Content warning – The first paragraph of this piece describes the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
George Floyd was a Black man murdered by a white police officer. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes while Floyd struggled and called for relief and mercy. A teenager named Darnella Frazier recorded the event, and her video has been viewed by millions of people. Floyd’s murder and other incidents of anti-Black racism helped reignite protests against white supremacy and police brutality across the United States and elsewhere in the summer of 2021. During and since that time, many people have asked themselves and others what they could do personally to counteract what they saw on the video.
We are right to ask ourselves what we can do, but I also believe that, for many of us, especially my fellow white folks, the answer must start with reflecting on ourselves, our ignorance, and our inaction. We should never forget what happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many other people who have become the victims of anti-Black violence.
However, I believe we should go a step further and ask ourselves how it is that many of us white folks are able to be ignorant of anti-Black violence. For Black folks, in contrast, anti-Black violence has been a central and horrifying part of their experience since people from Africa were enslaved and brought to the United States and other parts of the Americas several centuries ago.
In their article discussing how policing and police violence in the contemporary United States is racially segregated, political scientists Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Seong C. Kang, and Brian N. Williams reflect on the experience of anti-Black violence that spans generations of Black folks in the USA. They write:
black people in the United States continue to navigate social control, as experienced by violence and intimidation by police officers and agencies, similar to their ancestors who navigated lynching mobs and white supremacist organizations.
If the specter of anti-Black violence is a fundamental part of being Black in the United States, then how are so many white people surprised when we are presented with evidence of violence against Black people?
Gaynor and her colleagues offer the following insightful answer to that question:
much as the insightful title of Ralph Ellison’s (1952) seminal work Invisible Man suggests, the disparate pain and suffering of black people in black spaces seem invisible—out of sight and out of mind of the body politic. To paraphrase Ellison, black people and black spaces represent figments of the public’s imagination: Both are invisible because the public and the public servants charged with protecting and serving refuse to see them. Checkerboard segregated communities and the purposeful isolation of these communities from more affluent ones allows this willful ignorance to go unchallenged. Even in the twenty-first century and its prevalence of camera phones and social media, as well as the influx of videos capturing the murder of black men and women by police, the refusal to see persists
Gaynor and her coauthors’ research explores residential segregation as one explanation for why we white people are so surprised by anti-Black racism on the rare occasions that we notice. Their work illustrates how part of white people’s ignorance about police violence against Black people stems directly from “the purposeful isolation” of communities along racial lines.
However, Gaynor and her colleagues do not argue that residential segregation alone can account for white folks’ ignorance of Black experience. Those authors also note the glimpse of Black experience that viral videos, like the one that captured the murder of George Floyd, have offered white people, and they note that “the refusal to see persists”. There must be more to white folks’ ignorance than simply a lack of opportunity to witness anti-Black violence.
The late philosopher Charles W. Mills might have referred to this “something more” as “white ignorance”. For Mills, “white ignorance” is a way of discussing white folks’ “particular cognitive orientation to the world, an aprioristic inclination to get certain kinds of things wrong”. For Mills, those “certain kinds of things” include anything related to “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”. In other words, white people, in general, are ignorant of the racial oppression, historical and ongoing, that we benefit from.
For Mills, white ignorance is not merely about mistaken beliefs. Rather, he explains that this ignorance is more pervasive and agentive than can be accounted for by thinking about it as merely inaccurate or unlearned information. At an individual level, white ignorance permeates the way we perceive the world. At a collective or institutional level, white ignorance permeates the way we have formally conceptualized the world, both past and present.
Hence, Mills’ concept of white ignorance offers a powerful explanation for, amongst many other things, white folks’ recurring surprise at the oppression of Black people. Importantly, white ignorance stands in sharp contrast to Black knowing and Black experience on this and other topics. As the targets of anti-Black violence, Black folks are invested in knowing and passing down information that might help keep each other safe.
I believe Mills’ concept of white ignorance is useful for us to reflect on as we ask ourselves “What can we white people do?” I don’t believe we likely need to go anywhere or buy any supplies to find some way to oppose white ignorance. It is, after all, present in all of us white folks and in all of our white institutions. It is up to us to find the strength and integrity to challenge it around us and within us.
It is useful, I believe, to reflect on our past experiences in which we may have acted out of white ignorance. I offer up the following story as an example of this. The story discusses how I missed an opportunity to become better informed about white supremacy, in part, because I refused to accept the forms of evidence that were presented to me and instead insisted that my white ways of knowing were better. I, a young white man, acted out of the toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance characteristic of people with unexamined and unacknowledged privilege. I present this story in the hopes that my missteps can serve as a fruitful source of learning for others.
In my first year of college, I enrolled in a course called “Introduction to Ethnic Studies” to fulfill my university’s requirement that all students take a class focused on diversity in the United States. It was my second semester of college. During my first semester, I had been empowered by a course called “Introduction to Critical Thinking” which had given me tools for dissecting, analyzing, and critiquing arguments. Hence, I arrived in my ethnic studies class believing I was ready to critique the ideas and arguments presented in the class. However, my prior education had not challenged me to think about my whiteness and how it affected the way I saw the world.
One of our first assignments in the course was to read sections of the highly celebrated book A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki (1993) and write a reflection about it. In A Different Mirror, Takaki offers a narrative account of different ethnoracial groups’ experiences in what is now the United States. The book is mostly focused on the time period following European explorers’ and settlers’ arrival on the continent. While constructing his historical account, Takaki provides the reader snippets of primary historical texts such as song lyrics and newspaper articles to help illustrate the painful experiences of oppressed groups and the inhumane motivations of their oppressors. Like many ethnic studies scholars, Takaki does not aim to “prove” that racism exists; rather, he aims to help his readers understand, as Mills might put it, “the legacy of the past [which] continues to handicap people of color”. Takaki’s book would have been excellent reading for me, a young white man oblivious to my white ignorance. Clearly, my ethnic studies professor knew this.
After engaging superficially with Takaki’s book, I dismissed it as “not rigorous”. In particular, I criticized Takaki’s book for having failed to “prove” the existence of racism. It had not yet occurred to me, although it undoubtedly had occurred to my professor, that the only reason I thought racism needed to be “proven” to exist was because I was a young white man who was ignorant of the things that Black, indigenous, and other people of color already know.
Instead of reflecting on why I thought I knew better than Ronald Takaki and my ethnic studies professor, I headed to the library and found some experimental psychological research on implicit bias that better conformed to what I believed constituted “proof” of racism. For my assignment, rather than engaging with the ideas in A Different Mirror, as the class had been assigned, I wrote an essay about how the experimental studies I found at the library provide “better proof” of the presence of racism in U.S. society than A Different Mirror.
I cited social psychological research demonstrating that people are more likely to perceive an ambiguous object as a weapons when it is held by a Black person than when it is held by a white person. For example, I remember excitedly coming across an experimental study by psychologist Keith Payne. In Payne’s study, participants were shown pictures of faces and objects, and Payne found that pictures of Black faces biased participants to “see” the object as a weapon, suggesting that the study participants associated Blackness with violence. In my class assignment, I argued that experiments like Payne’s provided a superior way of “proving” racism than the narrative approach Takaki takes in A Different Mirror.
To be clear, Payne’s experimental research is rigorous and offers clearly useful information about anti-Black violence. Nonetheless, it does not situate that violence in a broader historical context. In his essay, Mills writes that the predominant white understanding of our history is whitewashed in order to avoid uncomfortable questions about white privilege:
A reconstructed and racially sanitized past is crucial for the pre-emptive blocking of the question of the dependence of current white wealth and privilege, both nationally and globally, on the historic racial exploitation of the labor, land, and techno-cultural contributions of people of color
I doubt that Payne ever intended for his experiment or his article to provide any kind of comprehensive corrective to the “reconstructed and racially sanitized past” that my peers and I had learned from our families and our schools.
Ronald Takaki’s award-winning book A Different Mirror, on the other hand, does set out to discuss the broader historical context of racial oppression in the United States. Hence, my critique demonstrated my own lack of appreciation for how much my white peers and I had not yet learned about racial oppression in the United States and how much we desperately needed to read books like A Different Mirror.
The instructor of the course, a woman of color, handled my arrogant refusal to engage seriously with the work she assigned magnanimously; she gave me a “B” and asked that, in future assignments, I engage more directly with the assigned reading material. I accepted my grade without protest and engaged more directly with assigned material in my future assignments, but the larger lesson did not immediately sink in.
Several years passed before I came to recognize that I deserved an “F” on this assignment. I refused to engage seriously with the voices, experiences, and ways of knowing of people who are directly affected by white supremacy and who have developed a field of inquiry — ethnic studies — designed to develop and disseminate exactly these voices, experiences, and ways of knowing. I, a young white man, had not yet learned to listen, and, indeed, I had been taught to systematically ignore the ideas of people of color when they did not conform to white ideas about what constitutes good scholarship.
I was learning to enact an “educated” version of white ignorance, a version of ignorance about the realities of racial oppression that uses words and phrases like “overgeneralization”, “peer-reviewed studies”, and “small sample size” to attack the legitimacy of any idea that threatens white ignorance. I am embarrassed and ashamed of the way I behaved in my ethnic studies class. I regret the harm that my dismissiveness caused the instructor and other students. I raise this embarrassing experience because I believe it highlights an important point about how our learning can be impacted by white ignorance, even when we imagine ourselves to be allies to Black, indigenous, and other people of color. Even if I fulfilled most of my course requirements, at the age of eighteen, I missed out on an opportunity to engage more seriously with the broader history of racial oppression in the United States. Having benefited from another eighteen years of learning about that oppression, I wish my younger self had read Takaki’s book with the same fascination that I read Payne’s article.
I did not initially see my insistence on evidence I judged as “scientific”, as in any way connected to my whiteness, my maleness, or other aspects of who I was. I believed that I was simply applying “the scientific method” and “logic” to arrive at “the truth”. I thought that I could be of service to those advocating against racism by teaching them the “correct” way of knowing, through, for example, rigorously designed experiments like Payne’s. I naively believed that presenting those who doubted the existence of racism with scientific evidence would compel them to change their minds. I was comfortably oblivious in my white ignorance. With the benefit of eighteen years, I’m a little less ignorant and no longer foolish enough to think that “scientific evidence” alone will vanquish our white ignorance and end white supremacy.
The lesson I hope others take from this story is that, if we hope to be of service to others, we white folks desperately need to wrestle with our own white ignorance. Mills writes in his essay on global white ignorance
Achieving a new world will require an admission of the white lies that have been central to the making of our current unjust and unhappy planet. Global justice demands, as a necessary prerequisite, the ending of global white ignorance
When confronted with evidence of racial oppression, we white people often ask what we can do. If the question is a sincere one, then one thing we can do is wrestle with Mills’ ideas about white ignorance and how they are relevant to us as individual white people. We can ask ourselves, earnestly, not rhetorically, how and why we are surprised to learn of racial oppression, given that it is a necessary counterpart to white privilege. We can go a step further and ask “Are we emotionally ready to acknowledge that we oppress others (regardless of our intentions), and to learn how?” We can explore whether we are emotionally invested in not learning about racial oppression. We can reflect on our past actions and understand them as connected to white ignorance, as I have done in my story above. This is how we begin wrestling with our white ignorance.
In Fall 2020, I wrote an essay for the AAAL graduate students’ newsletter titled “White Ignorance and the Struggle for an Anti-Racist Applied Linguistics” . The ideas and especially the narrative in the original essay are applicable to many white folks, not just those who study applied linguistics, so I have edited the pieces — to reflect my hope to reach a much wider audience. My thanks to the editorial team for inviting me to write the original piece and for their feedback on it.
Gaynor, Tia Sherèe, Seong C. Kang, & Brian N. Williams. 2021. Segregated Spaces and Separated Races: The Relationship Between State-Sanctioned Violence, Place, and Black Identity. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences.
Payne, Keith B. 2001. Prejudice and perception: The role of automatic and controlled processes in misperceiving a weapon (paywall). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. (Payne 2001 available on ResearchGate)
Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America (paywall). Little, Brown, and Company.