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Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance

Shannon Sullivan, Nancy Tuana

Publication Year: 2007

Offering a wide variety of philosophical approaches to the neglected philosophical problem of ignorance, this groundbreaking collection builds on Charles Mills’s claim that racism involves an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance. Contributors explore how different forms of ignorance linked to race are produced and sustained and what role they play in promoting racism and white privilege. They argue that the ignorance that underpins racism is not a simple gap in knowledge, the accidental result of an epistemological oversight. In the case of racial oppression, ignorance often is actively produced for purposes of domination and exploitation. But as these essays demonstrate, ignorance is not simply a tool of oppression wielded by the powerful. It can also be a strategy for survival, an important tool for people of color to wield against white privilege and white supremacy. The book concludes that understanding ignorance and the politics of such ignorance should be a key element of epistemological and social/political analyses, for it has the potential to reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for the political values at work in knowledge practices.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance

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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-10

Epistemology and ignorance—how could two such different things go together? Given that epistemology is the study of how one knows and ignorance is a condition of not knowing, epistemology would seem to have nothing to do with ignorance. At best, it might appear that the two concepts are related in that epistemology studies the operations of knowledge with the goal of eliminating ignorance. But in either case, ...

PART I. Theorizing Ignorance

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1. White Ignorance

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pp. 13-38

Classically individualist, indeed sometimes—self-parodically—to the verge of solipsism, blithely indifferent to the possible cognitive consequences of class, racial, or gender situatedness (or, perhaps more accurately, taking a propertied white male standpoint as given), modern mainstream Anglo- American epistemology was for hundreds of years from its Cartesian origins profoundly inimical ...

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2. Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types

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pp. 39-57

Ignorance is of increasing concern. The public discourse of anti-intellectualism poses ignorance as a positive alternative and antidote to elitism, and polls of the U.S. population, one of the most elite populations in the world, reveal alarming ignorance about world geography and history as well as current events. The problem is not explainable by a lack of access to resources for knowledge and information, nor is it a problem that decreases with the ...

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3. Ever Not Quite: Unfinished Theories,Unfinished Societies, and Pragmatism

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pp. 59-76

Philosophers since Plato have worked to discover how it is that we know whatever it is we know. Western philosophy, ancient and modern, has taken on the task of finding out how we can look past the way things merely seem to the way they really are. Lately, however, a number of thinkers have argued that the question of how we can fail to know certain things, especially things with political consequences, is just as interesting ...

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4. Strategic Ignorance

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pp. 77-94

In ordinary language the word “ignorance” suggests a deficiency of information. Ignorant would-be knowers are uninformed or have incomplete understandings of a given phenomenon. On this view ignorance is theorized as an accidental omission or a gap in understanding that can be corrected by an effort to move toward certainty by finding the missing information or running the experiment again. An important aspect of ...

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5. Denying Relationality: Epistemology and Ethics and Ignorance

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pp. 95-118

Aristotle identifies two general categories through which we can be morally excused for our behavior: constraint and ignorance. I cannot be held accountable for failing to keep an appointment with someone if I am in an accident and cannot get to the appointment, or if I do not know the appointment exists (Austin 1970). ...

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6. Managing Ignorance

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pp. 119-131

... Baldwin offers several explanations for such ignorance. First, and most generally, he remarks that “For the horrors of the American Negro’s life there has been almost no language” (1993, 69); the absence of such language threatens the availability of understanding even to those who have experienced the horrors. But even in the case of nameable and articulable horrors, he insists, “White America remains unable to believe that ...

PART II. Situating Ignorance

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7. Race Problems, Unknown Publics,Paralysis, and Faith

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pp. 135-151

This chapter has given me no end of trouble. It is perhaps fitting for a discussion about ignorance that the source of this trouble remained opaque to me for quite some time. It is perhaps as fitting that it eventually revealed itself as a kind of ignorance—ignorance of the unexcavated deposits that certain deep and, I had thought, uprooted commitments had left in me. ...

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8. White Ignorance and Colonial Oppression: Or, Why I Know So Little about Puerto Rico

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pp. 153-172

I am not much of a basketball fan, but news of the first round defeat of the United States men’s basketball team in the 2004 Summer Olympic Games caught my attention. The United States was trounced (92–73) by the Puerto Ricans—a stunning loss for a heavily favored team that was composed of some of the top professional basketball players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). But what struck me was the ...

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9. John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Alain Locke: A Case Study in White Ignorance and Intellectual Segregation

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pp. 173-195

Soldier and President Theodore Roosevelt was stridently committed to an international order that Charles Mills calls “global white supremacy” (Mills 1998, 98, 144). Concerned that England and France had already colonized significant portions of Africa and Asia, Roosevelt was anxious for the United States to stake its claim to the markets of China and Latin America. En route to this aim, the nation embarked upon what Alain ...

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10. Social Ordering and the Systematic Production of Ignorance

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pp. 197-211

When I ponder my lived-through and learned-about experiences of white racial domination and the subordination of racialized African and African descended persons and peoples in the United States of America, among the many disturbing matters are several that especially enrage me. First, the centuries-long determined efforts expended by settler-colonists become- imperialist-capitalist white racial supremacists to ensure that successive generations of white children would be nurtured ...

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11. The Power of Ignorance

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pp. 213-229

... This passage is from the prelude to a chapter in which Gwendolen Harlech, a young English woman of leisured affluence, is summoned home to England from a sojourn in the south of France, when her family falls into penury. In her stunned incomprehension of the sudden unavailability of wealth, fine clothes, spacious living quarters, servants, horses—the refinements of a life whose comforts and economic security ...

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12. On Needing Not to Know and Forgetting What One Never Knew: The Epistemology of Ignorance in Fanon’s Critique of Sartre

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pp. 231-239

Aristotle called the knowledge that accompanies action phronesis, which is usually translated as “practical wisdom” or “prudence” (Aristotle 1947, 1140a 24–114ob 30). The one who habitually possesses this knowledge is the phronimos. The phronimos does not follow pregiven directives but is distinguished from the other participants in a given situation by being the one who sees what action that situation calls for. To see the situation for ...

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13. On the Absence of Biology in Philosophical Considerations of Race

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pp. 241-258

A focus on the ethical and epistemological implications of ignorance asks us to interrogate absences in our knowledge for what they are, how they arise, and what they may mean for our appreciation and understanding of the knowledge we currently hold. In this context, it is perhaps surprising to suggest that those actively engaged in the investigation ...


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pp. 259-262


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pp. 263-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780791480038
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791471012
Print-ISBN-10: 0791471012

Page Count: 282
Publication Year: 2007