment as an anomaly or even an alternative opinion that somehow does not interact with the validity of his generalization.*

Unfalsifiable belief systems are problematic, because they are prior assumptions that cannot be tested with reality. Of course, beliefs like “all people of race R have property of Pcan be tested and are falsifiable, but when the person who has the belief rejects any evidence that could possibility refute it, the person’s belief system is unfalsifiable and he cannot be reasoned with. Unfortunately, white people are often unconscious that they are making these kinds of invalid rationalizations to preserve their self-concept as a non-racist (or anti-racist) person.

Ironically, some of these white people believe that white people are more “rational” than non-white people when discussing race, because they are unable to see their own irrationality.

* This is also referred to as “not listening” to people of colour or not taking people of colour seriously.

Related post:

Who has the right to speak about racism?

There have been two recent, thought-provoking posts on Racialicious about who is allowed to speak about racism. In May I Be Offended on Your Behalf? Tami of What Tami Said, who is black, recalls some negative experiences with non-black people speaking about black experience. Because of this, she held herself back from writing a post about racism against Asian Americans. She wants allies and the mainstream to be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but also she wants them to keep their privilege in check. She then questions this and asks if she (or anyone) has the right to be offended on someone else’s behalf.

In A Question of Authority, Fatemeh Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch was advised by somebody not speak to about racial issues “past a certain point,” because Fatemeh can pass for white. She was annoyed by this, because one of her identities is being a Middle Eastern woman, she knows many Middle Eastern women, and she also does her homework on the subject. Similar to Tami, Fatemeh is annoyed when some white people speak for people of colour. In particular, Fatemeh mentions white academics and non-profit workers who speak for Middle Eastern and South Asian women, when Middle Eastern and South Asian academics and activists are capable of speaking for themselves. However, she wonders if a South Asian professor of African American studies has the authority to speak about issues facing Black Americans. She also points out that being from a particular background does not make one a “spokesperson” or “expert” on everyone of the same background. She asks: (1) What defines an authority on the subject? (2) Who has the right to speak as an authority on a race or ethnicity? and (3) Who gets to decide who’s an authority or not?

LM, a commenter on A Question of Authority, made an interesting point:

Anyone has a right to speak; whether they’re an authority is a separate question.

Why does it matter who is speaking? The truth-value of a proposition is independent of its speaker.

If there are such things as truths about racism and what we call “race”, then these truths exist independently of who speaks about them and regardless of if anyone speaks about them at all. The real problem here is not who is speaking, but what is being said.

The problem is that most people outside the racial group being spoken about simply lack the racial knowledge specific about that group. Not only that, but many people who fit this category are unaware of the extent of their racial ignorance; they believe that they are knowledgeable. Kruger and Dunning (1999) published a psychology study titled, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” (PDF)(HTML). The study showed that the participants who were particularly incompetent in a particular subject or skill grossly over-estimated their competence in that subject or skill.

If we accept the hypothesis that people incompetent in a knowledge domain generally have inflated self-assessments with respect to their competence in that knowledge domain, and if we combine this with society’s expectation that white people are more competent and knowledgeable in general, then that white presumptuousness about race that feels all-too-common is an unsurprising result. Obviously, personally observing hundreds of white and black people shake hands does not give you access to the inner thoughts of non-whites with respect to handshaking preference; watching BET heavily does not make you especially knowledgeable about black culture; reading The Joy Luck Club does not mean you understand Chinese American culture; and even if you had studied race for over a dozen years, no white person—or even black person—is the spokesperson for black people. Unfortunately, many white people think that it’s that simple, that people of colour can be understood through prototyping, stereotyping, and generalization.

Like other subjects considered difficult, race and racism are complex subjects. Even if you want it to simplify it by embracing racial color blindness so that you don’t have to think about race, it doesn’t make race simple. Even if you want to simplify it by embracing multiculturalism and celebrating differences, it still doesn’t make race simple. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and there are a billion little things that cannot be generalized in addition to the few things that can be generalized that make up people’s racial experiences. It’s great to look for patterns, but be educated about rigorous empirical methods, because it’s not that simple. For example, personal observation is not a good way to draw conclusions about people outside your racial group.

Where does authority come from? Authority comes from knowledge.

Again, the truth of a proposition is independent of who the speaker is. The reason that academics are often authorities on specific types of knowledge is that they are often right, or at least they are generally more knowledgeable than everyone else. Somebody who has studied a specific subject (such as a scientific discipline) intensely for several years is going to be exposed to more knowledge about the topic than somebody who knows of the subject only through fictional portrayals on TV, for example.

My dad once commented that he thought that scientists were presumptuous, because they make scientific claims about evolution. He believed that his opinion that evolution is illogical (based on the false assumption that evolution is about moving from the primitive to the advanced) is as equally valid as that of a biologist’s. I thought that he was presumptuous for thinking that biology was that easy, that biologists spent years of advanced study without ever coming across his type of criticism, because they had never thought of it before or even debunked it in high school biology. Of course, when I suggested that he read an introductory book on the topic of evolution, he refused, believing that one does not have to study evolution to know that it’s crap.

You should always question authority, but if you find yourself dismissing the the claims of people who have studied a subject for years or lived an experience for years, believing that these views are not worth considering, you are the one who is presumptuous, not the “experts”.

Society confers a type of authority on those who are knowledgeable (generally). Although there are good reasons for conferring authority on to academics, authority is more about how society works than about truth per se. Knowledge and truth are more closely tied to one another, but what counts as “knowledge”?

Is personal experience a type of knowledge?

Yes, but personal experience is imperfect knowledge.

The hasty generalization is a fallacy, even if you are a person of colour. People of colour are individuals, and have a myriad of different racial, ethnic, and cultural identities intersecting with other identities, such as gender, sexual orientation, class, and nationality. In addition, there are people of colour who arrogant, stupid, and cunning enough to try to be the spokesperson for their racial or ethnic group, and there are many white people who will accept what they say uncritically.

The problem here is that sweeping generalizations about people are false even when they are about people of colour. (Imagine that!) People are not homogenous, and statistical analysis can be assumed to be necessary in population studies of people of colour as well. People of colour don’t literally live in a different world from white people which defies the laws of physics, statistics, and logic.

White people need to be critical of self-appointed spokespersons of colour, because generalizing from one instance to all instances was never an effective empirical method as far as generating truth is concerned. This should not be a racial issue, but it is, because of racialization.

Once again, the issue is not about deference to racial authority between whites and non-whites, but about racial truths versus racial falsities, racial knowledge versus racial ignorance. Often whites make false or misleading statements about a different racial group even when they have good intentions, but it is the wrongness that is the problem, not the fact that they said it. When the white woman told Tami that “any black person who saw it would be offended”, the statement itself is absurd, even if it was told by a black person to another black person who disagreed that it was offensive.

Similarly, there are non-whites like Michelle Malkin, Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and my archenemy Chinese Canuck who often make generalizations from their personal experience to an entire group of people. While their personal experiences are of course valid, their generalizations are not. The problem is not who is doing the talking; it is what is being said.

Everyone has the right to speak. Whether you are knowledgeable or correct is a separate question.

Common White Fallacies when Dealing with People of Colour

A white person needs to listen to the personal experiences of people of colour when they are under discussion. On the other hand, it is dangerous, and usually racist, to generalize from one or a handful of people of colour and make a general claim. These two statements do not contradict each other.

White people need to understand the basic structure behind first-order logic to avoid the errors of both (i) ignoring the voices of people of colour, and (ii) making generalizations about all people of colour based on the voices of some people of colour.

Errors in Making Generalizations about People of Colour

Fallacy: Confusing Existential Quantification for Universal Quantification (Interchangeable People of Colour)

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person x thinks P.
Therefore, all black people think P.

This reasoning is invalid because black people are not interchangeable, and one (or any) black person is not the spokesperson for all black people. Just as with white people, black people are individuals and are diverse in thought, culture, appearance, and other properties.

Fallacy: Hasty Generalization

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person x thinks P.
A black person y thinks P.
A black person z thinks P.
Therefore, all black people think P.

First of all, this argument is never deductively valid, no matter how large the sample size, unless the sample set is equivalent to the population set to which you want to generalize. Inductive reasoning is always deductively invalid. (Science and statistics use empirical observations to draw conclusions, but they are not making inductive arguments.*)

If, instead, the reasoner wants to make a statistical claim about the population of black people, then she may be committing a hasty generalization. The sample size may be too small, and even when the sample size is large enough, it may not be representative of the general population. For example, if you surveyed black people in certain areas of the Internet and found that most were gamers, it says nothing about black people in general.

Errors in Ignoring People of Colour

Fallacy: White is Right

The following reasoning is invalid:

A white person x thinks P.
A Chinese person y thinks not P.
Therefore, x is right and P is true.

This reasoning is invalid because a white person is not necessarily more rational than a Chinese person. Although Western culture identifies the West with rationality and logic, and the East with irrationality and superstition, this does not mean that it is true in reality. A white person is not necessarily correct when the opponent is a black person or any non-white person, either. If a person assumes that this is true, he has an implicit belief in “white supremacy”.

Fallacy: Appeal to White Belief

The following reasoning is invalid:

Most white people think P.
Most non-white people think not P.
There are more white people than non-white people (in the United States).
Therefore, P is true.

Appeal to White Belief is a racial form of the fallacious Appeal to Belief, which has the following form:

Most people believe that a claim, P, is true.
Therefore, P is true.

Appeal to White Belief and the more general Appeal to Belief are invalid because the fact that most people believe that something is true does not mean that is true. For example, if most white Americans believe that racism no longer exists in the United States, and most black Americans believe that racism still exists, then this does not mean that the whites are objective and the blacks have a persecution complex. Appeal to White Belief may appear together with the “White is Right” fallacy.

Fallacy: My Black Friend Agrees With Me

The following reasoning is invalid:

A black person w agrees with me.
A black person x agrees with me.
A black person y disagrees with me.
A black person z disagrees with me.
Therefore, y and z are wrong and stupid.

Sometimes the number of black people who disagree with the white person in question is larger than the number of black people who agree with him, and the white person still thinks that those who disagree with him do not count because they disagree. This reasoning is fallacious, because the fact that one or some black people agree with the white person does not entail that those are the “good blacks” and the rest are the “bad blacks” who are wrong and stupid. The blacks who agree with the white person may agree with him because they are different demographically from those who disagree, or their social position may hinge on being agreeable to whites.

For an example of demographic differences, Oprah Winfrey may think that any black person from the ghetto can become rich if she tried, but Oprah is of the demographic of black billionaires who started off poor, which is not representative of the general black demographic.

It is more difficult to give a concrete example of the fragile social position situation, because it posits that the agreeable blacks have or are influenced by an ulterior motive. However, this sometimes happens, as being outwardly agreeable towards authority figures is not uncommon for humans in general. (For example, you may outwardly ‘agree’ with your boss about something and your boss may believe that you truly agree with her, but your desire for job security may or may not have influenced your behaviour.) Whether or not this is true for a given situation depends on the individual situation.

In any case, the truth or falsity of your belief is not determined by the fact that some black people agree with you, or the number of people who agree with you, even if more black people agree with you than disagree. This is a variation of the “Appeal to Belief” discussed above. In the “My Black Friend Agrees With Me” fallacy, the fact that the blacks who agree with the white person are favoured over those who disagree may be influenced by the “White is Right” fallacy as well.

This reasoning is fallacious even when you substitute any non-white racial group for ‘black’. Whites should not ignore or dismiss non-white voices just because they disagree. Any criticism should be considered and evaluated seriously.

* Karl Popper‘s account of falsification is a more accurate picture of how the scientific method works, although Thomas Kuhn’s picture is more accurate than Popper’s, and others have criticized Kuhn, etc. A full explanation is much too complicated and is irrelevant to this post. The point here is that claiming that inductive logic is invalid is not the same as a criticism of science, statistics, or empiricism in general. Science, statistics, and empirical methods are very good ways of gathering knowledge.