Charles Mills on White Ignorance

Zach, Justin, and Gabe discuss the concept of white ignorance. Is a feature of white supremacy that white people are by default unable to perceive the world accurately? The concept is discussed by Charles Mills, a contemporary political philosopher, perhaps best known for the racial contract. In this episode the vimmers explain the idea and discuss its implications.


The final episode of the Vim Podcast. Ask the Vim Anything with Justin C., Dylan, Gabe, Zach, and Justin D. Questions include: – What political issue doesn't get enough attention? – If you could meet with Trump for 15 minutes, would you? And if so, what would you tell him? – Is democracy overrated or underrated? – If you could snap your fingers and pass any constitutional amendment, what would it be? – Who are your most hated public figures? – Will Lebron win another title? – Who will win in 2016? Book recommendations: – Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer – Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume – Phenomenology of the Alien, Bernhard Waldenfels – Constructing the World, David Chalmers – Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins – Are Prisons Obsolete, Angela Davis – Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon http://www.thevimblog.com (recorded August 7, 2020)
  1. Fin
  2. Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism
  3. The Three Types of Trump Supporters
  4. Pandemicast III: How to Wear a Mask
  5. Which Machines Should we Make?

The opening clip of Mills speaking
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– Mills, Black Rights / White Wrongs
– MIlls, “Global White Ignorance
– Mills, The Racial Contract

Mills quotes read in the episode:

“The grand ethical theories propounded in the development of Western moral and political thought are of restricted scope, explicitly or implicitly intended by their proponents to be restricted to persons, whites.” Racial Contract, 17

“So here, it could be said, one has an agreement to misinterpret the world. One has to learn to see the world wrongly, but with the assurance that this set or mistaken perceptions will be validated by white epistemic authority, whether religious or secular. Thus in effect. on matters related to race, the Racial Con­tract prescribes for its signatories an inverted epistemology, 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.” Racial Contract, 18   

“This foundational miscognition [of white superiority] necessarily ramified throughout their other perceptions, conceptions, and theorizations, both descriptive and normative, scholarly and popular. Hence the justification for the affirmation of a global white ignorance.” “Global White Ignorance,” 218

“The real heart of white ignorance today, whether accompanied by such prejudicial characterizations or not, is the refusal to recognize how the legacy of the past, as well as ongoing practices in the present, continues to handicap people of color now granted nominal juridical and social equality.” “Global White Ignorance,” 219

A possible argument for (a version of) white ignorance:

  1. European colonialism and the establishment of the US included an explicit assumption of white superiority—intellectual, moral, technological, cultural, etc..
  2. The assumption of white superiority is white supremacy
  3. The history of colonialism is full of egregious injustices committed by whites against nonwhites 
  4. The injustices are incompatible with the assumed moral superiority of whites 
  5. Whites must either a) abandon their sense of superiority, b) correct the injustices, 
  6. Both are incompatible with the assumption. 
  7. White Ignorance: c) distort and ignore the colonialist history. This preserves the assumption.

10 points about white ignorance (from Black Rights / White Wrongs)

  1. White ignorance arises in the modern period, when race and whiteness originate 
  2. Not all instances of ignorance in a white person are instances of white ignorance. Race does not bear on whether one knows the temperature of the earth’s crust. There must be racialized causality (by which he means race is responsible for the knowing—where a direct contributing factor to a person’s belief is their whiteness or their standing in a racialized society) 
  3. Because it is difficult to know how far racialized causality extends, it is difficult to know whether an instance counts as white ignorance
  4. Racialized causality includes both personal racist motivations (in individuals) and impersonal structural forms of racism. The two are orthogonal: a racist in a nonracist world and a nonracist in a racist world
  5. White ignorance can be shared by nonwhite people: false consciousness, acting against self interest 
  6. White ignorance can cause (reactionary) forms of black racial ignorance. E.g. black superiority theology. (p. 58)
  7. White ignorance includes ignorance on moral issues 
  8. There are other privileged-group based ignorances, like male ignorance 
  9. White ignorance is defeasible. White people can overcome it
  10. The point of understanding WI is to improve society and one’s own beliefs.

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