White Ignorance Is Re-Writing The World As We Know It

white people1This week, when Michelle Obama told millions of DNC viewers that she lives in a “house built by slaves”, many people were aghast. Some were shocked because they had no idea (or didn’t care to know) that slaves built the White House. Others were surprised to find that so many United States citizens know so little about their own history. I was neither shocked nor surprised because I understand the power and indignation of what philosopher Charles Mills calls “White Ignorance.” I also know that it is changing the world by the minute.

In his chapter, “White Ignorance,” Mills explains how white supremacy and white ignorance are intertwined. He argues that whites often do not have to learn about the world around them or the cultural groups they have dislodged because their privilege insulates them from responsibility or accountability for those outcomes. Meanwhile, racial, gender, and sexual minorities must educate themselves on the norms, narratives, and social practices of whites as a matter of “survival.” He says, “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, that in certain time periods can even determine their life or death on a whim.”

Is essence, Mills urges us to move beyond the term “ignorance” as a passive phenomenon of simple lack of education or access to certain social or political issues. Frankly, if white ignorance was only about a lack of access or understanding, it wouldn’t take generations of young Black people to convince them that racism exists. Instead, Mills encourages us to conceive of white ignorance as a deliberate tactic which extends white supremacy and privilege into a culture of (non)knowledge.

Herein lies the problem: as whites forcefully disremember and rewrite the world according to their own understandings, they simultaneously change the rules of engagement for everyone else.

This cannot be overstated. White ignorance is not just sad or disappointing. It isn’t an issue that only affects white people. Rather, because white ignorance is a willful act, a purposeful not knowing, an intentional misunderstanding of actual people, places, and things, it is a strategic tool that not only places marginalized groups at risk for physical and emotional violence, it simultaneously wipes away culpability for whites who actively engage in white supremacist practices and benefit from systemic inequality.

This may seem overblown when one only situates white ignorance as not knowing random historical facts or forgetting the name of a president. However, the process of white ignorance is much more complex than that.

During the early 20th century, intentional white ignorance about the conditions of slavery gave way to a Southern culture of plantation reenactments and a looking back on the fonder days of legal chattel bondage. This probably sounds eerily familiar to Donald Trump’s recent campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”, a phrase which begs the question: when was it great to begin with?

In 2012, white ignorance bore the Republican phrase “we built that!” in response to President Obama saying that all Americans pay taxes to build freeways and public utilities. We heard something similar during this year’s race when Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) suggested that whites built Western civilization while all the other “sub-groups” of people didn’t contribute much of anything.

Yet, the fact is, white people didn’t build “it” or much of anything else. This country has always relied on the labor of the poor and non-white to till its soil, manufacture its consumer goods, lay its railroads, and even nurse its babies.

White ignorance continues to feed conspiracy-led actions like the anti-vaccination and the anti-climate change movements. It undermines scientific and empirical knowledge with often anecdotal  preferences for individuality and laissez-faire lifestyles (that is, only when it benefits white people because people of color, women, and queer folx still aren’t guaranteed rights to their own bodies).

Understanding white ignorance means understanding that a lack of knowledge can always be solved with a book, a documentary, or even with Google. But, what we are witnessing now is much more malicious, much more vindictive, and pervasive than that. White ignorance operates to literally tell us that what we see before our very eyes isn’t there. It renders us testimony-less. It makes us into a willing audience for our own demise.

It’s not about historical facts or a matter of opinion. And, the only way to inoculate ourselves against it is by choosing to remember who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

4 Responses

  1. veganelder says:

    Thank you for writing about Charles Mills and his efforts toward understanding white ignorance. His notions about an epistemology of ignorance has been among the most useful platforms I’ve found for trying to comprehend and grapple with being an oblivious white man. It’s a pain in the kabooka to grapple with my obliviousness….but…Dr. Mills work is heartening in that it demystifies some of the processes that encouraged and maintain that lack of comprehension. Systems of oppression have a much “higher IQ” (as a friend of mine expressed it) than we might realize.

    I’ve found it to be illuminating also to consider the suggestion that each system of oppression may well have its own epistemology of ignorance associated with it and struggle to escape one configuration of unawareness doesn’t automatically translate into comprehending other areas of harm or obliviousness. This stuff is complex.

    Thank you again for your writings.

  2. Thank you for reading it and for grappling with complexity of the subject.

  3. HOPE FLOATS. JUSTICE ENDURES. TRUTH RISES. The deplorable Blind Dead will continue to see what they want to see and hear what they already know. This is TPPS – Tiny Pink Penis Syndrome–at its least erect–run amok–gone hog pink wild. They are so deep into the belly of this beast of their own making that the only exit left is through the demon’s ass. [White] America is rotten to the core with a corrupt, decadent, and insane system of criminalized justice where protecting the myth of white [male] supremacy has always been more important than truth and justice. Hate and greed is the cancer causing American way. As they continue to shovel junk food onto the white paper plate called their bottomless egos, their cancer cells gorge in gluttonous abandon. Truth rises along with rampant levels of drug addiction, mental illness, cancer, diss-ease, impotency, and clinical sterility. Sooner has become later, and yet, Truth rises anyway; in every way–every day. In this Time, rarely will the only head that can hang on a deplorable [white] male hold itzSelf up again. Prepare for the shunning of a wetigo stricken [white] America. It will be called 2020 Vision.

  4. Florian Steinmann says:

    stop using buzzfeed for your information