Social Justice Usage
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 37.
White ignorance is a product of an epistemology of ignorance, a systemically supported, socially induced pattern of (mis)understanding the world that is connected to and works to sustain systemic oppression and privilege.
New Discourses Commentary
In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, it is a deeply running theme not only that white people tend to be unaware of race, racism, and related racial issues, including their own complicity in these systems of power and oppression, but also that they are unaware of them either intentionally or very almost intentionally (see also, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, willful ignorance, aversive racism, colorblind, colormute, colortalk, good white, white talk, and white complicity). Indeed, it is hypothesized in Theory that white people participate in a system of unwritten rules not only to maintain their dominance as such but also to remain plausibly ignorant of the fact that they are doing so (see also, racial contract and white solidarity). This is Theorized to be a result—and perk—of privilege (see also, internalized dominance and white innocence).
This ignorance is Theorized racially for white people under a rubric of white ignorance (or race ignorance). It is alternatively spelled white (or race) ignore-ance to highlight the fact that it is a quasi-intentional act of ignoring racial issues, rather than merely being in a state of being uninformed, that best describes how this phenomenon manifests.
Under the doctrine of white ignorance, white people are socialized into a pattern of “(mis)understanding the world” in a way that lets them avoid dealing with the realities of race and racism (see also, positionality, white comfort, and white equilibrium). In fact, this socialization goes further and works to maintain white dominance and white supremacy, in which they are also complicit. That is, Theory posits that white people have arranged society and its systems in such a way that white people not only don’t have to confront race (unless they so choose – see also, antiracism), but such that they have the additional privilege to ignore it entirely. Not only that, but what it means to be white in white-dominant societies (see also, whiteness) includes a general unspoken “meta-agreement” (shared amongst whites) to remain actively or willfully ignorant of all of these issues—as a means of maintaining white dominance.
Put more plainly, white ignorance is a doctrine that asserts that it isn’t mere happenstance that white people have the privilege of remaining racially ignorant; it’s part of the package of privileges that comes with being white. Moreover, that package of privileges is deemed so valuable that all whites tacitly agree not to engage with race issues honestly, including their own alleged complicity in systems of racism. Moreover, they confer this agreement to one another, not explicitly but through socialization into whiteness, so that to be white in a white society is to learn to actively ignore race, racism, and complicity in racism. Even more than that, this socialized disposition is intentional to whiteness (though not necessarily to any white person) and exists to maintain white privilege, dominance, and supremacy.
White ignorance is viewed in Theory as a major impediment to getting white people to engage in antiracism work. Indeed, it’s Theorized as a key reason that white people will not see the need for doing antiracism work and simultaneously one of the primary means by which white people will deny the need to do antiracism work when confronted with it. It is often Theorized to be a result, at least in part, to the colorblind “ideology” that white people (erroneously, according to Theory) believe is sufficient to be “anti-racist.” In that sense, white ignorance is seen as a key problematic that requires dismantling.
White ignorance is believed to arise from an even broader “epistemology of ignorance” through which people who are considered positionally dominant both intentionally and inadvertently avoid engagement with the facts of their participation in systemic power dynamics that oppress others. That is, it isn’t really a kind of ignorance, as we normally think of ignorance, but instead viewed as a kind of specialized “knowledge” that “does things” to maintain racial ignorance. In that sense, it is a kind of false consciousness that operates as a kind of internalized dominance wherein the dominant convince themselves and others that their dominance is natural, earned, or otherwise legitimate (see also, meritocracy, liberalism, science, human nature, and individualism). The purpose of critical methods is ultimately to expose these biases and to induce a critical consciousness that is aware of them and the need to disrupt and dismantle them (see also, wokeness and revolution).
Active ignorance; Anti-blackness; Antiracism; Aversive racism; Bias; Colorblind; Colormute; Colortalk; Complicity; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; False consciousness; Good white; Human nature; Ideology; Individualism; Internalized dominance; Knowledge(s); Liberalism; Meritocracy; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Privilege; Problematic; Race; Racial contract; Racism (systemic); Social Justice; Socialization; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; White; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White innocence; White solidarity; White supremacy; White talk; Whiteness; Whiteness studies; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 35–37.
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 as knowledge.
When I discussed Mills’ work with one of my white colleagues, he charged 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 occurred 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 as 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, furthermore, 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 systemically 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 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 transgression of the terms of the social contract.
Thus, white ignorance is a type of knowledge that protects systemic racial injustice from challenge.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 38–39.
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.”55 Such ignorance functions to mystify the consequences of such unjust systems so that those who benefi t from the system do not have to consider their complicity in perpetuating it. There are benefi ts for the dominant social group of such ignorance. In her analysis of willful ignorance in literary characters, Vivian 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 the 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 that one should know but one 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 some 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 least 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 is 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 the 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.
Revision date: 3/5/20