On ignorance of racism and social epistemology

Karen Frost-Arnold
Associate Professor of Philosophy

White supremacy is maintained, in part, by denial of its existence, ignorance of how it operates and erasure of its harms. The U.S. is a white supremacist state. This is a country of profound and ongoing racial injustice. It is also a country with widespread ignorance of the extent of the injustice and lack of understanding of its causes. This ignorance is particularly prevalent in the white population. In recent years, philosophers have studied this ignorance of racism, and we have learned a lot about what it is, what causes it, and what we can do about it.

Philosopher Charles Mills has shown that ignorance of racism manifests itself in gaps in knowledge (e.g., never having heard of the 1921 Tulsa Black Wall Street Massacre and other racist attacks) and false beliefs (e.g., the belief that racism is simply a problem of the past). Many white Americans do not know the extent of racism in this country. This ignorance is actively produced by educational and media institutions, but it is also maintained by denial. Philosopher José Medina has shown that people often resist knowing about the extent of racism. We avoid learning about it — we scroll past it or change the channel. We fall into apathy and fatalism about racism. We feel anxious and defensive when confronted with evidence of racism. All these mechanisms support what Medina calls racial insensitivity and racial numbness. Not only are people numb to particular injustices, but they are “numbed to their own numbness.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has been incredibly powerful at breaking through this numbness, and social media has been one useful tool in their work. It becomes much harder to avoid evidence of police brutality when our social media feed is full of images of it, expressions of anger and pain about it and videos of protestors bravely standing in front of violent police. In the past few months, Americans have peacefully taken to the streets to resist white supremacy and they have been violently attacked, beaten, gassed, shot with projectiles, thrown to the ground, dragged through the streets... We have all witnessed it, and social media played a large role in that. We feel the pain of this violence viscerally, and that can powerfully break through racial numbness. So social media can help. But it can also be used as a tool of backlash and disinformation. There are many who stand to profit politically and economically from maintaining white supremacy, and they are working hard to use social media (and traditional media) to spread lies about the protestors and to turn anger away from the murder of innocent Black Americans towards angry narratives of destruction of property and disorderly agitators. So where do we go in this moment?

We are in the midst of multiple crises. These crises break us open in painful ways, but also create opportunities for change. It’s harder to be apathetic in the midst of a crisis. There is so much pain and also beauty to witness. The pain of the loss of so many lives to COVID-19, so many of those lives being people of color and lowincome workers. The pain of seeing people beaten in the streets. But there is also the beauty of people staying home to protect others from sickness, the beauty of healthcare workers caring for the sick and the beauty of people standing together for justice. We can use social media to share these stories to fuel our passion for change, but it is important to remember that there will be no videos of brave protestors to share if we don’t show up, if we don’t organize. Social media can bring us together in groups to imagine what change we want to see, to share resources for organizing and to declare moments in which we will join online and offline to create a more just world.