White Ignorance and Musical Manipulation

Consider the notion of a web of belief. There are peripheral beliefs, e.g. John is bald, and central beliefs, e.g. 2+2=4. How far a belief is near the center indicates how many other beliefs depend on it. Believing I have hair won't change many other beliefs; believing 2+2=5 will. Consider complementary hierarchy of concepts. We all have a store of concepts, e.g. tables, chairs, dogs, mammals, humans, etc. They're likely arranged in an unsurprising hierarchy. If you see a dog, then you see a mammal, because all dogs are mammals. There are dependencies here too. What's important for us is noting that concepts are inputs to beliefs we have. You each have a hierarchy of concepts. You receive information from the world through your sense organs. But in every case what you receive is mediated by these concepts. You never just see the world, you see the world through concepts. That's what it means to perceive something. It should be clear how these concepts then frame how we see the world, and so determine what we believe about the world.

Charles Mills classifies both false beliefs and the absence of beliefs as ignorance in his article White Ignorance. Does that remind you of another scholar we read? David Walker in his Appeal pointed to slaves holding both false beliefs and no beliefs as ignorance. In pursuit of reminding yourself of some of Mills' very dense paper, consider:

(Q1) Suppose we each have a hierarchy of concepts that inform our perceptions and so inform our web of beliefs. On this model, how do we understand ignorance as:

(i) the absence of beliefs?
(ii) the presence of false beliefs?  

The mechanism is straightforward. You might acquire concepts in your hierarchy that are inaccurate and so you will have inaccurate input into your beliefs. This will lead to false beliefs. On the other hand, you might not acquire certain concepts, and this might lead to a gap in beliefs about a certain domain. On the former, if we think of this blue circle as the way the world is, or should be, and your hierarchy of concepts with red, the presence of false beliefs might look something like this X while the absence of beliefs might look something like this Y. This is very crude, of course, and just to illustrate the difference between there being a gap and there being wrong information.

There's another axis along which we might analyze ignorance of these sorts. You might have an accurate hierarchy of concepts, but you might nevertheless make incorrect judgments about it, leading to false beliefs or no beliefs. For example, if someone learns their lover has been unfaithful, they might refuse to believe it for many reasons. I don't think that would conflict with their hierarchy of concepts. Their concepts remain the same, it's just that they refuse to place their lover under the concept 'wrong' or something like that. Similarly, if someone learned of a parent's racist beliefs, they might refuse to believe their parent is racist, but instead claim they must not know what they believe is wrong. Here again, the relevant agent might have the right hierarchy of concepts, but still not have the right beliefs about the world. These examples illustrate how the simple mechanism of a hierarchy of concepts informing beliefs is not straightforward. You might have accurate concepts, but be motivated to make poor judgments and so have false beliefs about them. This suggests another important feature of the model we should make clear: desires.

I have a concept of a chair, so when presented with a certain pattern of electromagnetic stimulation through my optical nerves I perceive a chair. This leads to me either voluntarily or involuntarily forming the belief that there is a chair. You know what happens next. I sit down, and I roll around the room like a child. Jokes aside, this is important. My beliefs inform my actions. But beliefs alone aren't enough. I roll around in the chair because I want to roll around in the chair. I want this because it's fun, or to lighten the mood, or something like that. But importantly, note just like my hierarchy of concepts informs my web of beliefs, it also informs what I desire. Presumably, I can't desire something I have no concept of. Moreover, my beliefs and desires interplay. I have beliefs about the world and they're informed and inform my desires. We have then, a straightforward plausible picture of human action. Concepts inform perceptions which inform beliefs and desires which inform behaviors. It's not just about what I believe; it's also about what I want. This is a sort of commonsense picture of the relationship between concepts/perceptions and beliefs.

Now we might ask how come to have the concepts we have, which leads us back to Mills on White Ignorance. Broadly speaking, we acquire concepts in two ways: Intentionally and Unintentionally.

Intentional - An example of intentionally acquiring concepts would hopefully be you attending college. When we intentionally learn concepts, we're often on guard to avoid inaccurate concepts, or concepts that seem to conflict with deeper concepts we hold. If someone tried to teach you in class that members of same racial group weren't part of the human species, you'd likely reject that concept. For one thing, it would likely require significant revision to your hierarchy of concepts. I think we can intentionally learn inaccurate concepts and avoid acquiring new concepts about some domain. That's what echo chambers seem to be about.

Unintentional - An example of unintentionally acquiring concepts might be, say, you acquiring the concept of 'chair'. I don't remember ever learning the concept 'chair'. I also don't ever remember ever learning the various pejorative concepts I know about women, minorities, etc. I likely picked them up as a matter of acculturation, and they likely gained credibility out of sheer habit. Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt. Often, it just breeds more familiarity.

Following Mills, lets focus on concepts and beliefs of the unintentional sort:

(Q2) How might a privileged white individual of the sort Mills described unintentionally acquire inaccurate concepts or unintentionally avoid acquiring concepts about some domain?

Presumably, when we're intentionally picking up new concepts, we're ready to spot red flags and reject concepts that don’t align with other concepts we hold. But if our hierarchy of concepts is acquired unintentionally, we'll likely be unable to spot red flags, and notice signs that such concepts aren't tracking anything true in the world, or anything that should be true. But then if faulty concepts are unintentionally adopted in our hierarchy, they will invariably inform our beliefs. Then we get false beliefs. This seems a plausible explanation for how, say, many people I grew up with believed negative stereotypes about black people, though when pressed for why they held such beliefs it became clear they'd never really thought about it before. Similarly, when you're growing up and acquiring concepts you might not get everything you need. You're sort of a sponge, but you need nutrients to absorb. If you lack a certain set of concepts you'd need to perceive a certain phenomenon, say, like racial discrimination, then it's likely you won't be able to understand the phenomenon, and surely unlikely you'll have beliefs about it. Now:

(Q3) How might a privileged white individual of the sort Mills described who has unintentionally acquired inaccurate concepts or unintentionally avoid acquiring concepts about some domain, then maintain false beliefs or a lack of true beliefs about that domain?

I think Du Bois in the opening of The Souls of Black Folk is illuminating here. Recall, we concluded the existence of the veil by an argument to the best explanation. Du Bois had expectations about how he'd be treated, likely based on observing how other people were treated, and these expectations were undermined. The best explanation was the existence of some mediation between white and black experiences. There was a color line. But whites don't see the color line or notice the veil, because they don't experience similar friction. Glibly put, the world makes sense to privileged white people. And this might go some way to explain why privileged whites who unintentionally lack concepts might maintain their ignorance.

(Q4) Does this seem a plausible explanation? Is white privileged sustained because unintentionally acquired concepts don't meet with friction or call for revision in white life?

Let's not get carried away; this should strike you as an odd way to describe things. Is it really the case that the world simply makes sense to white privileged people? Is it really the case they don't experience social friction and undermined expectations? Surely not. There seems to be ample evidence available of the mistreatment of marginalized groups. And this is not a novel phenomenon. In this course we've seen protests, marches, court cases, riots, etc. It seems to me privileged white people have a lot of evidence - and have had a lot of evidence - indicating they hold racist false beliefs, right?  

White ignorance is motivated ignorance, and resistant ignorance. White privilege is a privilege. Whites stand to gain from keeping it in place, materially, psychologically, etc. I think it would be naïve to overlook - what seems to me a clear possibility - that white privileged individuals not only have a conflict between implicit and explicit beliefs, but between explicit and implicit desires. Informed, well-meaning white allies might explicitly desire equal consideration of interests, equality, the absence of discrimination, but surely they also at least implicitly desire to remain privileged. That's reflected in behavior. White privileged individuals have inaccurate concepts perhaps acquired unintentionally, and these inform implicit and explicit beliefs and desires, which inform behaviors, e.g. they might outwardly want to diversify the neighborhood but inwardly not want some people to live near them. I take this to be one reason why privileged white people who have plenty of evidence that they've racist beliefs, don't correct their behaviors. They have implicit desires to maintain their status.

This is, of course, not the only motivation privileged white individuals might have to maintain the status quo. I think we can pull from our discussion of Baldwin to uncover another potential sources of resistance. We distinguished guilt from shame, and noted the latter seems to concern the individual, i.e. they're broken. Consider:

(Q5) Recall the difference between guilt and shame. How might guilt and shame lead to privileged white resistance to evidence that they hold racist concepts and beliefs?

Someone who has acquired racist concepts acculturation, like the child Fanon mentions who says "Look, A Negro!" and isn't corrected, likely wouldn't feel guilty for having these concepts, if they were made aware of them. You feel guilty for things you've done. But they may nevertheless feel shame for the conceptual hierarchy they sustain. Recall, Baldwin suggested developing integrity was needed to unearth inconsistent values. We can easily transpose this into the key of the conceptual hierarchy. Integrity might also involve exploring your own concepts in detail, and seeking consistency. This is a tough task to engage in psychologically, intellectually, and physically.

Psychologically, it's easy to think through your conceptual repertoire and just get confused. This is doubly problematic if you've just learned that you hold many problematic concepts about people that are inconsistent with values you hold. It might make you skeptical of your ability to explore your own conceptual hierarchy. It's difficult intellectually, because you'll need to uncover deeply held concepts that you likely don't know you have. It's tough physically because of the pain and discomfort of changing your mind. I suspect this is the largest barrier. Few people want to feel shame. We're all likely aware of this explicitly, but we're also likely on the same page implicitly. When I'm talking to my counselor about shame I feel about my childhood, it hurts. Over time you can will yourself to face it directly. But even then, I've come to see how tricky the mind can be when it wants to avoid discomfort. I'll begin to talk about shame I feel and before I know it I'm talking around the issue, or bringing up something else. I have to catch myself, over and over, because - it seems - my brain just doesn't want to deal with it. Shame hides, and you want it to hide, even when you don't.

These factors make it difficult to develop integrity. These factors motivate resistance. It's my hope that identifying these factors might help us construct ways to address these forms of resistance. If the issue is desire for sustaining the status quo, we might identify how this conflicts with other values. If the issue is shame, we might do something else…but before moving on to signals of resistance, let me ask:

(Q6) What other motivations might privileged white individuals have for resisting evidence they hold inaccurate concepts and so exhibit ignorance we haven't covered that you'd like to discuss? Take a moment and see if you can come up with something. 

We can also look at the ways in which this motivated resistance emerges in practice. As a practical matter, I suspect you've experienced or heard of something like the following:

Evasion - When presented with evidence of racist beliefs or concepts, some simply avoid the topic. My grandfather would prefer not to talk, than to talk about race. They might change the subject, or claim the topic is inappropriate for the present discussion. I think in some cases this is correct. If I'm trying to literally put out a fire, it's probably not the best time to discuss race relations in the U.S. But this is an extreme example. In many cases, like at a relaxed dinner with friends, this seems an appropriate topic. In these contexts, I suspect evasion is reflecting motivated resistance.

I think it's useful to name these tactics so they can be referred to in the wild.

(Q7) Can you think of a time in which an interlocutor evaded engaging in discussion of white privilege, or race, where it seemed the evasion was motivated by resistance of the sort described above.

Consider next:

Different Cause - Insistence that issues stemming from white ignorance are not about race, but about, say, class or economic disparities. In conversation after conversation, people question  whether race is a cause of marginalization.


(Q8) Can you think of a time in which an interlocutor employed what I'm calling the Different Cause strategy to avoid engaging in discussion of white privilege, or race, where it seemed the this seemed motivated by resistance of the sort described above.

It seems unlikely to me that you can explain all the vast marginalization we see across racial groups, without appealing to race as playing a causal role. Imagine Du Bois trying to make sense of his mistreatment without appealing to race. Moreover, even if you could explain current disparities without appealing to race, doing so would overlook the vast history of marginalization that likely informs class and economic privilege. Not looking at race as playing a historical role in present disparities suggests closure of the sort Davis warned us against, as if we're done with race and can claim victory.

Consider too:

Moral Purity - People who exhibit racist beliefs or concepts are viewed as not blameworthy because they simply don't know any better. No morally good person would mistreat others this way. The conclusion of this sort of reasoning is that privileged whites aren't blameworthy and aren't responsible.

 And answer:

(Q9) Can you think of a time in which an interlocutor claimed moral purity rather than engaging in discussion of white privilege, or race, where it seemed the claim was motivated by resistance of the sort described above.

We've gone down a single thread of Mills deep article, but before we end, I'm curious about remedying the situation. We have a few signals we can identify to determine forms resistance might take. We might use this in pursuance of correcting the problem when we see it. But it's a deep problem. One strategy for solving the problem might be identifying the root cause. This seems complicated. Acquired concepts is part of it, for sure. But so are desires and beliefs, judgments about concepts, etc. This suggests we should start early.

What about existing white ignorance? I suggested last session that manipulation might be warranted, and appealed to art and music in particular as a means to instill knowledge into people's conceptual repertoire without them knowing it. Note the parallel here with Mills on acquired concepts. The idea is that people were raised - were manipulated - into having the hierarchy of concepts they have, and so they can be counter-manipulated. Music seems a way to achieve this to some extent. Privileged whites may realize they know more marginalized individuals and their plights, and can empathize with them more, than they previously believed. This would be like having concepts of a chair without yet forming beliefs about chairs. This raises, of course, a moral question, which will be our last for the day:

(Q10) Is it morally justifiable to manipulate the conceptual hierarchy, and thereby influence the web of beliefs and desires of, privileged whites?