White Ignorance: what it is, how it hurts, and what needs to change

There is little subtlety in the role that race plays in our current political and cultural climate. Since the election of Donald Trump, political commentary has been increasingly saturated with claims of racial motivation. Many attribute Trump’s presidency to the white working class vote–the “silent majority”–which was largely ignored during the campaign. Black women in Alabama were credited with sending Doug Jones to the Senate in a special election and, perhaps more importantly, defeating Roy Moore. President Trump continues to promote racism from the Oval Office, whether through invalidating a judge’s decision based on their heritage or attacking African nations (so-called “shithole countries”). The responses, or lack thereof, to these political and cultural developments have revealed a widespread complicity and misunderstanding in how to promote a productive discussion about structural racism within the white majority. The concept of “whiteness” is proving to be something no one wants to, or is able to, talk about.

This political and social context makes Eva Boodman’s talk, “Complicit Responsibility for White Ignorance,” enormously necessary. Boodman spoke at Bard on February 27, prompting a conversation dense with philosophical theory and complex questions. The objective of Boodman’s talk was to offer an alternative model of responsibility for white ignorance, but in order to understand that, we must begin with an understanding of the current model of responsibility and what “whiteness” and “white ignorance” mean in the first place.

According to Boodman, whiteness is a complex social position in the sense that it is both one thing and many things. It is non-essential, and yet essentialized. This is due to the fact that whiteness, like any other race, is socially, politically, and legally constructed. White ignorance is a direct product of this complexity. White ignorance is a cognitive disruption driven by a refusal by whites to recognize history. Rather than a neutral lack of information, white ignorance is substantive. It is invested in being blind to its own norm. It is an active production of various modes of justification for whiteness, including interpersonal racism and structural racism.

But how does white ignorance manifest itself? “White talk” was Boodman’s first example. In “Making Meaning of Whiteness,” Alice McIntyre refers to “white talk” as “talk that serves to insulate white people from examining their/our individual and collective role(s) in the perpetuation of racism.” It is what motivates, whether consciously or not, white people to say “I don’t see race” or to initiate conversations about race with people of color at inappropriate times. “White tears” is another phenomenon. Frequently used in memes, “white tears” refers to when a white person feels that there is some sort of nonexistent racial injustice against them. (Abigail Fisher, a young white woman who sued the University of Texas in response to being denied admission because of what she claimed to be racial discrimination, is a common example). White ignorance is characterized by deflection, distancing, the preserving of innocence, and moral absolution.

The current model of responsibility–the “liability” model–for white ignorance paradoxically leads to the perpetuation of it. The model is based on blaming individuals for acts of interpersonal or structural racism. Boodman describes it as an “economy of guilt and innocence.” While guilt can be useful in prompting change, it becomes malactive when it turns into chronic guilt. Therefore, the “liability” model is problematic because when an individual is shamed for an act influenced by a system they cannot fix on their own, the guilt is not productive. The chronic guilt of whiteness leads to a stasis. White people want to avoid the chronic guilt, so the objective for them becomes showing that they are good white people. This is why white people engage in these performative conversations to show their good moral standing. Declarations of whiteness (i.e. “I know the police are racist,” “I have white privilege”) appear to be confessions of bad actions, but really act as a self-defense of good actions–displaying guilt about racial identity.

Boodman offers a new model inspired by Iris Young’s social connection model. The social connection model emphasizes the relationships you have with others. It is based on social position, meaning that it takes into account your role in relation to the rest of society,  rather than universalizing whiteness as a social position. The social connection model also differs from the current model in that it is discharged through collective action. That means that rather than perpetuating the current blame game, there is a collective shift in the way we talk and think about responsibility and identity. For example, because the liberal language of “transcending race” is the only language we have for thinking about responsibility, our conversations are evasive and unproductive.  Pedagogically, teachers cannot talk about white privilege or racial discrimination without talking about whiteness. Within the social connection model, education can provide different ways of thinking about one’s social position and the responsibility that comes with it.

In order to transition to a social connection model, white people must recognize that a) identities are not essential, but socially constructed and b) because the structure we participate in created these identities, we have to enact change from within it. Collective lobbying for codified changes to the establishment (i.e. legal qualifications for racial discrimination, political definitions of racial identity, how institutions of learning talk about race) is the way forward in the social connection model. This requires understanding the structure of racial identity and collectively moving towards a new paradigm in the way we talk about and confront structural and interpersonal racism.

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