what is white ignorance

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CHAPTER 1
White Ignorance
Charles W. Mills
White ignorance . . .
It’s a big subject. How much time do you have?
It’s not enough.
Ignorance is usually thought of as the passive obverse to knowledge,
the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment.
But . . .
Imagine an ignorance that resists.
Imagine an ignorance that fights back.
Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, not to be intimidated,
an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly—
not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated
at the highest levels of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly
as knowledge.
I
Classically individualist, indeed sometimes—self-parodically—to the verge
of solipsism, blithely indifferent to the possible cognitive consequences of
class, racial, or gender situatedness (or, perhaps more accurately, taking a
propertied white male standpoint as given), modern mainstream AngloAmerican epistemology was for hundreds of years from its Cartesian origins profoundly inimical terrain for the development of any concept of
structural group-based miscognition. The paradigm exemplars of phenomena likely to foster mistaken belief—optical illusions, hallucinations,
phantom limbs, dreams—were by their very banality universal to the
human condition and the epistemic remedies prescribed—for example,
rejecting all but the indubitable—correspondingly abstract and general.
13
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Charles W. Mills
Nineteenth-century Marxism, with its theoretical insistence on locating
the individual agent and the individual cognizer in group (basically class)
structures of domination, and its concepts of ideology, fetishism, societal
“appearance,” and divergent group (basically class) perspectives on the
social order, offered a potential corrective to this epistemological individualism. But to the extent that there was a mainstream twentieth-century
appropriation of these ideas, in the form of Wissenssoziologie, the sociology
of knowledge, it drew its genealogy from Karl Mannheim rather than Karl
Marx, was frequently (despite terminological hedges such as Mannheim’s
“relationism”) relativistic, and was in any case confined to sociology (Curtis and Petras 1970). So though some figures, such as Max Scheler and
Mannheim himself, explicitly argued for the epistemological implications
of their work, these claims were not engaged with by philosophers in the
analytic tradition. A seemingly straightforward and clear-cut division of
conceptual and disciplinary labor was presumed: descriptive issues of
recording and explaining what and why people actually believed could be
delegated to sociology, but evaluative issues of articulating cognitive
norms would be reserved for (individualist) epistemology, which was
philosophical territory.
But though mainstream philosophy and analytic epistemology continued to develop in splendid isolation for many decades, W. V. Quine’s
naturalizing of epistemology would initiate a sequence of events with unsuspectedly subversive long-term theoretical repercussions for the field
(Quine 1969b; Kornblith 1994b). If articulating the norms for ideal cognition required taking into account (in some way) the practices of actual
cognition, if the prescriptive needed to pay attention (in some way) to the
descriptive, then on what principled basis could cognitive realities of a
supra-individual kind continue to be excluded from the ambit of epistemology? For it then meant that the cognitive agent needed to be located
in her specificity—as a member of certain social groups, within a given social milieu, in a society at a particular time period. Whatever Quine’s own
sympathies (or lack thereof), his work had opened Pandora’s box. A naturalized epistemology had, perforce, also to be a socialized epistemology;
this was “a straightforward extension of the naturalistic approach” (Kornblith 1994a, 93). What had originally been a specifically Marxist concept,
“standpoint theory,” was adopted and developed to its most sophisticated
form in the work of feminist theorists (Harding 2004), and it became possible for books with titles such as Social Epistemology (Fuller 2002) and Socializing Epistemology (Schmitt 1994) and journals called Social Epistemology
to be published and seen (at least by some) as a legitimate part of philosophy. The Marxist challenge thrown down a century before could now
finally be taken up.
White Ignorance
15
Obviously, then, for those interested in pursuing such questions this
is a far more welcoming environment than that of a few decades ago.
Nonetheless, I think it is obvious that the potential of these developments
for transforming mainstream epistemology is far from being fully realized. And at least one major reason for this failure is that the conceptions
of society in the literature too often presuppose a degree of consent and
inclusion that does not exist outside the imagination of mainstream scholars—in a sense, a societal population essentially generated by simple iteration of that originally solitary Cartesian cognizer. As Linda Martín Alcoff
has ironically observed, the “society” about which these philosophers are
writing often seems to be composed exclusively of white males (Alcoff
1996, 2, n. 1), so that one wonders how it reproduces itself. The Marxist
critique is seemingly discredited, the feminist critique is marginalized,
and the racial critique does not even exist. The concepts of domination,
hegemony, ideology, mystification, exploitation, and so on that are part of
the lingua franca of radicals find little or no place here. In particular, the
analysis of the implications for social cognition of the legacy of white supremacy has barely been initiated. The sole reference to race that I could
find in the Schmitt (1994) collection, for example, was a single cautious
sentence by Philip Kitcher (1994, 125), which I here reproduce in full:
“Membership of a particular ethnic group within a particular society may
interfere with one’s ability to acquire true beliefs about the distribution of
characteristics that are believed to be important to human worth (witness
the history of nineteenth-century craniometry).”
I sketch out in this chapter some of the features and the dynamic of
what I see as a particularly pervasive—though hardly theorized—form of
ignorance, what could be called white ignorance, linked to white supremacy. (This chapter is thus an elaboration of one of the key themes of
my 1997 book, The Racial Contract [Mills 1997].) The idea of group-based
cognitive handicap is not an alien one to the radical tradition, if not normally couched in terms of “ignorance.” Indeed, it is, on the contrary, a
straightforward corollary of standpoint theory: if one group is privileged,
after all, it must be by comparison with another group that is handicapped. In addition, the term has for me the virtue of signaling my theoretical sympathies with what I know will seem to many a deplorably
old-fashioned, “conservative,” realist, intellectual framework, one in
which truth, falsity, facts, reality, and so forth are not enclosed with ironic
scare quotes. The phrase “white ignorance” implies the possibility of a
contrasting “knowledge,” a contrast that would be lost if all claims to
truth were equally spurious, or just a matter of competing discourses. In
the same way The Racial Contract was not meant as a trashing of contractarianism, as such, but rather the demystification of a contractarianism
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Charles W. Mills
that ignored racial subordination, so similarly, mapping an epistemology
of ignorance is for me a preliminary to reformulating an epistemology
that will give us genuine knowledge.
The metatheoretical approach I find most congenial is that recently
outlined by Alvin Goldman in his book Knowledge in a Social World (Goldman 1999; see also Kornblith 1994a; Kitcher 1994). Goldman describes
his project as “an essay in social veritistic epistemology,” oriented “toward
truth determination,” as against contemporary poststructuralist or KuhnFeyerabend-Bloor-Barnes-inspired approaches that relativize truth (5).
So though the focus is social rather than individual, the traditional concerns and assumptions of mainstream epistemology have been retained:
Traditional epistemology, especially in the Cartesian tradition, was
highly individualistic, focusing on mental operations of cognitive
agents in isolation or abstraction from other persons. . . . [This] individual epistemology needs a social counterpart: social epistemology. . . . In
what respects is social epistemology social? First, it focuses on social
paths or routes to knowledge. That is, considering believers taken one
at a time, it looks at the many routes to belief that feature interactions
with other agents, as contrasted with private or asocial routes to belief
acquisition. . . . Second, social epistemology does not restrict itself to
believers taken singly. It often focuses on some sort of group entity . . .
and examines the spread of information or misinformation across that
group’s membership. Rather than concentrate on a single knower, as
did Cartesian epistemology, it addresses the distribution of knowledge
or error within the larger social cluster. . . . Veritistic epistemology
(whether individual or social) is concerned with the production of
knowledge, where knowledge is here understood in the “weak” sense
of true belief. More precisely, it is concerned with both knowledge and
its contraries: error (false belief) and ignorance (the absence of true belief). The main question for veritistic epistemology is: Which practices
have a comparatively favorable impact on knowledge as contrasted
with error and ignorance? Individual veritistic epistemology asks this
question for nonsocial practices; social veritistic epistemology asks it
for social practices. (Goldman 1999, 4–5, emphasis in original)
Unlike Goldman, I will use ignorance to cover both false belief and
the absence of true belief. But with this minor terminological variation,
this is basically the project I am trying to undertake: looking at the
“spread of misinformation,” the “distribution of error” (including the
possibility of “massive error” [Kornblith 1994a, 97]), within the “larger
social cluster,” the “group entity,” of whites, and the “social practices”
(some “wholly pernicious” [Kornblith 1994a, 97]) that encourage it.
Goldman makes glancing reference to some of the feminist and race literature (there is a grand total of a single index entry for racism), but in
White Ignorance
17
general the implications of systemic social oppression for his project are
not addressed. The picture of “society” he is working with is one that—
with perhaps a few unfortunate exceptions—is inclusive and harmonious. Thus his account offers the equivalent in social epistemology of
the mainstream theorizing in political science that frames American sexism and racism as “anomalies”: U.S. political culture is conceptualized as
essentially egalitarian and inclusive, with the long actual history of systemic gender and racial subordination being relegated to the status of a
minor “deviation” from the norm (Smith 1997). Obviously such a starting point crucially handicaps any realistic social epistemology, since in effect it turns things upside down. Sexism and racism, patriarchy and white
supremacy, have not been the exception but the norm. So though his book
is valuable in terms of conceptual clarification, and some illuminating
discussions of particular topics, the basic framework is flawed insofar as it
marginalizes domination and its consequences. A less naïve understanding of how society actually works requires drawing on the radical tradition of social theory, in which various factors he does not consider play a
crucial role in obstructing the mission of veritistic epistemology.
II
Let me turn now to race. As I pointed out in an article more than fifteen
years ago (Mills 1998), and as has unfortunately hardly changed since
then, there is no academic philosophical literature on racial epistemology
that remotely compares in volume to that on gender epistemology. (Race
and gender are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but usually in gender
theory it is the perspective of white women that is explored.) However,
one needs to distinguish academic from lay treatments. I would suggest
that “white ignorance” has, whether centrally or secondarily, been a
theme of many of the classic fictional and nonfictional works of the
African American experience, and also that of other people of color. In
his introduction to a collection of black writers’ perspectives on whiteness, David Roediger (1998) underlines the fundamental epistemic asymmetry between typical white views of blacks and typical black views of
whites: these are not cognizers linked by a reciprocal ignorance but rather
groups whose respective privilege and subordination tend to produce selfdeception, bad faith, evasion, and misrepresentation, on the one hand,
and more veridical perceptions, on the other hand. Thus he cites James
Weldon Johnson’s remark “colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people know and understand them” (5). Often for their very survival, blacks have been forced to
become lay anthropologists, studying the strange culture, customs, and
mind-set of the “white tribe” that has such frightening power over them,
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Charles W. Mills
that in certain time periods can even determine their life or death on a
whim. (In particular circumstances, then, white ignorance may need to be
actively encouraged, thus the black American folk poem, “Got one mind for
white folks to see/Another for what I know is me,” or, in James Baldwin’s
brutally candid assessment, “I have spent most of my life, after all, watching white people and outwitting them, so that I might survive” [Baldwin
1993, 217].) What people of color quickly come to see—in a sense, the
primary epistemic principle of the racialized social epistemology of which
they are the object—is that they are not seen at all. Thus the “central
metaphor” of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is the image of the
“veil” (Gibson 1989, xi), and the black American cognitive equivalent of
the shocking moment of Cartesian realization of the uncertainty of everything one had taken to be knowledge is the moment when, for Du Bois, as
a child in New England, “It dawned upon me with a certain suddenness
that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and
longing, but shut out from their [white] world by a vast veil” (Du Bois
1989, 4).
Similarly, Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man (1995), generally
regarded as the most important twentieth-century novel of the black experience, is arguably, in key respects—while a multidimensional and multilayered work of great depth and complexity, not to be reduced to a single
theme—an epistemological novel. For what it recounts is the protagonist’s
quest to determine what norms of belief are the right ones in a crazy looking-glass world where he is an invisible man “simply because [white] people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my
surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed,
everything and anything except me.” And this systematic misperception is
not, of course, due to biology, the intrinsic properties of his epidermis or
physical deficiencies in the white eye but rather to “the construction of
their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical
eyes upon reality” (3). The images of light and darkness, sight and blindness, that run through the novel, from the blindfolded black fighters in
the grotesque battle royal at the start to the climactic discovery that the
Brotherhood’s (read: American Communist Party) leader has a glass eye,
repeatedly raise, in context after context, the question of how one can demarcate what is genuine from only apparent insight, real from only apparent truth, even in the worldview of those whose historical materialist
“science” supposedly gave them “super vision.”
Nor is it only black writers who have explored the theme of white ignorance. One of the consequences of the development of critical white
studies has been a renewed appreciation of the pioneering work of Herman Melville, with Moby Dick (2000) now being read by some critics as an
early nineteenth-century indictment of the national obsession with white-
White Ignorance
19
ness, Ahab’s pathological determination to pursue the white whale regardless of its imperilment of his multiracial crew. But it is in the 1856
short novel Benito Cereno (1986)—used as the source of one of the two
epigraphs to Invisible Man by Ellison—that one finds the most focused investigation of the unnerving possibilities of white blindness. Boarding a
slave ship—the San Dominick, a reference to the Haitian Revolution—
which, unknown to the protagonist, Amasa Delano, has been taken over
by its human cargo, with the white crew being held hostage, Delano has
all around him the evidence for black insurrection, from the terror in
the eyes of the nominal white captain, the eponymous Benito Cereno, as
his black barber Babo puts the razor to his throat, to the Africans clashing their hatchets ominously in the background. But so unthinkable is
the idea that the inferior blacks could have accomplished such a thing
that Delano searches for every possible alternative explanation for the
seemingly strange behavior of the imprisoned whites, no matter how farfetched. In Eric Sundquist’s summary (1993):
Melville’s account of the “enchantment” of Delano, then, is also a means
to examine the mystifications by which slavery was maintained. . . .
Minstrelsy—in effect, the complete show of the tale’s action staged for
Delano—is a product, as it were, of his mind, of his willingness to accept
Babo’s Sambo-like performance. . . . Paradoxically, Delano watches Babo’s
performance without ever seeing it. . . . Delano participates in a continued
act of suppressed revolt against belief in the appearances presented to
him . . . [a] self-regulation by racist assumptions and blind “innocence.”
(151–55, 171)
The white delusion of racial superiority insulates itself against refutation. Correspondingly, on the positive epistemic side, the route to black
knowledge is the self-conscious recognition of white ignorance (including
its black-faced manifestation in black consciousness itself). Du Bois’s
(1989) famous and oft-cited figure of “double consciousness” has been variously interpreted, but certainly one plausible way of reading it is as a prescription for a critical cognitive distancing from “a world which yields [the
Negro] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through
the revelation of the other world,” a “sense of always looking at one’s self
through the eyes of others” (5). The attainment of “second sight” requires
an understanding of what it is about whites and the white situation that
motivates them to view blacks erroneously. One learns to see through identifying white blindness and avoiding the pitfalls of putting on these spectacles for one’s own vision.
This subject is by no means unexplored in white and black texts, but
as noted, because of the whiteness of philosophy, very little has been
done here. (One exception is Lewis Gordon’s [1995] work on bad faith,
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Charles W. Mills
which is obviously relevant to this subject, though not itself set in a formal epistemological framework.) In this chapter, accordingly, I gesture
toward some useful directions for mapping white ignorance and developing, accordingly, epistemic criteria for minimizing it.
III
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