- White ignorance
Notes/blog/essay by Nalini Haynes
Before I begin discussing white ignorance, I offer thanks to Alana Lentin whose generous offer of reading her coursework materials and guidance through these complex issues has enabled me to undertake a free crash course in race studies. Thank you, Professor Lentin. Thanks also to whoever is paying you, but whatever they’re paying you, IT’S NOT ENOUGH.
Professor Lentin’s introduction and link to her course material are here.
There is overlap in the Venn Diagram of Race and Disability and the way in which society subjugates both people groups. Likewise, there is overlap in Race Studies and Disability Studies. Add to this relevance to my particular field of study, Disability Studies as it pertains to albinism. Albinism is a peculiar form of whiteness that is ‘too white’ for mainstream whites. Complicating matters further, people of colour have albinism. This affects their place in society on many levels because they are ‘white but not white’. Thus, people of colour with albinism often experience rejection by their own race while also experiencing a new form of racial and disability discrimination from white people who reject this black-and-white person.
In order to understand this complication for people of colour with albinism, I decided to read Alana Lentin’s online class material about racism. After a soul-destroying few years, I’ve been slow to take up this opportunity: I’ve had to partially recover from the trauma the University of Canberra inflicted upon me to get to this point.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
The key factor that inspired me to cross over from ‘good intentions’ to actually reading this material was not albinism. It was seeing white nondisabled men on the news and in social media spewing vile sentiments. A few nights ago, I watched ‘The Chaos Game’, Madam Secretary s05e02, where a young man claimed white scientific dominance while denying that white society was built from imported ingredients: imported language, imported culture, imported technology. One only has to watch Time Team to see Roman occupation advanced UK’s technology and infrastructure. And to many, Italians aren’t quite white but Romans … were? And if you’re in any doubt, Rome assimilated much of Ancient Greek and Ancient Egypt (friends/invaders with benefits) including their technology. Whether Greeks are considered white or not is ambiguous: it seems they’re often considered ‘not white’ but Ancient Greece? Another ‘white’ nation because EUROPEAN CIVILISATION’S ROOTS. It’s pretty clear that Ancient Egypt was never white except for in Hollywood movies. Perhaps that’s the problem: Hollywood populated these countries with white actors so white supremacists decided those countries were white…
THIS IS NOT AN ACADEMIC ESSAY, THIS IS A PERSONAL RESPONSE TO READING PROFESSOR LENTIN’S COURSEWORK MATERIAL.
Charles W Mills on ‘White Ignorance’. In the beginning…
I started my journey with Lentin’s last listed folder, which is titled ‘white ignorance’. I figured I’m white and I’m ignorant so learning about the roots of my ignorance is a good place to start. What follows is a combination of my notes and responses to Mills’s observations. These notes are based on reading Mills’s chapter alongside googling some of the texts to which he refers. Google is my friend when I have NFI about references such as Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Mills laments the historically rudimentary nature of epistemological studies and how Marx, that 19th century icon of academic learning, emphasised a propertied white male perspective. Since Marx, feminist academics have broadened the conversation while providing a white woman’s perspective, with racial studies only recently opening up.
(Disability Studies is similar: it was not until the 1990s that universities started recognising Disability Studies as a legitimate field and even then most of the scholars are not disabled. Because employing and publishing disabled scholars’ work on disability studies is too challenging for the patriarchy. With universities like UniCanberra refusing disability access, refusing supervision and equal student rights, assaulting then expelling me for being disabled and speaking out while researching representations of my disability, albinism, it is not surprising that Disability Studies is limited in its scope.)
According to Mills, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is an allegory for society’s obsession with whiteness that puts into jeopardy Ahab’s multiracial crew. Mind blown. I had wondered if it was because he hated people with albinism, but I figured the link between a whale and a human was too tenuous to be credible.
The Invisible Man. Not that one. The black one.
Mills talks about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953) as an allegory for race in America. I googled it because I’m only familiar with the H G Wells version. Ralph Ellison was an African American author. The Invisible Man (1953) includes the narrator, as a teenager, entering into a battle royale for a place in an all-black college. Suddenly Christopher Hayes-Kossman ranting about the Hunger Games being another example of white privilege stealing the Japanese story Battle Royale, has an added dimension: Ellison wrote it first but has largely been forgotten… or erased. Of course, the intelligentsia with a focus on equity and/or Race Studies haven’t forgotten this important novel. In the New Yorker, Clint Smith writes about how Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel for our time.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison writes in the prologue. The unnamed black protagonist of the novel, set between the South in the nineteen-twenties and Harlem in the nineteen-thirties, wrestles with the cognitive dissonance of opportunity served up alongside indignity.
Smith also discusses how Trayvon Martin’s death, the death of a black teenager hunted down for walking to the corner shop while being black, inspired him to actually read Invisible Man. Instead of keeping it in his TBR pile. Because it’s relevant to black teenagers today.
Mills says Ellison refers to Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (Wikipedia has a synopsis), which is a novel about how a white man can delude himself.
…so unthinkable is the idea that the inferior blacks could have accomplished such a thing [a successful uprising] that Delano searches for every possible alternative explanation for the strange behaviour of the imprisoned whites, no matter how far-fetched (Mills 2007, p. 19).
White people’s racism is so ingrained that they cannot see the potential in blacks. In Night Watch (I think), Terry Pratchett wrote about a city’s acceptance of the appearance of authority via Vimes’s ruminations on how police are so severely outnumbered that they can only keep order via a social contract. Pratchett was a well-read intelligent author whose novels expose the truth. And yet Melville’s 19th century novel is an allegory for white obliviousness today.
Social constructivism denies that race is genetic, exposing the scientifically more accurate perception that race is a construction. It is on this basis that Mills (2007, p. 20) grounds his work. Furthermore, Mills argues that whiteness is a recent construct where even European nations were only defined as being ‘fully white’ even more recently (Frederickson 2002 and Matthew Frye Johnson 1998, both cited by Mills 2007, p. 20). This loops back to my comments about the perceived whiteness of Romans versus Italians and Ancient Greece vs modern Greeks.
In the twentieth century, Australia had the White Australia Policy that affected immigration policy for decades before it was rescinded in 1975. Even Greeks and Italians who were considered ‘too dark’ were not allowed to immigrate. Meanwhile, Australian schools taught our illustrious Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman heritage.
When Obama was running to be president, I was only vaguely aware of the American electoral process and assumed that Obama was white with a tan, partly because he didn’t seem ‘all that black’ to me and partly because I didn’t think America would consider a black man for a president therefore he must have had a tan. These are examples of how we construct race.
However, there is no explanation for the Orange Despot. The Librarian (an orange orangutan in Pratchett’s Discworld novels) disavows him, clearly stating ‘Ook!’, which can mean volumes.
A racist foundation makes everything… racist
The problem with a society structured around an inherently racist bias means that even if a particular actor is not themselves racist, ‘impersonal social-structural causation’ incorporates racism into interpersonal events (Mills 2007, p. 21)
Racialised causality can give rise to… white ignorance straightforwardly for a racist cognizer, but also indirectly for a nonracist cognizer who may form mistaken beliefs… because of the social suppression of the pertinent knowledge, though without prejudice himself. (Mills 2007, p. 21).
In other words, our education systems, for example, teach us white history while leaving out history included in the British Museum’s World History in 100 Objects, an exhibition that completely blew my mind. Du Bois calls this ‘the deliberately educated ignorance of white schools’ (Du Bois 1995, p. 459 cited in Mills 2007, p. 30).
Since leaving high school I’ve learnt about India’s amazing and beautiful wells that reflect advanced technology and Africa’s ancient civilizations that are more amazing than Egypt. My self-education is piecemeal. I grieve the formative experiences I and my children could have enjoyed. I grieve for our society that is the poorer and more racist because of the lost opportunity to counter racism in formative education.
My education left me with the impression that Australian Aborigines were a primitive culture whose technology was limited to boomerangs, woomeras (which are amazing), flint knives (similar to other ancient knives as far as I’m aware) and bags. I was left with an impression of Indigenous Australians sheltering in lean-tos made of found material like we did when I was a kid (?!) and that their culture was lacking in architecture. This gross negligence and racism in education: the first I learnt of First Nations architecture was when I googled the Lie of the Land Sculptures because I lived in Adelaide and wondered what they were. Since then, I’ve discovered that these ancient cultures were highly developed before white settlement.
This may appear to be a personal rabbit hole, but I’ve included this as confirmation from a white person of Mills and Lentin’s theses. Australia has a long history, most of which was concealed or glossed over in my and my kids’ education.
Ignorance is not just the domain of white people
The ‘white’ in ‘white ignorance’ does not mean it has to be confined to white people (Mills 2007, p. 22). (Likewise, ignorance about disability, disability activism/history and Disability Studies is not confined to nondisabled people. But if you’re going to set yourself up as judge and jury over representations of disability, you should damn well do your homework. Not looking at anyone IN PARTICULAR. [Yes, I am. I am totally looking at specific people who give awards to nondisabled-driven projects. *cough* BACK TO RACE STUDIES.])
As Du Bois emphasises, nonwhites (and disabled people) will often share “white ignorance” (or disability ignorance) “to a greater or lesser extent because of the power relations and patterns of ideological hegemony involved” (Mills 2007, p.22). Mills uses the example of women who support the oppression of women and, from the Disability perspective, I point to the wheelchair user who, on behalf of an Australian university, said ‘I will prevent disability access because you’ve asked too many times… I will prevent disability access to teach you a lesson.’ The disability access in question? Large print photocopies that would have enabled me to participate in class teaching and work through classroom exercises. I think it’s not just ignorance, I think it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome where the oppressed identify so strongly with their oppressors that their thirst for approval — and promotion — inspires oppression of others.
Mills discusses one of the ways in which we resolve conflicts and challenges: we tend to have a confirmation bias, where we discard that which discomforts or challenges us to change. The young man in Madam Secretary who vomited white supremacist ideology alongside an abject refusal to accept the Black cornerstones (eg Mesopotamia’s culture and technology) upon which white culture was built. In Melville’s Benito Cereno, Delaney could not accept the reality of a successful black uprising. Likewise, in the real world those suffering from ‘white ignorance’ wilfully disregard facts that do not fit their mindset.
Fake news in map format
European world dominance evolved to the mindset that ‘We rule the world because we are superior; we are superior because we rule the world’ (Mills 2007, p. 25). Reinforcing this mindset are our world maps that inflate the size of countries in the northern hemisphere and shrink the size of countries in the southern hemisphere. Imagine my surprise when I first learnt about the distortion in present-day maps. When I first learnt that the distance between Perth in Western Australia and Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, is equivalent to the distance between Barcelona, Spain, and Moscow, Russia! This knowledge means Australia is a geographically a much more substantial country than northern-biased maps show. From there, this knowledge causes a paradigm shift repositioning Africa and South America, raising questions about their size, importance and geographical significance.
‘I call such a world map a “Jim Crow projection” because it shows Europe as larger than Africa’ (Hodgson, 1993 in Mills 2007, p. 26).
It’s mind-blowing to realise that even 21st century maps are so wildly inaccurate. I’ve spent hours looking at online maps, comparing distances. European wars have been fought between countries closer together than Launceston and Hobart, the two biggest cities in Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state. THESE PEOPLE WERE NEIGHBOURS AND YET THEY’VE FOUGHT WARS. IN MY LIFETIME.
Jennings (1976, p. 59 cited in Mills 2007, p.26) says the word ‘savage’ was ‘created for the purposes of conquest rather than the purposes of knowledge’. The definition of ‘savage’ varied as to the purpose of the speaker but the one constant was that ‘the savage was always inferior to civilised men… The savage was prey, cattle, pet or vermin — he was never citizen’ (Jennings 1976, p. 59). Hence the mindset that allowed Britain to declare Australia ‘terra nullius’, an empty land, despite its millions of inhabitants and Europe’s habit of claiming to have ‘discovered’ lands that were already teeming with people (Mills 2007, p. 27).
Whiteness is so ubiquitous that it has become racelessness
Now whiteness has become racelessness, encouraging the perception of individual achievement while disregarding enabling privilege that gives some a head start… while others have chains wrapped around their legs (Doane 2003 in Mills, p. 28). Thus white ignorance leads to acceptance and a belief in fairness that results in white accusations of racism levelled at black people for lobbying for equity and reparation. White ignorance supports these attitudes via reframing history. Mills lists a number of people groups who were ‘ethnically cleansed’ through attempts at genocide, which were then erased from collective memory via, for example, burning historical records. Belgian’s conscious decision to rewrite history so that the records fuelled fires for eight days is mind-boggling and yet this is only one example of whitewashing.
Alexander Downer recently went on a rant about his family’s ‘nation-building’ history that he felt entitled his daughter to win an election. He may not have expected Australians to investigate and discover that his family’s history included enabling state-sanctioned mass murders and protecting murderers. I wouldn’t be boasting about my family history if I was Downer. But then, he comes across like one of the rival kings in Game of Thrones. Who was pissed off that his daughter was denied her ‘rightful place’ as his heir in what was formerly his electoral seat. White entitlement, AmIRight?
Not a level playing field
By erasing the past, society accuses black people of being lazy, inferior and undeserving when they are living in poverty. Because failure to thrive on a level playing field means they’re not trying, right? (Mills 2007, p. 31). Shapiro (2004, pp. 75-76 cited in Mills, p. 31) records the tendency for people to claim to be ‘self-made’ when in fact they inherited not only wealth but a head-start in life, including parental financial support to attend college while ‘blacks do not in general have such advantages because of the history of discrimination against them’ (Mills 2007, p. 31).
Black or disabled so not a credible witness
Beginning with Kant’s quote that a credible witness only had something stupid to say because he was black, Mills (2007, p. 32) delves into the history of whites silencing blacks including in court. Last year the University of Canberra dismissed my complaint against a staff member, an assistant professor, who assaulted me in the refectory in front of witnesses and on CCTV cameras because I’m disabled. Also because they had records, witnesses and CCTV footage of other staff members harassing me previously… CCTV footage that they destroyed. University staff instructed the police not to act on my complaint about the assault. They followed up by claiming that reporting the assault to the police was an act of violence. They tried to have me jailed for talking about University staff members’ unlawful and criminal conduct. This is disability discrimination in 2018 and 2019. Mills’s accounts of racial discrimination in silencing and investigating crimes is far worse.
Silencing black people
Mills talks about the Tulsa race riot that occurred in 1910 but that was expunged from white records, only to be kept alive in the black community (2007, pp. 32-33, Mills also cites Hirsch 2002, p. 201). I recently saw American activists on social media discussing this riot, asking ‘how did I not know about this?’ so the erasure was effective.
Steinberg (1995, p. 51 cited in Mills 2007, p. 33) raises the spectre of black academics silenced, largely by colour segregation in colleges where ‘black’ colleges lack the prestige to be mainstream, therefore black academics’ work is disregarded. Likewise, in Disability Studies, many academics like Shildrick (2009) are not disabled and claim their voices count for more, their contributions count for more because they know what it’s like not to be disabled.
In States of Denial, Cohen (2001) talks about rules binding societies, rules that allow one to speak on certain topics but not on others, and meta-rules that prohibit acknowledging the meta-rules. (“The first rule of Fight Club…”).
Lentin assigned Mills’s chapter as part of her lecture on ‘white ignorance’. I started with this chapter because I’m white and ignorant but also because I’ve been appalled, increasingly over time, by the white supremacist bullshit spewed by white political leaders and antagonists like Richard Spencer whose recently-publicised post-Charlottesville murder rant is sickening.
Mills lays a foundation that explains why whites are so indoctrinated by our own system, society and education to believe that people of colour have less history, less culture and less potential. Citing authors like Melville to use Ahab and Delaney as avatars or allegories for white people, referencing Ellison’s Invisible Man and delving into the history of erasure, Mills expands upon this thesis of white ignorance as a choice and an imposition.
I’ve related some of the most salient points to disability studies but I’ve tried to keep the primary focus here on race. This is how I learn: I engage with a topic and try to relate it to what I know. This essay/blog post is me engaging with the topic in isolation because I don’t have a study group to explore the subject more fully. If you’d like to engage in conversation, please comment below or chat on social media.
I’m going to continue working through Lentin’s readings in an effort to understand Race Theory and to better explore issues of albinism as it relates to people of colour. Race plus extranormative whiteness plus disability (caused by poor eyesight or blindness that is a ‘feature’ of all but mild degrees of albinism) causes added complications for people of colour with albinism. I can tell you from personal experience as a child that it’s possible to be ‘too white’ (a racial construct) in a normative white society. It’s more complicated for black people, however. So, stay tuned!
If you liked this post, you might be interested in reading about Lionel Shriver, her racism, ableism etc, and reactions to her entitlement as presented via her keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago.
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