"Systemic White Ignorance"



I had to type and post the entire section because I found it to be such good information. I think I may finally understand White people.

From Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy by Barbara Applebaum

Pgs. 35-41

Privilege…gives whites a way to not know that does not even fully recognize the extent to which they do not know that race matters or that their agency is closely connected with their status.

Cris Mayo’s provocative but discerning quote highlights the connection between privilege, ignorance and denials of complicity. It is Charles Mills, however, who has drawn special attention to the epistemology of ignorance. Mills’ work is guided by the question, ‘How are white people able to consistently do the wrong thing while thinking that they are doing the right thing?

In his oft-cited book, The Racial Contract, Mills argues that a Racial Contract underwrites the modern Social Contract. The Racial Contract is a covert agreement or set of meta-agreements between white people to create and maintain a subperson class of non-whites. The purpose of the Racial Contract is to ‘secur(e) the privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maint(ain) the subordination of nonwhites.’ To achieve this purpose, there is a need to perpetuate ignorance and to misinterpret the world as it really is. The Racial Contract is an agreement to not know and an assurance that this will count as a true version of reality by those who benefit from the account. That such ignorance is socially sanctioned is of extreme significance. Mills refers to such lack of knowledge as an ‘inverted epistemology’ and contends it is an

officially sanctioned reality (that) is divergent from actual reality…one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set of mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular.

White ignorance, thus, will feel like knowledge to those who benefit from the system because it is supported by the social system of knowledge.

When I discussed Mills’ work with one of my white colleagues, he charged that Mills’ arguments with promoting a type of ‘conspiracy theory’. Thus, it is important to emphasize that Mills is not implying that an actual racial contract has taken place. Rather, the racial contract is a sort of imaginary device that can explain how systematic white ignorance remains unchallenged. 

In his 2007 article titled ‘White Ignorance’ Mills further explains that white ignorance is distinguished from general patterns of ignorance ‘prevalent among people who are white but in whose doxastic states race has played no determining role.’ Moreover, white ignorance is not exclusively focused on the type of ignorance prevalent in overtly racist white individuals who are uneducated but additionally covers the type of not knowing existing in even those who are well-intended and ‘educated’ which ‘after the transition from de jure to de facto white supremacy, it is precisely this kind of white ignorance that is most important.’ 

White ignorance, accordingly, has a number of characteristic features among which are that it is intimately connected to racial positionality and works to protect white interests. Both these features of white ignorance need elucidation. First, white ignorance involves a ‘not knowing’ that is intimately connected to racial positionality. As such, white ignorance is part of an epistemology of ignorance, ‘a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.’ 

A good illustration of such white ignorance can be found in George Yancy’s ‘Fragments of a Social Ontology of Whiteness.’ Yancy describes how a white philosopher whom he deeply respected cautioned Yancy with deep concern and out of good intentions not to get pegged as someone who pursues issues in African-American philosophy. Yancy immediately thinks,

‘Pegged! I’m doing philosophy!’ It immediately occured to me that the introductory course in philosophy that I had taken with him some years back did not include a single person of color. Yet he did not see his own philosophical performances—engagements with European and Anglo-American philosophy as ‘pegged’; he simply taught philosophy qua philosophy. Such a philosophy only masquerades as universal.

In this illustration, race is a fundamental factor in the type of   ignore-ance exhibited by the white philosopher.

As Mills underscores, such ignorance is connected to the conceptual framework that white people have at their disposal. Such ignorance is made possible because the conceptual framework from which one interprets one’s social world ‘will not be neutral but oriented toward a certain understanding.’ While Marxists refer to this ideology, Mills notes that Foucault refers to this as discourse. In addition, Mills, enormously influenced by standpoint theorists, maintains that ‘…if the society is one structured by relations of domination and subordination… then in certain areas this conceptual apparatus is likely going to be shaped and inflected in various ways by the biases of the ruling group(s)’. Whatever one perceives, it is the ‘concept (that) is driving the perception’. 

Mills, futhermore, insists, ‘whites (are) aprioristically intent on denying what is before them.’ In other words, the exhibited ignorance is not merely a lack of knowledge that results from a cognitive flaw of a particular individual or, as Linda Alcoff explains, merely an individual’s bad epistemic practice but rather is ‘a substantive epistemic practice itself’. White ignorance is a product of an epistemology of ignorance, a systematically supported, socially induced pattern of (mis)understanding the world that is connected to and works to sustain systemic oppression and privilege. White ignorance parallels what Joe Feagin and Henan Vera term as ‘sincere fictions’ or the “personal ideological constructions that reproduce societal mythologies at the individual level’. Most significant, these white delusions about racism also function to protect white people from having to recognize their own racism.

Eve Sedgwick brings to our attention how systemic ignorance is not a passive lacking, as the term ‘ignorance’ implies, but it is an activity. Extending Sedgwick’s insights to the discourse of color-ignorance, Cris Mayo contends that such ignoring is not a ‘lack of knowledge’ but ‘a particular kind of knowledge’ that does things. Mills argues that one’s social positionality and the knowledge connected to it will influence what questions one believes are important to ask and the problems one believes are valuable to pursue. White ignorance involves not asking or not having to ask (i.e., having the privilege not to need to ask) certain questions.The Racial Contract, according to Mills, involves

…simply a failure to ask certain questions, taking for granted as a status quo and baseline the existing color-coded configurations of wealth, poverty, property, and opportunities, the pretence that formal, juridical equality is sufficient to remedy inequities created on a foundation of several hundred years of racial privilege, and that foundation is a trangression of the terms of the social contract.

Thus, white ignorance is a type of knowledge that protects systemic racial injustice from challenge. 

In a distressing illustration of such habits of selective attention, Tyron Foreman and Amanda Lewis underscore the intense surprise that many white Americans expressed after Hurricane Katrina about the social reality of racial inequality in New Orleans. Foreman and Lewis attribute this astonishment to a racial apathy that is a consequence of the white ignorance manifested in the ideology of color ignore-ance. White ignorance, therefore, generates specific types of delusions or wrong ways of perceiving the world that are socially validated by the dominant norms and protect those norms from being interrogated.

Second, white ignorance is not only itself a type of white privilege (Who has the privilege to be ignorant?) but also works to safeguard privilege. Mills underscores that it is white group interest that is a ‘central causal factor in generating and sustaining white ignorance’. Such ignorance functions to mystify the consequences of such unjust systems so that those who benefit from the system do not have to consider their complicity in perpetuating it. There are benefits for the dominant social group of such ignorance. In her analysis of willful ignorance in literary characters, Vivan May writes, ‘there are many things those in dominant groups are taught not to know, encouraged not to see, and the privileged are rewarded for this state of not-knowing’. Quoting from Peggy McIntosh, May explicates that willful ignorance involves a pattern of assumptions that privileges that dominant group and gives license to members of those groups ‘to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive’ all the while thinking themselves ‘as good’.

The connection between white privilege and white ignorance is intimated when both Alcoff and May refer to white ignorance as willful ignorance. Although such ignorance may be willful in the sense of intended, it often appears that white people are not even conscious of such ignorance, so in what sense is it willful? 

The term ‘willful ignorance’ has often been employed to refer to a blatant avoidance or disregard of facts or well-founded arguments because they oppose one’s personal beliefs, values or worldviews. Willful ignorance is customarily used to refer to laziness or fear of critically examining one’s personal point of view. In other words, it is to intentionally remain ignorant of something one should know but on does not want to know. Willful seems to imply a level of knowing, i.e., that one wants to ignore knowing and is aware of what one is doing, as is evidenced in Thomas Green’s description of such ignorance as

that condition that I note from time to time in those who (1) are ignorant on som matter important to their lives, (2) are aware of their ignorance, but even more than that, are (3) resolved to remain in their ignorance, (4) not the lease because it is such a source of enjoyment and pleasure to them. I suppose that each of us can recall someone who fits this description. It is a bit more difficult to admit what is probably no less true, that there are traces of this sort of thing in ourselves.

White ignorance may be but is not always the result of a deliberate and conscious decision. Yet, as already noted, often such ignorance does not seem willful in the sense of intentional but rather the product of a socially induced tendency to ignore that involves being unaware that one does not know. Why categorize white ignorance as willful?

I suggest that white ignorance might be understood to be a form of willful ignorance because willful ignorance is culpable ignorance. Interesting and complex questions about culpable ignorance can be found in the ethical debates around moral responsibility and will be addressed in Chapter 5. Briefly, involuntary ignorance is often thought to excuse one from moral culpability unless one knowingly contrives one’s own ignorance. Then one is culpable even if one ignorant.

White ignorance may be a type of willful ignorance because there is a sense in which white people deliberately contrive their own ignorance. But white ignorance might also be willful not necessarily because the ignorance is consciously or deliberately manufactured but instead willful because such ignorance benefits the person or the social group the person is a member of. Members of the dominant group, for instance, have a vested interest in not knowing. Linda Alcoff emphasizes that white people not only have less interest in understanding their complicity in social injustice than those who are victimized by such systems but also that white people have a positive interest in remaining ignorant. The point is that even if one does not deliberately manufacture such ignorance, white ignorance does not release one from moral responsibility and might be willful in the sense that it is something that someone would want. One of the types of vested interests that such ignorance serves is the sustaining of one’s moral self-image.

Because of white ignorance, white people will be unable to understand racial world they themselves have made. One of the significant features of white ignorance is that it involves not just ‘not knowing’ but also ‘not knowing what one does not know and believing that one knows. White ignorance is a form of white knowledge. It is a type of ignorance that arrogantly parades as knowledge.Rather than an absence of knowledge, white ignorance is a particular way of everyday knowing or thinking that one knows how the social world works that is intimately related to what it means to be white. Moreover, such ‘ignorance as knowledge’ is socially sanctioned. Thus white people tend not to hesitate to dismiss and rebuff the knowledge of those who have been victims of systemic racial injustice rather than engaging with them, inquiring for more information and having the humility to acknowledge what they do not know.

What do white people know, what do they not know, and what can they know? Although I will not explore this conjecture here, the binaries knowledge/ignorance and knowing/not knowing not only seem inadequate but also misleading in terms of understanding the epistemological dynamics of whiteness. Further study of these binaries is required especially for those involved in helping white students acknowledge ‘white ignorance that is taken as knowledge’. 

What is significant is that white knowledge of the social world, that is really white ignorance, fuels a refusal to consider that one might be morally complicit and further promotes a resistance to knowing. Consequently, concepts ‘necessary for accurately mapping these realities will be absent’. In a provocative but evidently correct observation, Mills notes, ‘the crucial conceptual innovation necessary to map nonideal realities has not come from the dominant group’. All the more important for white people to acknowledge white ignorance so that they can hear what those who are not from the dominant group are telling them. 

Although it is not only white people who are susceptible to white ignorance, white people are particularly susceptible because they are the ones who have the most to gain from remaining ignorant. As Sandra Harding argues, it is members of oppressed groups, those who have direct experience with oppression, who ‘have fewer interests in ignorance about the social order and fewer reasons to invest in maintaining or justifying the status quo than do dominant groups’. Again, this is not to imply that all members of oppressed groups automatically have such knowledge. Alcoff explains,

identity does not determine one’s interpretation of the facts, nor does it constitute fully formed perspectives, but rather to use the hermeneutic terminology once again, identities operate as horizons from which certain aspects or layers of reality can be made visible. In stratified societies, differently identified individuals do not always have the same access to points of view or perceptual planes of observation. Two individuals may participate in the same event, but have perceptual access to different aspects of that event. Social identity is relevant to epistemic judgement, then, not because identity determines judgement but because identity can in some instances yield access to perceptual facts that themselves may be relevant to the forumlation of various knowledge claims or theoretical analyses.

What Alcoff underscores is that there is a greater tendency for those who experience the harms of systemic racism than those who benefit from it to be troubled by the normalization of white space and to be more affected by the white norms that are mystified as universal when they are not

White people have a positive interest in remaining ignorant because such ignorance serves to sustain white moral innocence. White ignorance, however, simultaneously protects systems of privilege and oppression from being interrogated. Whiteness, according to Mills, requires certain ‘opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity’. In her 1984 book, The Politics of Reality, Marilyn Frye similarly argues that ignorance is indispensable for the perpetuation of white power and privilege. She contends that ignorance is ‘not something simple; it is not a simple lack, absence, or emptiness, and it is not a passive state’. In order to know one must pay attention, Frye contends. So too not knowing requires an active interest in ignoring or a resistance to knowing what is right in front of you. White people, Frye maintains, actively refuse to pay attention to their complicity in racism. Ignorance is ‘the condition that ensures its continuance’.

Systemic benefit works not only to keep ignorance in place but also to keep the status quo from being challenged. Mills cautions that it is crucial that white people take these ‘recognition problems’ seriously since, ‘(I)t becomes easier to do the right thing if one knows the wrong things that, to one’s group, will typically seem like the right thing’. Yet it is not easy to get white people to consider their complicity. Denials of complicity are not understood to be ‘denials’ but because of white ignorance masquerade as white racial common sense. 

I have some PDFs of The Racial Contract, which was also extremely compelling in getting me to understand the white epistomology aka why white folks so damn stupid sometimes.

Lemme know if anyone wants them.

(via sans-nuage)

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