Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Originally I was going to write a post on the soundness of the "white privilege" argument. However, lately I've been interested in rhetoric so I'll discuss it from that angle. I've decided that the term is an insidiously brilliant rhetorical device that is non-debatable in some circumstances.

In most cases I've seen the term debated on the web a person brings up the soundness of the white privilege argument and the white privilege theorist claims it is true because he can see it.

Debater 1: I can't see white privilege around me because of claims a, b, and c. Therefore white privilege doesn't exist.

White Privilege Theorist: That's because you can't see claims x, y, and z. Hence you can't see white privilege. It is an "invisible knapsack." Also, if you can't see it then it is likely you are an individual who has white privilege. I can see the "invisible knapsack" therefore only I can evaluate the concept of white privilege.

From here Debater 1's race is often called into question, as the white privilege theorist brought up above by claiming Debater 1 cannot see white privilege (because -- presumably -- he is white).

White Privilege Theorist: If you cannot see it then I assume you are white?

Debater 1: Yes.

The White Privilege Theorist proceeds to evaluate Debater 1s argument based on Debater 1s race and his alleged inability to perceive the "invisible knapsack", not on the truth or validity of the claims that Debater 1 may bring to the argument (in fact Debater 1s argument is meaningless to the White Privilege Theorist anyway because the debater cannot see the "invisible knapsack").

Or in simpler terms it is cheap rhetoric, not sound argument.


Ortho said...

Interesting. You may find evidence to support or refute your argument here: "Bush dancing and political demands"

Münzenberg said...

Thanks Ortho. I don't think one can deny racism occurs. Secondly, there seem to be good claims asserting and discounting arguments for and against white privilege. However, from some of the arguments made on the internet that I've witnessed it seems to follow the same pattern of appealing to the fact that one cannot see it. Then an attack is made on the person's position who cannot see it based on their "whiteness", or inability to perceive it, rather than the claims put forth to support or discount either argument.

Münzenberg said...

That's also not to say that both the debaters position and the white privilege position can be put down to those argument patterns (or that the debater could engage in rhetorical trickery).

Macon D said...

This is certainly a useful analysis of common rhetorical patterns, and I mostly agree with it. I do not agree, though, that there are good arguments against the existence of white privilege in America (if indeed that's one of the points you meant to make here).

The claim on the part of the arguer for the existence of white privilege that the arguer against the concept can't see it because it's invisible to him or her certainly is a common tactic. But it seems to me that it's usually an accompanying tactic, a further explanation of the main argument for the existence and relevance of white privilege.

Perhaps if you could point to an example of the kind of point-counterpoint discussion you're anatomizing here, I could more readily agree with you.

By the way, your blog looks fascinating. Ortho pointed me over here, since it so happens that I've been blogging about white privilege too.


Macon D

subadei said...

The term "white privilege" is a bit of a misnomer to me. The term "majority privilege" would make more sense as, in my opinion (and experience,) this phenomena transcends race and is more a cultural mechanism.

Münzenberg said...

Macon D, thank you for your comment.

There may be other arguments for White Privilege as you have noted. The soundness of those arguments may or may not be inherent, I don't know because I haven't looked fully into every claim and counter claim made on the topic. However, if the "can't see it" claim is accompanying those arguments then it is adding deceptive chaff to the overall discussion and doesn't take anyone closer to the truth of the matter. The "can't see it" claim is an evaluation of the other debaters position based on the debaters race. Discounting an argument based purely on the race of the arguer, and nothing else, is borderline racism. Therefore the "can't see it" claim is borderline racism.

Persons arguing the claim probably wouldn't think so, but if you were to take the arguments structure and input another race it becomes noticeable. Let's say an Indian male enters the room and makes claim A. I say his argument is wrong because he cannot see claim X because he is Indian. The base reason for discounting his argument is based on his race, not on the truth or validity of claim A. Claim X may very well be truthful and stand on its own, but I'm saying he can't see claim X because of his race. If I went around discounting arguments based on the arguers race you would all think I was a racist, illogical fool. I dunno maybe I'm missing something, but this is how the "can't see it" argument comes across to me.

The examples of such arguing came from this metafilter thread:

I'll endeavour to go through and find proper examples for you as it is a huge discussion.

The link that Ortho provided also has Millie Wink arguing along similar lines. Though she doesn't argue exactly like it she does bring up the race of another debater as if his race discounted his whole argument, which is entirely irrelevant to the soundness of the ideas in the debate.

Restructure! said...

Hi Münzenberg,

This is an interesting post. From my experiences, the debate goes something like this:

White Privilege Theorist: White privilege exists because of x, y, z.

Debater 1: I can't see how I'm privileged; therefore, white privilege doesn't exist.

Debater 1 is making an argument from personal incredulity. Debater 1 assumes (implicitly) that he is omniscient or at least wiser than a non-white person on matters about himself. Debater 1 (or the typical white person) can easily believe that non-whites know things that whites are ignorant about when it comes to non-white ethnicities, but it is hard for him to believe that non-whites can know something about white people that whites don't know about themselves. Especially whites as a group.

It's hard to respond to an argument from personal incredulity, so it ends up continuing like this:

White Privilege Theorist: You can't see it because you're white and it's invisible to white people.

Now this isn't a convincing argument, but the White Privilege Theorist is trying to explain to Debater 1 that he is making an "argument from incredulity" using the framework of white privilege. I guess most people in general do not think about fallacies and soundness, so in terms of argumentation, it resembles a circular argument.

A better way for White Privilege Theorist to respond is:

White Privilege Theorist: You are making an argument from personal incredulity. Try again.

People of any race are capable of making an argument from personal incredulity, but a person in a place of privilege is more likely to believe that he is "objective" and all-knowing when other similarly-privileged people he talks to also cannot see it. Typical White Person assumes that whites are "objective" and non-whites are "biased" because of a historical precedence in education that has white people studying and teaching about non-whites, but not (usually) non-whites studying and teaching about whites.

Münzenberg said...

restructure, thank you for your post.

The argument from personal incredulity is a good point you have brought up and I did not see it.

I think that particular species of argument assumes that debater 1 doesn't have any refutations to the notion of white privilege. If the debater 1 showed the white privilege theorists argument premises were false, or his conclusion leads to absurd results, or the argument is invalid, then the personal incredulity aspect wouldn't hold.

If I had enough time I think I could sit down and come up with a reductio on the white privilege argument as it seems to me to be somewhat absurd that a persons skin colour is somehow tied into the argument itself. It seems contradictory that an argument that is somewhat related to anti-racism would include what seems to be a racist premise i.e. some white people can't understand white privilege because of their skin colour. Again, maybe I'm missing something about the argument or I have made a strawman out of it.

I also object to your notion of "typical white person" as it comes across as a universal syllogism, which can easily be refuted e.g. are there any white people who don't think non-whites are biased? A white "white privilege theorist" would surely be one. Also, the term "typical white person" is stereotyping which is closley related to racism. I think terms like that make things worse rather than helping people to become aware of such important issues.

Münzenberg said...

Actually, rather than myself speaking a whole bunch of shit, I'll actually go ahead and try coming up with a reductio for the "white privilege" argument. My first impressions were that is a logically inconsistent argument, perhaps it is, perhaps it isn't. So I'll do up a post in the next week or so with my conclusions, even if I'm wrong.

If restructure, ortho, or macon d are reading this then I'm putting the ball in your court to choose the definition of "white privilege" for me so I don't make a strawman out of it. You can either come up with a self-definition, or alternatively you can find a short quote out of a paper that defines it (the less jargonised the better for me to see if in its pure form). I'll then try analyse it without construing the original meaning too much. I'll then try bring out the logical contradictions and contradictories.

Münzenberg said...

Perhaps even better than a definition would be an argument itself for the theory.

subadei said...

I agree. The definition is a bit one dimensional and limited. I'd be interested in seeing a case made for it from any of the above mentioned commentators.

Restructure! said...


Of course Debater 1 can have refutations, but the argument from personal incredulity aspect holds regardless. In your rendition, Debater 1 makes claims a, b, and c, but he is also making claim D, "I can't see it; therefore, it doesn't exist." The debate is sidetracked by the pretentiousness of claim D.

Some white people can't understand white privilege because of their skin colour, because society treats whites and non-whites differently. It's possible for a white person to grow up using Band-Aids and never notice that they were designed for white people. It's almost impossible for a black, dark-skinned person to grow up using Band-Aids and not notice that they were designed for white people.

If instead of "typical white person", I said "average white person", would it make sense to you?

The definitions of white privilege from the Wikipedia link and Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" seem fairly straightforward to me. White privilege isn't something mysterious. White privilege is only "invisible" to the average white person, but when it's pointed out, as in the Daily effects of white privilege section of McIntosh's article, it should be visible.

Some of the items may not be applicable to your area. subadei mentioned that "white privilege" should be called "majority privilege". I agree that many white privileges come from majority privilege, but not all. Blacks are the majority in South Africa, but whites are in power. Blacks are the majority in D.C., but those who are in positions of power (politically and economically) are mostly whites.

Münzenberg said...

Restructure, Thank you for your comment. It gives me the chance to sharpen the logical toolkit.

No, the personal incredulity doesn't hold. Arguments can be refuted without any inherent, ever-present suppressed premises that act like counter-argument boogeymen. Showing the invalidity of the argument is one, a reductio is another, falsifying the premises another. If you claim that ANYONE who argues against the theory with those tools is also ALWAYS arguing with the hidden premise that they can't see it, then it proves my point above about it being a non-debatable rhetorical trick. How are you to support, or refute, a theory that has invisible, ever-present premises lingering about that the arguer can't argue against because it is self-defeating? If its anyone that is incredulous, or thinks of themselves as all-knowing, it is the person who claims that an argument is completely impervious to refutation by the generic tools of logic.

Regarding, your second paragraph ...

Firstly, you use a lot of guarding terms to qualify some of your statements e.g. "almost impossible," "some white people," and "possible for a white person ... ." This weakens your argument and hence makes it harder for myself to respond with anything of substance. Weakening an argument makes it stronger against refutation, consider "all chairs are white," a strong claim which is easily refuted with a single counterexample, with "some chairs are white," a weaker claim that is open to counterexamples, but the counterexamples are also open to countering because of the claim "some". These words not only make it harder to respond, but it also makes me think you don't fully support the theory you are espousing (or the theory isn't as strong as yourself or others claim).

Secondly, the argument, in its original form in the second paragraph, doesn't logically follow to the conclusion you have presented.

Your second paragraph argument is quite close to the following:

p1 - Society treats white skin colour and non-white skin colour differently

p2 - It's possible for a white person to grow up using Band-Aids and never notice that they were designed for white people.

p3 - It's almost impossible for a black, dark-skinned person to grow up using Band-Aids and not notice that they were designed for white people.


c1 - Therefore some white people can't understand white privilege

That's my interpretation anyway with a tiny bit of cut and pasting and replacing of words.

For the next few paragraphs I'll use parallel reasoning to show that it is invalid in its original form. It is like arguing the following:

p1 - Australians treat Queenslanders and Non-Queenslanders differently.

p2 - It's possible for a Queenslander to grow up wearing a maroon football jersey (The Queensland football team jersey) and never notice they were designed for Queenslanders.

p3 - It's almost impossible for a non-Queenslander to grow up wearing maroon football jerseys and not notice they were designed for Queenslanders.


c1 - Therefore some Queenslanders can't understand Queenslander Privilege.

This parallel argument doesn't make any sense to me as there seems to be hidden premises that you've left out. I think to make the argument valid you'd have to add the premises:

p* - Differential treatment of Queenslanders and Non-Queenslanders, in favor of Queenslanders, is "Queenslander Privilege."

p* - Not noticing the differential treatment and favoritism is a facet of Queenslander Privilege.

Thus the argument could be radically rewritten (without the guarding words) as this:

p1 - Australians treat Queenslanders and Non-Queenslanders differently.

p2* - Differential treatment of Queenslanders and Non-Queenslanders, in favor of Queenslanders, is Queenslander Privilege.

p3* - Not noticing the differential treatment is a facet of Queenslander privilege.

p4* - Queenslanders don't notice this treatment.

p5* - Noticing the treatment is a facet of Queenslander privilege.

p6* - Non-Queenslanders notice this treatment.


c1 - Therefore some Queenslanders can't understand Queenslander Privilege.

The argument is still somewhat invalid. How do you make the jump from not noticing to not understanding? One is an observation, the other is a type of knowledge. You'd have to add yet another hidden premise that wasn't included in the original form: Not noticing Queenslander Privilege does not lead to understanding Queenslander Privilege.

I still don't think it is valid in that form either. There is still the logical jump from the favorable treatment of Queenslanders being the term "Queenslander Privilege" to Queenslanders not noticing "Queenslander Privilege." Everything else seems to follow after that, but the jump is still there and is somewhat circular. It is like arguing:

The favorable treatment of A is B.

A doesn't notice B.

How do you jump from a favorable, and supposed societal wide, condition to a major portion of A not noticing it? Yet later on, merely pointing it out with a couple of words somehow magically unveils the condition? Again, we return to the glue, and ANOTHER suppressed premise, that holds together the jump: the "invisible knapsack." (Quick tangent from my first paragraph: words and observations are powerful enough to unveil the condition of "white privilege" to the masses, yet, apparently, they aren't that powerful to refute the theory itself).

Thirdly, I would go toe-to-toe with all your specific premises from your argument but my brain is fried. I'll have a shot at premise two.

The truth of your premise that adhesive bandages "were designed for white people" is a massive claim that needs backing up in the form of historical sources. Was the sole cause of white adhesive bandages because white people deemed it so? Or is the more likely rival cause because lightness in colour allows us to see cleanliness and hence the sterility of the bandage? Hospitals are also mostly white because of sterility and cleanliness. Perhaps we can claim along your same line of reasoning that the predominantly light-coloured architecture of hospitals were also designed for white people. Thirdly, my little brother has spiderman band-aids, does that mean that the band-aids were created for spiderman? (Or a person with thousands of tattoos of spiderman all over him?)

Finally, "Average white Person" doesn't work either. If you are defining averages, exactly what data are you using to come up with an average? I think your terminology about average white people also brings up another important point about this theory. So far I've been looking at it deductively and trying to surmise if it is sound or not. I haven't even to begin with the inductive strength of the theory.

Restructure! said...


I am not claiming that anyone who argues against the existence of white privilege is always arguing with the hidden premise D, "I can't see it; therefore it doesn't exist." When I said "the argument from personal incredulity aspect holds regardless," I meant that in your rendition where Debater 1 says, "I can't see white privilege around me because of claims a, b, and c. Therefore white privilege doesn't exist", claim D is present.

The argument by personal incredulity is a subset of the argument from ignorance. The argument from ignorance is concluding that P is true if there is no proof of not P (or that not P is true because there is no proof of P).

Of course somebody can disprove the existence of white privilege by showing a contradiction, but showing a contradiction is different from the argument from ignorance. A reductio, for example, is finding a contradictory conclusion like "Q and not Q", which means one of the premises are false. An argument from ignorance is not finding evidence of P and then concluding that it must be the case that "not P".

As for weakening "my argument", I'm not sure what you think "the argument" is. What exactly are we talking about? The existence of white privilege? The invisibility of white privilege? The fact that the invisibility of white privilege is tied to being white?

Yes, I agree with your formalization of the hidden premises using the Queenslander example as a parallel to the white privilege argument. Differential treatment of whites and non-whites, in favour of whites, is white privilege. Not noticing the differential treatment and favoritism is a facet of white privilege.

Yes, the jump from not noticing to not understanding requires another hidden premise: understanding x requires knowledge of x. Or, knowledge of x is necessary for understanding x.

You're right that "the favourable treatment of A is B" does not by itself lead to "A doesn't notice B". The hidden premise is that people tend to notice how they are oppressed and tend to be oblivious to how they oppress others. (That people are focused on their own oppressions applies to gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. in addition to race.) If you encounter an impasse, you notice it; if you don't encounter an impasse, you don't have to think about impasses at all.

When I'm talking about Band-Aids designed for white people, I'm talking about peach/beige coloured Band-Aids referred to as "flesh colored", not about white gauze or hospital-white. Since these peach-beige Band-Aids were marketed as "flesh colored", it was designed to blend in with "people's" flesh/skin. Johnson & Johnson were not purposely trying to make black people look silly. They just didn't think about black people when they thought about things like "human flesh" (or they didn't care).

Your Spiderman Band-Aid "analogy" is not analogous to "flesh-coloured" Band-Aids, because Spiderman designs were never considered "flesh-color".

As for the terms "average white person" and "typical white person", I suppose I use these terms from a background assumption that white privilege exists. It's also an induction from personal experience, but a rigorous study would be better. But as you implied, we would be getting ahead of ourselves, as we need to be on the same page on the deductive aspects first. If you end up agreeing that white privilege exists, then I think you would also agree that terms like "typical white person" are accurate.