Overcoming the desire not to know: addressing white ignorance to create reparative futures

By Katherine Wall *

Over the past three months, I have been part of a reading group for Reparative Futures. We have covered a number of topics from public history to memory to shame. In this short blog, I want to explore the work of Charles W. Mills who introduced the concept of ‘white ignorance’. In particular, I want to explore the consequences of ‘white ignorance’ for reparative futures and what work it might point towards going forward.

What are reparative futures?

To move towards a more just future, one in which the harms of the past and present are no longer replicated but repaired, it is necessary to understand what, why and how these past injustices occurred.

‘The idea of reparative futures signals a commitment to identify and recognise the injustices visited on, and experienced by, individuals and communities in the past. It understands that these past injustices, even when they appear to be distant in time or ‘over’, will continue to endure in people’s lives in material and affective ways unless, and until, they are consciously and carefully addressed.’

(Sriprakash et al. 2020: 2)

In the process of identifying and recognising injustices of the past, it becomes important to ask why these things were not commonly known before. And why, in some cases, there continues to be a resistance to the knowing of certain pasts when they do come to light.

Ignorance-as-resistance poses a fundamental challenge to those wishing to create reparative futures. Instead of being passive, that which can be overcome when taught, shown evidence, or reasoned with, ignorance fights back. Following the argument of Charles Mills, ignorance is structural, a way in which the dominant system, the system of white supremacy, maintains itself, and thus must be engaged with and processed in order to repair injustices of the past and present. It presents an active block to that work of repair. Ignorance-as-resistance operates through many systems that uphold the current oppressive paradigm – education is one of the key ways in which ignorance resists. To unpack this a little, let’s turn to Mill’s understanding of white ignorance.

Understanding white ignorance

‘White ignorance…

It’s a big subject. How much time do you have?

It’s not enough.

Ignorance is usually thought of as the passive obverse to knowledge, the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment.

But…

Imagine an ignorance that resists.

Imagine an ignorance that fights back.

Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, not to be intimidated, an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly – not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest level of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge’


(Mills, 2007: 19)

To create an ‘ignorance that resists’, work has to be done by the society that operates through oppression and domination. These oppressive societies rarely acknowledge themselves as oppressive. They present themselves as ‘basically just and fair, or at least the best of all possible worlds’ (Alcoff, 2007: PAGE). They do this through the stories they tell about themselves; the histories they teach in both formal and informal education settings. However, it is likely that there will be daily evidence of oppression and domination. For the society to be maintained in its oppressive form, this evidence must be regularly dismissed. This is the work of white ignorance, or ignorance at the structural level. It is a series of ways of thinking about the world that make possible the perpetuation of systems of oppression.

In the case of “white ignorance”, what occurs is the erasure of harm conducted in the pursuance of white supremacy. This is achieved through the management of memory; through the gatekeeping of testimonies which ‘count’ towards the historical record and those which were deemed untrustworthy; and through a collective untelling of certain pasts which the system of domination would rather have forgotten. All this requires ways of thinking that structure in ignorance.

It is not just the ‘not knowing’ as that could be remedied by sharing more facts, more evidence of different kinds. It is a set of mechanisms that enables us not to know. Which guard what is not known and fight against its becoming known. For example, what is included in the curriculum is a key question here, but so too is the way we are taught to think, to question, to assume. When alternative pasts are uncovered and shared, they are met with defensiveness, with threat, with outrage, with all the ways in which ignorance is militant – because these alternative pasts are a threat in some way to the dominant system.

The National Trust – an example

In September 2020, the National Trust – the largest conservation charity in Europe – published an “Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery”. This work of uncovering past injustice has been met with waves of attack, primarily from Conservative MPs and the right wing press. Sir John Hayes, the former Education Minister, wrote ‘Britain’s heritage is under attack, ironically from those missioned to guard it.’ Britain’s heritage is under attack because the National Trust is documenting how the properties it cares for were connected to colonialism and historic slavery. What is being questioned by this research is the story of the nation these Conservatives wish to maintain, of grandeur and wealth, of the Empire, of a glorious past. I have written more extensively in defence of the work being undertaken by the National Trust elsewhere.

The senior historian who worked with the National Trust, Professor Corinne Fowler, recently wrote that she has been ‘unfairly targeted’ by a ‘political agenda’ fighting over how colonialism is studied. And why is this fight underway? I would argue, as Mills does, that those who benefit most from the system of white supremacy need to perpetuate white ignorance in order to maintain it – to deny that reparations are due and that steps towards justice must be taken, better to criticize the historians and the way history work is being done, for they cannot criticize the facts themselves.And always, the system of white supremacy seeks to defend and maintain itself and does so through attacks on, violence to and oppression of Black and brown people.

What can be done?

If sharing more / other / new historical facts will not deter the march of white ignorance, what then can be done both to address it, dismantle it and deal with the backlash (or whitelash as it has come to be called) along the way? Linda Alcoff asks the important question to consider: ‘If members of dominant groups are responsible for essentially duping themselves about the true nature of their social world, then are there resources in their own experiences from which to draw out the truth?’ (Alcoff, 2007: 50). How, in other words, do we overcome the desire not to know which is structurally created and reinforced, in order to move towards reparative futures? And what role might education play to both unlearn and create new ways of knowing?

I do not make claims to have the answer to this question but I think it may be generative to explore the following as part of the Reparative Futures project:

  • To uncover, identify and recognise injustices of the past and how they play out in the present. 
  • To notice the resistance to these histories and observe the emotions that are at play: denial, defensiveness, shame.
  • To find a way to process these emotions so that they might transform, in a way to release the grip of white ignorance so that acknowledgement of oppression can occur.
  • To nurture the demands for repair amongst those who do see the need for it, who can see through the structural ignorance in operation.
  • To build organisation to add power to those demands, so that they might come to pass sooner than the emotional processing of those who feel they have most to lose by the dismantling of the system of white supremacy.

References

Alcoff, L., (2007) Epistemologies of Ignorance: three types in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, State University of New York Press, New York.

Huxtable, S., Fowler, C., Kefalas, C. and Slocombe, E., (2020) Interim Report on the Connections between Colonialism and Properties now in the Care of the National Trust, Including Links with Historic Slavery. The National Trust, Wiltshire.

Mills, C.W., (2007) White Ignorance in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, State University of New York Press, New York.

Sriprakash, A., Nally, D., Myers, K., and Ramos-Pinto, P. 2020. Learning with the Past: Racism, Education and Reparative Futures. Paper commissioned for the UNESCO Futures of Education report (forthcoming, 2021).

* Biography

Katherine Wall is a PhD student at the University of Bristol exploring the relationship between land and racial justice in England. She is also a social movement facilitator with Resist+Renew and Organising for Change.

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