The Spirit of Ignorance
In a post-Jim Crow America, discussions on race and racial privilege are seldom expressed without an underlying feeling of discomfort or anger. These racialized emotions play help to perpetuate and solidify the “epistemology of ignorance.” Through this epistemology, white privilege becomes reified and colorblind racism is perpetuated. This essay seeks to define, discuss, and elaborate upon this epistemology through the lenses of social interaction and social media.
Keywords: Colorblind racism, white supremacy, white privilege, racialized emotions, epistemology of ignorance.
The Spirit of Ignorance: Preserving White Hegemony
The foundations of American society are built on notions of white supremacy and racial hierarchy. The admission that such toxic and bigoted abstractions have been allowed to pervade — and were essential to the construction of America — however, presents many unsettling questions on the true nature of American life. Worse still, these questions are inherently combative, as they directly challenge white dominance and the privileges it entails. In order to avoid these questions, White America must rely on what Mueller coins as the “epistemology of ignorance”: the purposeful obfuscation of racial realities in order to protect the status quo and white egos (Mueller, 2017).
The “epistemology of ignorance” is a term originally coined by Charles Mills, who defines it as “social epistemologies [that are] structured into the rhythms of institutions and everyday practices that propel racial reproduction” (as cited in Mueller, 2017, pg. 220). Sociologist Jennifer Muller expands upon Mills’s foundation by stating that “[it is] a process of knowing designed to produce not knowing surrounding white privilege and structural white supremacy” (pg. 220, 2017). Additionally, Mueller classifies four specific “epistemic maneuvers” that whites employ in order to perpetuate and preserve their own ignorance and avoid discussions of race or criticisms of white supremacy. Of these four, three — willfully reasoning colorblindness, tautologically reasoning ignorance, and mystifying practical solutions — are defensive maneuvers and the fourth — evasion — is an offensive maneuver.
The purpose of such epistemology and epistemic maneuvering is twofold. First and foremost, as a system of logic and maneuvering, it is meant to avoid reform and critical discourse by fundamentally refusing to acknowledge any sort of problems or issues. As an extension of this primary function, the epistemology of ignorance helps to protect white feelings and egos. These feelings and egos are byproducts of white privilege, which can be partially defined as an “ability to exist without thinking about race” (Cabrera, pg. 776, 2014). Generally speaking, however, white privilege exists as manifestations of systemic, institutional, and societal advantages that not only reify white supremacy through normalization but allow whites to avoid critical discussions and analyses of race and racism. Coincidentally, it is through the avoidance of such conversations and introspection that emotions become racialized.
Bonilla-Silva discusses the notion of racialized emotions (RE) as products of interracial interactions (pg. 3, 2019). They are physical and mental responses to stimuli that can be positive or negative in nature. Furthermore, Bonilla-Silva does not distinguish between “feelings,” and using the definitions created by Green (2013), defines them as “mental experiences of body states” and “emotions,” or “physical states arising from the body’s responses to external stimuli” (as cited in Bonilla-Silva, 2019, pg. 3). This non-distinction is important, as the supposed barrier between “rationality” and “irrationality” is removed: responses are not delegitimated by prior connotations through the specific use of these words, and RE are categorized as holistic experiences that can be analyzed and studied as such.
Mental Gymnastics and Racism
The connections between white privilege and racism are deeply intertwined. At their cores, they are manifestations of white supremacy and the means by which white supremacy becomes reified and normalized. As previously stated, white privilege exists as a sort of “hall pass” for white folks, a “get out of jail free card” that can be invoked in order to avoid introspective discussions or critiques of race and the systematic inequities that it creates. The existence of such a pass not only excuses whites from the acknowledgement, discourse, and analysis of racial tensions, but also serves to shield them from having to perform emotional labor or become emotionally drained from said discourse and analyses.
Cabrera provides a first-hand account of this emotional labor within his own 2014 study on racial emotions:
“Being a man of color studying Whiteness did pose another methodological issue. The interviews frequently read like a continuous microaggression. While the microaggressions did affect my emotional state… I… channeled these feelings into anger, which concurrently clouded my ability to effectively analyze the transcripts. (pg. 775)”
Emotional labor can be defined as a person’s internal, emotional management system that constrains their feelings and expressions so that they can perform their job. In regard to white privilege and the epistemology of ignorance, merely the thought of having to perform emotional labor as a consequence of explaining the structures that perpetuate white supremacy can keep people from speaking out in the first place — this not only reifies white privilege and white supremacy, but creates instances in which the epistemological maneuvers of ignorance can flourish.
The preservation of ignorance is achieved through four specific maneuvers. As previously stated, three of these four — willfully reasoning colorblindness, tautologically reasoning ignorance, and mystifying practical solutions — are defensive in nature in nature and the fourth, evasion, is offensive in nature. The first of these defensive tactics employs sophistry and ahistorical circumstances in order to neutralize discussions and criticisms of white supremacy, all the while perpetuating colorblind racism; the tautology of ignorance rehashes the same ideas through different strains of verbal diarrhea; and the final maneuver embodies racially conscious logic, but then goes on to obfuscate and frame potential solutions as nebulous and impossible to discern, let alone implement (Mueller, 2017). The final tactic, which is offensive in nature, focuses on framing a post-racial reality as the only reality, fiercely criticizing any assertions or statements made in opposition.
The Racialization of Social Spaces
These tactics are best exemplified through the context of social spaces — specifically, within the realm of social media and social interactions. Within the realm of social media, one does not have to wander far to find cesspools of racism and ignorance; websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are bastions for such kinds of ignorance, as their algorithms are driven by “user retention”: timelines and other forms of curated content become echo chambers, as one of the best ways to engage users is by providing access to provocative content that conforms to an individual’s existing perception of reality. Within the context of epistemological maneuvering, I found that Twitter accounts like PragerU, Turning Point USA (TPUSA), and other conservative provocateurs best exemplify and demonstrate the four strategies of ignorance. I define these sources are defined as provocateurs because they intentionally seek to mislead and incite anger in their target audiences through fear mongering, ahistorical reporting, and other forms of yellow journalism.
TPUSA has cultivated its internet presence through the “virability” of its memes. Organizationally speaking, TPUSA frames itself as a proud bastion of conservatism on college campuses and online spaces that is unnerved by the liberal horde. Unfortunately, however, TPUSA ends up perpetuating frames of colorblindness in order to create a reality that simply does not exist: a post-racial society in which racism and discriminatory practices no longer exist and are no longer relevant. As displayed in Figure 1, Candace Owens, noted political commentator and firebrand, states that “the most oppressed group in America today [are]… cops.”
Aside from being a strongly subjective statement, Owens’s claim is presented in a time of great racial tension: the frequency and ubiquity of police violence in America has left emotions highly strained and made discussions of race and privilege controversial and taboo. By appealing to a mix of colorblind frames, however — primarily the minimization of racism and abstract liberalism — Owens creates a reality in which the world is colorblind: the inherent validity of her claim is based on the assumption that subsets of the population are equal in all regards, and that any additional forms of discrimination are the result of individuals and prejudices. This assumption is essential, as the whole of colorblind racism operates on the assumption that racism is an individual deficiency rather than an institutional or systemic deficiency. Even the very application of these frames is implied; her statement draws upon a subconscious understanding of colorblind racism — racial hierarchies, the means by which people are oppressed, and the stock narratives surrounding specific population groups — and ultimately reifies white dominance by forcing the audience to consider history before discarding it.
The following figure exemplifies the tautological reasoning of ignorance. Stefan Molyneux is another popular member of the alt-right whose indulgence in sophistry and victimization of the West have made a powerful case for white supremacism and ethnonationalism. In a 2018 Tweet, Molyneux ironically supports the existence of white privilege by claiming “real privilege means never having your privilege identified or criticized,” failing to understand the true nature of white privilege as a racial entitlement that allows one to remain racially unconscious whenever and wherever they see fit. The study of white privilege, at least in popular discourse, has only become a recent development in the last forty years; centuries have gone by without the discussions Molyneux describes.
The reflexive nature of Molyneux’s analysis inherently obfuscates and gaslights potential criticisms by framing personal experiences and widespread social phenomena that could be used to prove the existence of white privilege as consequences of some other, unspecified action(s). Such tautological reasoning purposefully shields its proponents from having to consider the true nature of reality while simultaneously protecting them from the cognitive dissonance that realization would bring. A response to his Tweet, as seen in Figure 3, ironically acknowledges the frameworks by which white privilege operates, but instead uses them to purport the existence of black privilege.
Lastly, we can see the application of mystifying practical solutions through Stephen Crowder’s website. Crowder is a popular conservative commentator and provocateur best known for his “Change My Mind” series on YouTube, which sees him “debating” stereotypical critics of conservatism (Democrats, feminists, liberals, etc.). The issue with these debates, however, is that Crowder consistently employs data from an ahistorical, colorblind narrative that fails to account for systemic and institutional racism, instead relying on loaded/leading questions and polemics in order to get a rise out of his opponents. This same construction of an ahistorical, tone-deaf narrative can be seen through the publication of a blog post by one of his contributors, Courtney Kirchoff.
In Figure 4, we see a scathing criticism of feminism and the problems with its adherents. As they article goes on, Kirchoff mocks feminism and the idea of race as a social construct before moving on to bully one Saira Rao, whose thread on personal decolonization and helping her friends to understand the toxicity of white feminism becomes the target of Kirchoff’s ire.
Kirchoff begins by contemptuously framing Rao’s decolonization experience as irrational and imaginary. She then goes on to address the hostility and feelings of discomfort that arise when discussing racial privilege, creating an example in which RE become present, only to use it with a black case study.
The irony of her scenario is clearly lost on her — the reification of RE and race itself is only valid when it attempts to legitimize colorblindness; QuarterBlack’s RE are legitimate because they can be used to “prove” that such a response would be universal, irrespective of race or other factors. Were QuarterBlack to be substituted with a white person, however, Kirchoff’s response would use colorblind techniques to steer the conversation away from systemic privilege towards one or more of the central frames of colorblind racism, such as the minimization of racism. This prediction can be validated through Cabrera’s study of white emotions, as his many of his respondents answered in ways that “wished for a time when the rest of the population could treat race as a non-issue” (Cabrera, pg. 776, 2014).
Sao’s anecdotes of white feminism go on to detail her personal understanding and interpretation of their actions, as seen in Figure 6: “the love my white friends had for me was not enough to overcome their love of white supremacy and all the privileges it entailed, and that scared them.” Kirchoff does not take kindly to this revelation and goes on to state that the “real” reason Sao was abandoned by her friends was because she was “an insufferable speech puppet” (Kirchoff, 2019). The end of the article, which can be seen in Figure 7, has Kirchoff state that Sao’s “true” problem is her “SELF-CENTERED, WHINY, ENTITLED, LECTURING, SANCTIMONIOUS BITCHNESS” (Kirchoff, pg. 1, 2019).
A central problem in Kirchoff’s commentary, aside from its abrasive and denigrating language, is that it completely misdiagnoses the central issue (apathy as a complicit, purposeful action in perpetuating white supremacy and the desire to preserve white supremacy because so many benefits — immaterial or otherwise — are derived from it) as “cancerous third-wave feminism.” The antidote to this misdiagnosis, therefore, is a refutation of feminism and the acceptance of colorblind ideology — again, by viewing racism an individual defect rather than a systemic and institutional one: “WHITENESS isn’t a problem. BLACKNESS isn’t a problem. BROWNNESS isn’t a problem. SELF-CENTERED, WHINY, ENTITLED, LECTURING, SANCTIMONIOUS BITCHNESS is the problem” (Kirchoff, 2019).
Going on the offensive, Ben Shaprio, another voice in the conservative pantheon of sophists, shares his understanding of “intersectionality,” or the intertwined relationships between various social identities (Cho, Crenshaw, and McCall, 2013). Shapiro shares his exploration of intersectionality on behalf of PragerU, a self-styled “university” that tries to espouse libertarian and conservative values through commentator lead analysis. In this video essay, Shapiro claims that the contemporary understanding of intersectionality — or more specifically “the Left’s” understanding of it — is predicated on the idea of victim groups and what he coins as the “Oppression Olympics”: a supposed competition between minority (re: victim) groups that actively seeks out instances of oppression and prejudice in order to receive compensation.
The importance of his analysis lies in its intention: to avoid meaningful discussion and introspection on race and racism. Shaprio’s assertion is constructed by colorblindness and, like Owen’s assertion, assumes that racism is an individual problem rather than a systemic one. Furthermore, by incorrectly describing intersectionality as a composition of “victim groups” rather than a framework of analysis, Shapiro purposefully directs the discussion away from acknowledging race and the normalization of racism, instead directing it into the minefield of anecdotal evidence and individual analysis.
Though these case studies are originally from the realm of cyberspace, it is important to realize that they can and are easily replicated in “the real world.” However, an important distinction between cyberspace and the real world is that the repercussions for speaking out are far more tangible and highly severe. This concept is most clearly demonstrated in Figure 5, where Rao recounts how she was “ghosted” and turned into a pariah for attempting to educate her friends. In addition, we can see that any consequences from trying to pierce the veil of ignorance created by these epistemological maneuvers is amplified when transitioning from virtual spaces to physical ones: the same type of social castration that occurs online also occurs in real life — the only true difference is that it is much harder to rebuild one’s social networks in the aftermath of a falling out, because people are constrained by the boundaries created by physical interactions and that of the “real world.”
A person is less inclined to speak out or challenge a coworker or family member, not only because they dread the emotional labor that it entails, but because they view some relationships as irreplaceable and because they believe speaking out will incur far greater social drawbacks than benefits. It is this concept of “social cost-analysis” that reifies white supremacy and white privilege. It is not that the epistemologies of ignorance are “too complex” to discern or that the realities they create are “too great” to dismantle, it is that people are not willing to speak out against racism or challenge the status quo because they believe they will lose much on a micro level and change little on a macro level.
It is important to understand how the logical framework of ignorance plays into social interactions and the RE that stems from such interactions. In both instances, reification of white supremacy and white privilege is achieved through the avoidance of emotional labor and the internal math of social cost analysis. The greatest distinction between the virtual space and the physical space is that the consequences of deviance within a physical space are far more severe than those incurred in a digital one. Additionally, the desire to protect white egos and/or avoid emotional labor are at the crux of how interactions will take place in both spaces.
The deconstruction of the epistemology of ignorance — and subsequently white supremacy and white privilege — therefore, not only relies on the creation of a racially conscious society, but the creation of a society that values the principle of speaking out far more than they fear the individual consequences.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2019). Feeling Race: Theorizing the Racial Economy of Emotions. American Sociological Review. 84. 000312241881695. 10.1177/0003122418816958.
Cabrera, L. Nolan (2014). “But I’m oppressed too”: white male college students framing racial emotions as facts and recreating racism, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 27:6, 768–784, DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2014.901574
Cho, S., Crenshaw, K., & McCall, L. (2013). Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis [Abstract]. Signs,38(4), 785–810. doi:10.1086/669608
Candace Owens PLOWS an unmarked van of FACTS into a crowd of helpless BLM protesters : ToiletPaperUSA. (2019). Reddit.com. Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.reddit.com/r/ToiletPaperUSA/comments/8xylrt/candace_owens_plows_an_unmarked_van_of_facts_into/
Kirchoff, C. (2019). Feminist Blames “Whiteness” for Friends Abandoning Her. That’s Not It, Here Lemme Help…. Louder With Crowder. Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.louderwithcrowder.com/feminist-blames-whiteness-for-her-friends-abandoning-her-thats-not-it/
Kotaku, Captain (2018, January 11). Tweet posted to https://twitter.com/CaptainKotaku/status/1083780861965856768?s=20
Mueller, Jennifer. (2017). Producing Colorblindness: Everyday Mechanisms of White Ignorance. Social Problems. 64. 10.1093/socpro/spx012.
Molyneux, Stefan (2018, January 11). Tweet posted to https://twitter.com/StefanMolyneux/status/1083779602051289088?s=20
What Is Intersectionality?. (2018). PragerU. Retrieved 3 November 2019, from https://www.prageru.com/video/what-is-intersectionality/