Interview with Charles Mills by George Yancy

In The Stone. A snippet:

C.M.: [. . .] Here in the United States, for example, we have the absurd situation of a huge philosophical literature on social justice in which racial injustice — the most salient of American injustices — is barely mentioned.

G.Y.: In your 1997 book, “The Racial Contract,” you discuss the concept of an “epistemology of ignorance,” a term which I believe you actually coined. What is meant by that term? And how do you account for the complete thematic marginalization of racial justice? Does an epistemology of ignorance help to explain it?

C.M.: Yes, I believe it does help to explain it, but first let me say something about the term. The phrasing (“epistemology of ignorance”) was calculatedly designed by me to be attention-getting through appearing to be oxymoronic. I was trying to capture the idea of norms of cognition that so function as to workagainst successful cognition. Systems of domination affect us not merely in terms of material advantage and disadvantage, but also in terms of likelihoods of getting things right or wrong, since unfair social privilege reproduces itself in part through people learning to see and feel about the world in ways that accommodate injustice. “Ignorance” is actively reproduced and is resistant to elimination. This is, of course, an old insight of the left tradition with respect to class. I was just translating it into a different vocabulary and applying it to race. So one can see the idea (and my later work on “white ignorance”) as my attempt to contribute to the new “social epistemology,” which breaks with traditional Cartesian epistemological individualism, but in my opinion needs to focus more on social oppression than it currently does.

Ignorance as a subject worthy of investigation in its own right has, by the way, become so academically important that next year Routledge is publishing a big reference volume on the topic, the “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies,” edited by Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey. The book covers numerous varieties of ignorance over a wide range of different areas and divergent etiologies, but my own invited contribution (“Global White Ignorance”) appears in the section on ignorance and social oppression. In this chapter, I argue that modernity is cognitively marked by a broad pattern in which whites generally endorse racist views (one type of ignorance) in the period of formal global white domination, and then (roughly from the post-World War II, decolonial period onward) shift to the endorsement of views that nominally decry racism, but downplay the impact of the racist past on the present configuration of wealth and opportunities (another type of ignorance). So remedial measures of racial justice are not necessary, and white privilege from illicit structural advantage, historic and ongoing, can remain intact and unthreatened. Insofar as mainstream “white” American political philosophy ignores these realities (and there are, of course, praiseworthy exceptions, like Elizabeth Anderson’s “The Imperative of Integration”), it can be judged, in my opinion, to be maintaining this tradition.