Senior Literature Review Fall 2017

Peter’s Second Presentation


Peter presented a chapter by Charles Mills, “White Ignorance,” from the collection Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (Mills 2007).

This kicks off the second part of Peter’s literature review. The first part was devoted to reparations; now he’s turning to the epistemology of race.

Our Discussion

Mills’s theme is evident in the title: what white people do not know about the racial system in which they live. For example, it is more comfortable to go about life in ignorance of the racial system than it is to realize how pervasive and unfair it is.

One thing that strikes me about this topic is how it presumes that racism is something that people would be ashamed of if it were acknowledged. The general story is that whites would face negative consequences of losing their ignorance: they would feel bad, have to concede that their society is unjust and their own achievements tarnished, and so on. But this is only so in a society whose members regard racism as a bad thing; that’s why it would be costly of them to acknowledge it.

To see the point, imagine people who were completely at ease with their racism. They would, presumably, be ignorant of a variety of things; among other things, they are likely to have false beliefs about the members of the different racial groups they believe in. But they would not have the same kind of incentive for ignorance that Mills describes.

There are some interesting questions about the explanation of this kind of large-scale ignorance about a social phenomenon such as race.

One possible explanation is on the level of individual psychology: it would be too uncomfortable to believe the truth about racism and so many people remain ignorant. (There are also interesting questions about how this works, as you have to both know about the facts that you would be uncomfortable acknowledging and also manage to suppress your consciousness of those facts.)

It’s my impression that Mills prefers explanations on the social level. Roughly, the racial system persists in societies that keep their members ignorant of how it works. (Again, interesting questions about how it works; deliberate design is one obvious possibility, but it’s no more necessary here than it is in evolutionary biology.) But I should re-read the chapter more carefully before I pronounce one way or the other about the kind of explanation that Mills prefers. I’ll just settle for noting that these are two different, though compatible, ways of explaining ignorance of some social facts that, on their face, are perfectly obvious.

We talked at length about what people must be ignorant of in order to inhabit the racial system. For example, I asked whether an inferiority story is necessary, where the members of the other race are believed to be inferior to the members of one’s own. I gave an example of American panic about Japan from the 1980s, where the fear was that the Japanese were superior to Americans. Will persuasively argued that, in this case, there is still a story about superiority: the Japanese may be more capable of producing cars and engineers, but, the story goes, that is because they are living soulless lives grinding their individuality away. As I recall, that was, indeed, part of the myth, so I’m awarding the point to Will.

We ended with a brief discussion of historical memory. Right off the bat, you know this is going to be screwy, as no one alive actually remembers the historical events that are the subject of “historical memory.” Still, it’s a real phenomenon. I compared a passage from Ernest Renan, a nineteenth century scholar of religion, with a speech by Mitchell Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans.

Here is Renan. After claiming that “L’oubli et, je dirai même, l’erreur historique sont un facteur essential de la création d’une nation” (“Forgetting, and, I would even say, historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation”), Renan says this.

Or l’essence d’une nation est que tous les individus aient beaucoup de chose en commun, et aussi que tous aient oblié bien de chose. … tout citoyen français doit avoir oublié la Saint-Barthélemy, les massacres du Midi au XIIIe siécle. (Renan [1882] 1945, 174–75)

(The essence of a nation is that everyone in it has many things in common and also that they have forgotten many things. … every French citizen is obliged to have forgotten St. Bartholomew’s day and the massacres of the thirteenth century.)

As Benedict Anderson points out, this is paradoxical: Renan’s paragraph makes sense only to people who know what these events were (Anderson 1991, 200). If you don’t, you’re probably not French. As Anderson reads Renan, he is saying that in order to think of yourself as French now, you have to see these events in the past as conflicts among the French rather than, say, Catholics and Protestants. Forgetting doesn’t mean not knowing that they happened, it means submerging the thoughts and motivations of the participants to present-day understandings of the nation.

The obvious application to the American case is to the US Civil War. After class, Will got a recommendation from a friend for a book that is right on point: David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Blight 2002). That is certainly something that I would like to read!

In class, I presented three paragraphs from a speech by the Mayor of New Orleans, Mitchell Landrieu, about taking down Confederate statues in the city.

After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city. …

As clear as it is for me today … for a long time, even though I grew up in one of New Orleans’ most diverse neighborhoods, even with my family’s long proud history of fighting for civil rights… I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought. So I am not judging anybody, I am not judging people. We all take our own journey on race.

I just hope people listen like I did when my dear friend Wynton Marsalis helped me see the truth. He asked me to think about all the people who have left New Orleans because of our exclusionary attitudes. Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too? We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.

There is a lot going on here. But note that the first paragraph points out that the statues have a purpose that is fulfilled only if that purpose is known. The second paragraph states that people like Mayor Landrieu were blissfully ignorant of that purpose. The third paragraph notes that even a child can figure out what the purpose is.

The race of the viewer makes all the difference between understanding the statue’s meaning and not understanding it. That’s a pretty good illustration of what Mills is talking about.

I also think that this reinforces the first thing I said in this now overly long section. The first paragraph describes a society in which everyone knew that the statues were supposed to signify white supremacy. The second and third paragraphs describe a society in which the white part of the population has forgotten that fact. The thrust of Landrieu’s remarks is that reminding the white population of this fact is the way to get them to agree to bring the statues down; they can only feel comfortable with keeping the statues if they don’t think about what they mean. That obviously is not the way it would have worked when they first went up; whites were quite comfortable with acknowledging what the statues meant.

So a short paragraph on how this case confirms what Mills says and a long one on how it supports what I said. That’s what comes from being the guy at the keyboard! Plus he had a whole chapter to make his point.


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities. Revised and expanded. London: Verso.

Blight, David W. 2002. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mills, Charles. 2007. “White Ignorance.” In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, 13–38. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Renan, Ernest. (1882) 1945. “Qu’est-Ce Qu’une Nation?” In Ernest Renan et L’Allemagne, edited by E. Buré, 167–98. New York: Brentano’s.