What Can We Really Tell From White Silence?

Biases against peaceful protesters and silent non-protesters.

Posted Jun 16, 2020

Source: UnratedStudio/Pixabay

There are many biases against peaceful protesters and their cause in recent weeks. It’s adding insult to injury, as if what happened to George Floyd was not bad enough.

There are also some, though fewer, biases against the seemingly silent non-protesters. Don’t get me wrong. I support peaceful protests and decry the racism in the United States. I am not equating the two sets of biases. Racism is obviously the bigger problem, so much so that I resisted writing any version of this article for weeks. I don’t want to inadvertently provide any support to those who dangerously deny the racial problems.

But after I discuss some anti-protester biases, I will note and try to explain some of the apparent presumptions against those who are perceived to be silent. I hope doing so can possibly bring even more people together in the long run. It might even help more white people to stop being silent.

Racism and Victim-Blaming

The biases against the protesters include the racism itself including against black protesters. There’s victim-blaming against the black victims of the police actions that first triggered the protests. Even after acknowledging that George Floyd’s death was terrible, many convey the “but” that Floyd was “no angel” or that he resisted arrest (though most evidence showed no resistance). There’s victim-blaming against the black and white victims of police actions during the protests, including the 75-year-old white protester who was hospitalized after being pushed by police.

Conflation and Exaggeration

There are the conflations or overgeneralizations from so many sources (including the U.S. President) that sloppily merge the mostly peaceful protesters with those who are looting, throwing rocks, or setting fires (LeBlanc, 2020). There are the apparent fabrications or exaggerations (including by the U.S. Attorney General) that peaceful protesters at particular locations are engaging in these aggressive acts (Egan, 2020). There have even been published photos in which high-profile news coverage of one city’s protests included a “fiery scene in a different city” (Drucker, 2020).

Word Games and Logical Fallacies

There are many word games from politicians and law enforcement that deflect and evade difficult questions about racial and police issues. These wordings often reflect logical fallacies (another form of bias) not only in those who speak the words but also in those who are persuaded by them.

President Trump suggested, without evidence and while citing a conservative news source, that the hospitalized 75-year-old white protester pushed by police may be an “ANTIFA provocateur” (Forgey, 2020). Aside from the victim-blaming here, there’s a double fallacy: the ad hominem fallacy and appeal to authority. The initial police statement that the 75-year-old white man “tripped and fell” left out the part about being pushed (Forgey, 2020), which is a form of cherry-picking (if not outright deception) though an apology was later given.

Attorney General Barr said there was “no correlation” between forcefully moving peaceful protesters and Trump’s photo-op on June 1. But there was a correlation, at least in the timing of the two events. Even ice cream consumption and crime rates are “correlated,” despite the fact that there’s no causal connection between the two (Stalder, 2018a). So it’s a pretty low bar to acknowledge a “correlation.”

Barr’s full statement was that there was no correlation between the “tactical plan of moving the perimeter out by one block” and the photo-op plan (Schwartz, 2020). OK. But even if the original tactical decision did not technically depend on the photo op, no one had asked Barr about a military-supported one-block-out tactical plan. Barr chose his own question to answer, which is a subtle form of the strawman fallacy. The question actually put to Barr was about the politics of Barr appearing in Trump’s photo op. Of course, journalists can still try to ask pointed follow-up questions.

Either way, forceful removal of peaceful protesters did facilitate the photo op. And there are indications that Barr chose to carry out the tactical decision when he did so that Trump could walk over, even if the original tactical decision was made hours before (Davis et al., 2020).

Biases Against Non-Protesters

Less obvious are some of the apparent biases against those who seem silent on the racial issue. First, some who seem silent may be actively fighting racism in ways unknown to us. Let’s exclude those individuals from the remaining discussion.

The common slogans or logos against silent individuals include “silence is betrayal,” “white silence is violence,” and “neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” These are profound and sincere pleas for justice that can motivate vital action, but they technically fit the classic all-or-nothing or either-or fallacy “you’re either with us or against us.”

Despite the fact that the all-or-nothing fallacy is a top-10 cognitive distortion in psychotherapy (Burns, 1999), some of these slogans seem empirically valid. If many more people actively spoke out, especially those in positions of power who put their words into actions, then institutional racism and racist violence would decrease. In this sense, silence is violence.

But some who wield these slogans go further in saying that silence is equivalent to if not worse than the actual violence. Some seem to argue that silent individuals are exhibiting racist dispositions or are explicit “racists” (Kendi, 2019). Some attribute silence to “white fragility” and claim that silent white people are actually saying “I don’t care enough to get uncomfortable to speak out” (Capatides, 2020).

Source: Deedee86/Pixabay

Silence during a time of injustice is tragic and a fair cause of despair or anger, and some silent people are indeed racist, fragile, or uncaring. Authors who convey these points may make effective arguments to combat racism. But silence as the absence of an action is the prototypical ambiguous stimulus in that it’s hard to interpret (regardless of its serious consequences). Silence is like a null result in science—it fails to support the researchers’ goal but does not automatically support the opposite. And the anger we might feel toward silent bystanders can reduce our cognitive capacity, simplify our thinking, and increase certain biases (Stalder, 2018b).

There is the fundamental attribution error in inferring specific dispositions and thoughts in a silent person. There’s the converse error in falsely thinking that because discomfort or apathy can cause silence, silence always reflects discomfort or apathy. There’s groupthink in being afraid to question the silence-is-violence slogan because your fellow anti-racists might criticize you (though the same phenomenon seems worse in political groups when members try to question their leaders’ racist rhetoric).

To say there’s “no excuse” to be silent, even if true in some justice-driven sense, can disparage or belittle those silent individuals who are anti-racist but fighting their own battles (internal or external). Worse, reactance can kick in and cause these individuals to become even more resistant to taking action. Acknowledging others’ battles, while still pressing them to speak out, can increase the chances of getting their help. This is not an “all lives matter” reaction to “black lives matter”—we’re not obligated to pity a silent majority for their problems just to get them to do the right thing. But withholding presumptions about the causes of silence might help reach more silent people.

In Sum

Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just say that “silence is betrayal.” He said that “a time comes when silence is betrayal” (Scruggs, 2017). When extreme and unjust circumstances have been lingering long enough, an all-or-nothing approach may be especially justified to motivate change. The ends may justify the means. So let’s simplify our country into those who overtly act against racism and those who do not. To defeat racism, more people need to speak out or vote for those who do.

But we can push people to help without putting words in their mouths and without assuming we can read their minds for why they weren’t already helping on their own. Pushing in this way might lead to even more help in the long run.


David D. Burns, The Feeling Good Handbook (New York: Plume, 1999).

Christina Capatides, “White Silence on Social Media: Why Not Saying Anything Is Actually Saying a Lot,” CBS News, June 3, 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/white-silence-on-social-media-why-not-saying-anything-is-actually-saying-a-lot/?fbclid=IwAR08Bb5vWkvb1uH1hPrK_rRJUnKe2tpvsPBQfCQVupXkWJIf5-ocxOgXkQE.

Aaron C. Davis et al., “Officials Familiar with Lafayette Square Confrontation Challenge Trump Administration Claim of What Drove Aggressive Expulsion of Protesters,” Washington Post, June 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/officials-challenge-trump-administration-claim-of-what-drove-aggressive-expulsion-of-lafayette-square-protesters/2020/06/14/f2177e1e-acd4-11ea-a9d9-a81c1a491c52_story.html.

Jess Drucker, “Fox News Removes a Digitally Altered Image of Seattle Protests,” New York Times, June 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/13/business/media/fox-news-george-floyd-protests-seattle.html.

Lauren Egan, “Barr Defends White House Use of Force, Claims Protesters Were Violent,” NBC News, June 4, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/justice-department/barr-defends-white-house-use-force-claims-protesters-were-violent-n1225101.

Quint Forgey, “Trump’s Conspiracy Theory on 75-Year-Old Protester Draws Sharp Backlash,” Politico, June 9, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/09/trump-conspiracy-theory-protester-buffalo-cops-308716.

Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019).

Paul LeBlanc, “Trump Shares Letter That Calls Peaceful Protesters ‘Terrorists,’” CNN, June 4, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/04/politics/trump-letter-protesters/index.html.

Ian Schwartz, “AG Barr: No Correlation Between Trump Visit to Church and Handling of Protesters, Visit Was Appropriate,” RealClearPolitics, June 5, 2020, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2020/06/05/ag_barr_no_correlation_between_trump_visit_to_church_and_handling_of_protesters_visit_was_appropriate.html.

Afi-Odelia Scruggs, “Beyond Vietnam: The MLK Speech that Caused an Uproar,” USA Today, January 13, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/01/13/martin-luther-king-jr-beyond-vietnam-speech/96501636/.

Daniel R. Stalder, “The Bias of Seeing Cause in Correlation,” Psychology Today, August 1, 2018a, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bias-fundamentals/201808/the-bias-seeing-cause-in-correlation.

Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018b).