Revisiting the Racial Contract and white ignorance. Charles W. Mills in memoriam

I was waiting for a sandwich on Tuesday afternoon and idling on Twitter when I read Falguni Sheth‘s tweet announcing that Distinguished Professor Charles Wade Mills had died.

I expleted loudly in shock and had to apologise to the person working behind the counter! Charles W. Mills’ work has become so foundational to ways of thinking critically about race, and his voice and presence, even to someone like me who did not know him in person, so vivacious that it seemed impossible to conceive.

Mills’ work came alive for me especially through my engagement with Debbie Bargallie’s brilliant work, Unmasking the Racial Contract, a study of the everyday racism faced by Indigenous employees of the Australian Public Service. Mills’ 1997 classic text, The Racial Contract (TRC), forms the theoretical background of her book. Bargallie notes that in Australia, ‘the racial contract began with invasion and colonisation; indeed, it may be thought of as a racial-colonial contact’ (Bargallie 2020, p. 92). She used TRC to ‘place race and racism centre stage to identify the structural privilege of non-Indigenous over Indigenous employees’ and drew on the experiences of the latter to ‘examine the structural, systemic and institutional forms of racism that target Indigenous employees in the APS workplace’ (ibid., p. 94).

One of the things we learned after Mills’ passing is how kind and generous a person he was. For example, this short tribute from the philosopher Liam Bright, exemplifies his generosity as well as his sense of humour. And characteristic of that was the fact that he wrote an endorsement for Debbie Bargallie’s book. Indeed, he avoided the traps that US-American scholars often fall into by forgetting that Black people exist outside of the US, surely because he himself was Jamaican, by often making reference to other Black people, and specifically to Aboriginal people, throughout his work. On Bargallie’s book he wrote,

This courageous and hard-hitting text by Indigenous scholar Debbie Bargallie reveals the ugly truth of systemic racial exclusion behind the liberal facade – a lesson not merely in the workings of the Australian Public Service specifically but for the country more broadly.

Professor Charles Mills

This week in Understanding Race, my plan was to embark on a two-session long exploration of the concepts of white possession and whiteness as property via the works on Cheryl Harris, Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Robert Nichols among others. But I decided that given Mills’ passing we would take a detour via The Racial Contract and the epistemology of white ignorance. Apart from showing respect to the life and work of this scholar, this decision can be justified with two pedagogical reasons that are connected to the theme of of white possession and whiteness as property. First, as Mills insists, it is not only that we need to be attentive to income disparities between white people and Black and people of colour in the United States. Rather, he cites Thomas Shapiro and Melvin Oliver who suggest that,

“wealth is more important that income in determining the likelihood of future racial equalisation, since it has a cumulative effect that is passed down through intergenerational transfer affecting the life chances and opportunities for one’ children.”

Thomas Shapiro and Melvin Oliver (1995) Black Wealth, White Wealth

In other words, contra the unreconstructed Marxist argument that race does not operate as a social ontology in the same way as class because there are white people who are poor and Black people who are rich, Mills says that we need to look at wealth as a whole and to whom it is transferred on a macro level over generations. As a whole, Shapiro and Oliver claim, “whites posses nearly twelve times as much as the median net worth of blacks, or $43,800 versus $3,700.” Their book was written in 1995, so we might think that this has changed. However, an article from 2020 reveals that “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.”

Charles Mills on ‘Materializing Race’

On a global scale, the gap between the world’s richest countries and its poorest, continues to mirror the global coloniality of power. So, far from The Racial Contract ignoring the materiality of race, Mills centres the nuts and bolts of race as a system of power that not only creates inequality, but was intrinsic to the transfer of wealth from the majority of the world to Europe globally, and locally within white dominant states. The racial contract ensured the continuing exploitation of Black, people of colour and migrant labour for the benefits of the capitalist system as well as the maintenance of white dominance expressed not only in terms of political and cultural hegemony but as a system for concentrating wealth in white families.

The Racial Contract‘s centering of the role of ‘racial exploitation to the US economy and the dimensions of the payoff for its white beneficiaries’ (TRC, p. 39) thus goes some way to staving off the criticism of critical race theory that it focuses too much on discrimination and disparity to the detriment of a focus on race as a colonial project and a genocidal one, as Kehaulani Kauanui writes in relation to blood quantum. Nevertheless, I agree with her that CRT’s hyper-focus on whites and the construction of whiteness as resulting in subordination neglects how ‘whiteness constitutes a project of disappearance for Native peoples rather than signifying privilege’ (Kauanui 2008, p. 11). However, as Bargallie skilfully shows in her book, it is possible to combine insights from Mills’ theorisation of white supremacy with a critical Indigenist approach that draws our attention to the way settler colonialism establishes a particular kind of racial state in Australia.

Let me note the second way in which I want to connect the topic of white property and possession to Charles Mills: the attention he pays to epistemology. Mills begins The Racial Contract by stating,

White supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. You will not find this term in introductory, or even advanced, texts in political theory. A standard undergraduate philosophy course will start off with Plato and Aristotle, perhaps say something about Augustine, Aquinas, and Machiavelli, move on to Hobbes, Locke, Mill, and Marx, and then wind up with Rawls and Nozick. It will introduce you to notions of aristocracy, democracy, absolutism, liberalism, representative government, socialism, welfare capitalism, and libertarianism. But though it covers more than two thousand years of Western political thought and runs the ostensible gamut of political systems, there will be no mention of the basic political system that has shaped the world for the past several hundred years. And this omission is not accidental. Rather, it reflects the fact that standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination.

Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, p. 1

Because a white epistemology continues to frame how we study the world within universities and beyond, despite the efforts to diversify the academy and decolonize the curriculum (which remain largely superficial efforts to date), the fact of global white domination over the last 500+ years has not been recognised as a political system. Mills’ claim is that a white epistemology of ignorance leads to the global significance of white dominance simply being taken as given in the mainstream, so normalised as to be unworthy of study. His point of course is not that this is an unconscious oversight, but that white dominance sets up the terms of its own invisibility; in other words a white epistemological framework writes the fact of white supremacy out of the picture all while being the structural reason for the persistence of injustice and unfreedom.

This epistemic problem must be at the centre of our concerns. Exposing the workings of what Zuberi and Bonilla Silva call ‘white logic’, what Barnor Hesse calls a ‘white analytics’ or what Gurminder Bhambra has theorised as ‘methodological whiteness’ is essential for understanding how white dominance and the racial contract work. Paradoxically, although as Mills rightly notes, white supremacy is the system that underpins the order of the world under colonial modernity, it requires what Hesse calls a ‘black analytics’ to expose it. Put more simply, it is not in the interest of the majority of white thinkers to expose the workings of white dominance given that we benefit from current arrangements. We are very good at denying the obvious. Indeed, Mills cites Stanley Cohen’s 2001 book, States of Denial, in which he writes that not only are societies collectively geared towards neglecting the crimes of the past, but we are wilfully in denial of what goes on around us:

‘Whole societies are based on forms of cruelty, discrimination, repression or exclusion which are “known” about but never openly acknowledged

Stanley Cohen (2001) States of Denial, p. 45.

So, to see the working of white possession and whiteness as property, we require a Du Boisian double consciousness. Mills calls this a ‘racial standpoint’ which ‘generates an alternative moral and political perception of social reality’ (TRC, p. 109). This we must do battle against the status quo in which ‘whites will cite whites in a closed circuit of epistemic authority that reproduces white delusions’ (Mills, White Ignorance, p. 34). Of course, Mills reminds us that white people are not a monolith and white ignorance is ‘not indefeasible’ (ibid. p. 23). White people can overcome white ignorance because it is a ‘cognitive tendency… which is not insuperable’ (ibid.). However, it cannot be overcome without significant effort to enhance racial literacy; it cannot come through osmosis. Because race is a political system, as Mills shows, much work is required to expose its workings. And despite the amount of work done by race scholars to which Mills himself contributed so much, there is still a long way to go before this is general knowledge. And of course, what white supremacy means in practice is open to wilful misinterpretation in ways that ironically shore up white epistemologies of ignorance and attendant white power. Furthermore, even in depth and generative engagements with the history, sociology and juridical functions of race by white scholars does not discount the persistence of white supremacy in that, to paraphrase Marx, it is not enough to study the world as it is, but we must change it. Therefore, I am aware of my location as someone who benefits from whiteness who occupies a position of authority on matters of race and strive in whatever way I can to contribute to the undoing of white racial power, insufficient as this undoubtedly is.

In what follows I want to do three things. First, I want to introduce the tenets of Mills’ racial contract. We will use this as the basis for discussion in class. I then discus his notion of white ignorance, fleshing out some of the comments I have made above about the this framing epistemology. Lastly, I want to make this concrete by discussing a timely case study; the broadcasting this week of a new series made by ABC TV in Australia, ‘The School That Tried To End Racism‘ (TSTTTER). I will analyse episode 1 of the show in light of Mills’ notion of white ignorance, making reference to Shirley Anne Tate‘s critique of ‘unconscious bias’ as used by university managements in the UK. At a time when more and more institutions seek to be seen to pay attention to racism, we must be vigilant about the tendency to foreground a social psychological approach to racism that dehistoricises and universalises it as universal and perennial prejudice. This is the approach driving TSTTTER and it is particularly pernicious given that it is an experiment carried out with 10-11 year old children.

The Racial Contract

‘The peculiar contract to which I am referring, though based on the social contract tradition that has been central to Western political theory, is not a contract between everybody (“we the people” ), but between just the people who count, the
people who really are people (“we the white people “). So it is a Racial Contract.

Charles Mills, The Racial Contract, p. 3

In TRC, Mills claims that most modern usages of the social contract is as a normative guide, ‘a conceptual device to elicit our intuitions about justice’ (p. 5) but it is on those grounds that the racial contract exposes the whiteness of most contractarians. Were we to replace the social contract – which is an idealist account of how society should be organised that fails to state the fact that it applies only to whites – with the racial contract, we would have a more descriptive account of how society actually is. TRC explains

‘the actual genesis of the society and the state, the way society is structured, the way government functions and people’s moral psychology.’

TRC, p. 5

The Social Contract (TSC) is a normative account of how society should be organised while TRC is a non-ideal model of how society is in reality. TRC makes three central claims: that white supremacy exists (the existential claim), that it is a political system (the conceptual claim) and that can be ‘theorized as a “contract” between whites, a Racial Contract’ (the methodological claim) (p. 7).

The racial contract ‘signed’ among whites is ‘a set of formal or informal agreements’ to confer a ‘different or inferior moral status’ on those deemed ‘subpersons’; non-consenting Black people and people of colour within ‘white ruled polities’ (p. 11). All white people benefit from TRC although they may not have signed up to it; they may not feel it has been contracted in their name. The aim of the contract is to ensure the exploitation of the bodies, lands and resources of ‘subpersons’ and ‘the denial of socioeconomic opportunities to them’ (ibid.).

TRC changes the terms of the state of nature as theorised by contractarians such as Rousseau and Hobbes as explanatory of the need for a social contract. As Mills explains, no matter whose theory of the state of nature one chooses to prescribe to, all European thinkers considered the original state of nature to apply to ‘all men’ all of whom are transformed by the establishment of TSC. However, under TRC, the role of the state of nature is to designate non-European societies as permanently prepolitical, or rather ‘nonpolitical’. In other words, the state of nature signifies that where ‘primitive’ people still reside while whites have acceded to the civilised society.

At this point, I wish to add a caveat to Mills’ usage of white to refer to the period under discussion – the transition from feudalism in Europe – given there is evidence from other theorists, notably Cedric Robinson, that the situation internal to Europe was rather more complex and that race and racial capitalism develops within Europe where slavery and indenture had been common. As Robinson notes, ‘neither feudal serfdom, nor capitalism had as their result the elimination or curtailment of slavery. At the very most (it is argued by some), their organization served to relocate it’ (Robinson, Black Marxism, p. 11). The point here is that conceptions of whiteness as they came to be elaborated within contexts of European invasion and subsequent colonial domination over the majority of the world were not secured from the get go.

However, Mills’ wider point holds, that it was the existence of non-European societies and the need to subjugate their people for the purposes of European enrichment after 1492 that serves as the basis for the theorisation of the state of nature. In other words, the state of nature is not metaphorical; it is the actual state in which Europeans perceived non-Europeans to be. But, unlike whites who previously too existed in the state of nature, there was no exit for them into a society bound by a social contract grounded, on paper at least, in morals of equality and justice. As this video makes clear, the state of nature idea is a strategy for justifying the exploitation and genocide of Indigenous peoples and lands.

The coloniality of ‘the state of nature’ explained by Philosophy Tube

However, the primacy of universalist idealism within western philosophy has obscured the racial silences of TSC, obscuring race within the contract and, in our times, making it appear as though Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour who do not ‘succeed’ under the terms set by TSC do so as a result of their own failures rather than the structural conditions established by TRC. It is important to recognise that it is not that the fact that racism exists means that TSC is not operating properly or is being deviated from. Rather, Mills notes,

race is in no way an “afterthought,” a “deviation” from ostensibly faceless Western ideals, but rather a central shaping constituent of those ideals.

Mills, TRC, p. 14

The globality of TRC

As Mills writes, far from TRC being theoretical or metaphorical, it is – unlike TSC – ‘actual historical fact’ and it is global. The world since 1492 is ‘shaped by the realities of European domination and the gradual consolidation of global white supremacy’ (p. 20). Mills follows Anthony Pagden‘s division of European empires into two periods: the colonisation of the Americas (1492-1830s), the colonisation of Asia, Africa and the Pacific (1730s-post WW2). The first period involved the invasion of Indigenous lands and the importation of enslaved Africans. This time was foundational in establishing the ‘subpersonhood’ of those who were in the way of full capture of the land (Indigenous peoples) and those whose bodies were to be explored for the enrichment of the colonisers (Africans). The second period involved establishing the supposedly inferior character of colonised peoples. For Mills, race is the thread that joins the two periods. It was the ‘common conceptual denominator that gradually came to signify the respective global statuses of superiority and inferiority, privilege and subordination’ (p. 21). It establishes the global divide between Europeanness and non-Europeanness which race signifies and summates. It also incorporates the dimension of culture – between civilised and savage populations – and that of religion (Christians vs. heathens).

After the Enlightenment, these variable interpretations of racial rule were made more explicit by the introduction of a more doctrinal form: the theorisation of racial superiority as biological, or what we would later designate genetic; ascribed in the body and heritable as such. Various documents brought these intractable distinctions into law and practice, as can be seen in the declaration of the lands known today as Australia as ‘terra nullius’, effectively annulling Indigenous ownership of their lands and making them available to the British crown. Similarly, edicts such as the code noir, declared by Louis XIV in 1685 defined the condition of slavery as did the US Supreme Court’s decision of 1857 that declared that Black people ‘had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order’, hence justifying their enslavement (p. 25).

The ‘code noir’

The upshot of this globally of TRC is to create what Mills calls

a transnational white polity, a virtual community of people linked by their citizenship in Europe at home and abroad […] and constituted in opposition to their Indigenous subjects.

p. 29

This should not be discounted because, while different European populations have had to become white within the settler colonies, as documented by Noel Ignatiev with respect to the Irish, for example, the relative ease with which this occurred is notable and can only be put down to whiteness and Europeanness which, ultimately, meant they could distinguish themselves from the ‘native’ and Black populations.

An epistemology of ignorance

TSC is supposed to depart from the immoral hierarchical injustice of the old feudal order, being committed to ‘moral egalitarianism’ among all men; (clearly white women at this time did not have the same rights as men, which is why Mills models his critique on feminist scholar, Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (p. 16). As Mills notes this language of egalitarianism is the foundation of the age of revolutions and their declarations of independence and of the ‘rights of man’.

Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix, 1830 | © IanDagnall Computing / Alamy

However, because in fact the same rights were not accorded to nonwhites, as the revolutionaries of Haiti soon came to see, a white epistemology accompanies the racial contract, a way of seeing the world that covers over the fact that, counterfactual rhetoric aside, the colonised and the enslaved were precisely ‘designated as born unfree and unequal’ (p. 16). The epistemology associated with contractarianism comes in the form of natural law. This is what to guide us morally and discern right from wrong objectively. However, for Mills, TRC revels that the epistemology is more complex, or we could say duplicitous, because it is based on ‘an agreement to misinterpret the world’ (p. 18), to see the world other to how it actually is by obscuring the workings of race. This is what Mills calls an ‘inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance’ which makes white people ‘unable to understand the world they themselves have made’ (ibid.). This is the worldview that, for Mills, is necessary to enable ‘conquest, colonisation, and enslavement.’ These are not accidental, ‘but prescribed by the racial contract, which requires a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity’ (p.19).

Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint l’Ouverture

Mills develops on the idea of the epistemology of ignorance in his 2007 essay, ‘White Ignorance’. As should be clear, the use of the word ignorance does not imply passivity; we should not pity the ignorant here. White ignorance is structural and wilful. It is what allows TRC to persist. As Mills notes, the luxury of ignorance is not open to Black people and people of colour. They have had to see the full picture, not only of their own reality but of the epistemology of ignorance constructed under white supremacy in order to survive, He cites James Baldwin who said, ‘I have spent most of my life, after all, watching white people and outwitting them, so that I might survive.’ (WI, p. 18). For Mills, white supremacy shields white people against refutation, but for Black people, the route to knowledge ‘is the self-conscious recognition of white ignorance’ (p. 19).

James Baldwin

There are ten components to White Ignorance that Mills outlines.

  1. White ignorance needs to be historicised. It does not pre-exist the invention and enactment of race until the precise historical conditions under colonial modernity as outlined previously.
  2. White ignorance is not the same as general ignorance among people who aren’t white. In other words, it is not about an individual’s lack education or knowledge.
  3. It is necessary to be able to judge when ‘specific kinds of non-knowing’ are white ignorance or not.
  4. The adjudication of a situation as white ignorance or not needs to be expansive enough to include both ignorance motivated by racism and more ‘social-structural causation’ which might be in play even when there is no racist intent. In other words, white domination can continue structurally even when not all the white people are present are racist. So, there is not always bad faith involved and it is this kind of less obvious white ignorance that Mills deems most significant. I would add that this is the kind of ignorance we see at play when solutions to racism that fail to take into account the history or sociology of race are proposed, such as – as we shall see later – paying attention to individual psychological attitudes as the supposed root cause of racism.
  5. White ignorance is not confused to white people. Its structural nature means that it can be adapted by non-whites who ‘buy in’ to its terms. A good personification of this is the British Conservative Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, a Black woman with Nigerian parents, who it was recently revealed said she ‘did not care about colonialism’ .
  6. White racial ignorance can produce an environment in which black racial ignorance also emerges. Mills gives the example of the kinds of ideologies that flourish in reaction to white racism, for example the idea that all white people are ‘blue-eyed devils’, ‘melanin deficient’ and thus ‘physiologically or psychologically flawed’ (p. 22).
  7. White ignorance should include moral ignorance or what Mills calls ‘moral non-knowings’ which cause incorrect judgments about the moral situations. If we correct this it should lead to better understandings of and sensitivity to social oppression (p.22).
  8. There are other forms of privileged, group-used ignorance, such as male ignorance.
  9. White people are not a monolith and so speaking about white ignorance should not imply that all white people are equally ignorantly white. White ignorance can be overturned!
  10. White ignorance is normative as well as sociological. So, this understanding can lead to the attempt to do what is necessary to undo one’s own white ignorance and undermine it structurally.
Kemi Badenoch messages

White ignorance creates a ‘collective amnesia’ (p. 28) which we could argue is the foundation of education systems in white dominant societies, but also of museums, monuments, and national ceremonies (such as ‘Australia Day’, ‘Anzac Day’, etc.). It is through these institutions that a collective forgetting is enacted and memory fashioned upon foundations of structural ignorance. Mills mentions the ways in which the uncountable genocides of Indigenous and colonised people have been written out of official history, while others – most prominently that of the Jews of Europe for reasons of expediency for the Europeans – were elevated to hierarchical status. Recently, work to overturn this collective amnesia has begun by multiple activists and scholars. Examples include The Killing Times project published by The Guardian documenting the massacres of Aboriginal peoples, based on the research by Lyndall Ryan. The latest edition of the Funambulist magazine edited by Zoe Samudzi, looks at colonial genocides and the politics of forgetting

The movement to dismantle colonial monuments recognises the extent to which the edification of these invaders and genocidalists as heroes, treated as sacred cows, has enabled a retelling of history from a perspective of white ignorance. As Mills says, ‘the mystification of the past underwrites a mystification of the present’ (p/ 31).

The failure to properly recount the history of the establishment of racial rule allows a concomitant white innocence, as Gloria Wekker calls it, wherein white people are able to tell untruths about their lives. To return to the theme of wealth at the opening of this blogpost, Mills says that it is common for white people in the US to describe themselves as ‘self-made’. But this obscures the extent to which whiteness, as Cheryl Harris explains, is a property in itself, a possession or resource that can be handed down from generation to generation. In very material terms, this often means that people inherited property or wealth that enables them to ‘get ahead in life’. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of individual achievement and meritocracy allows them to tell themselves a story that obscures this. In terms of what it means to live on stolen land in ‘Australia’, Indigenous people in Victoria are asking those who are here as the descendants of colonisers or as migrants today to ‘pay the rent’, or to pay a proportion to their income to Indigenous people and/or to give land back to Indigenous people where possible.

White ignorance is buttressed by the purported unreliability of Black or Indigenous truth. As Mill shows, the law literally devalued their testimony by, for example, making the testimony of seven Africans equivalent to one white settler in German South-West Africa (p. 32). Black testimony has been disappeared and Indigenous and nonwhite knowledge has been made inferior in the white academy, as we have discussed in class and as I have recounted here.

Whites will cite other whites in a closed circuit of epistemic authority that reproduces white delusions.

White Ignorance, p. 34

The solution is to turn to what Mills calls ‘an illuminating blackness or redness’ which has been obscured from view by white ignorance (p. 35).

The White ignorance of unconscious bias

A potential problem I see coming after Mills’ passing is the fact that, as his ideas are read more and become popularised, they risk being misunderstood. This also happens when a scholar is still alive, leading for example to such travesties as ‘I am an intersectional feminist‘, the idea that intersectionality is an identity rather than a tool of analysis. So too, with the concept of white ignorance, I can see it being made available in several ways to an incomplete reading, and used – contra Mills – to argue ahistorically that ‘white privilege’ is endemic and that there is nothing to be done about it. This can work in both ways (both of which are implied in Mills’ 10 principles): either white people are all doomed to repeat white ignorance repackaged as a behaviour rather than a cognition emanating from structural conditions, and so are to be seen as inherent enemies en masse, or from the white perspective, white ignorance is repackaged as prejudice and construed as a disposition that exists across all groups and so, while it can be acknowledged, it cannot be resisted.

The second possibility is not a counterfactual in that it already dominates in what has become the mainstream approach to tackling racism: unconscious bias training. The extent of the problem has been recognised by antiracists for a long time and in fact unconscious bias is one in a long list of approaches to tackling racism which couches it as prejudice and resultant discrimination and avoids examining the history of race so as to produce a vague notion that people benefit from advantages on the basis of having white skin, but does not explain how this came to be or problematise the mere relationship between race and skin colour. The late A. Sivanandan, founding director of the Institute of Race Relations already said of ‘racism awareness training’ rolled out in institutions in the UK after the Scarman report into the antiracist uprisings of 1981, that it,

failed to make the distinction between personal racialism (i.e. attitude and prejudice) and institutional and state racism. Worse it imposed a kind of collective guilt on all white people (as opposed to power structures in societies) implying that they were almost programmed as of birth to be racists. Trying to bridge the analytical gap between individuals and social forces, RAT practitioners adopted the very lazy idea that racism was simply prejudice + power (power being individualised to white professionals).

Jenny Bourne (2019) Unravelling the concept of unconscious bias, p. 71.
A. Sivanandan speaking out against ‘racism awareness training’

But the very same concept of unconscious bias was on display in the ABC’s series, The School That Tried to End Racism (TSTTTER). The show takes place in a South-West Sydney school where a class of 10-11 year olds are taken through a programme designed to ‘stop racism in its tracks’: an interesting formulation given that race is a technology of power rooted in the 500 year history of colonial modernity. But this fact is not mentioned. Rather, racism is treated as a problem that can be analysed and solved from a social psychological perspective. The source of authority is Fiona White, a professor of social psychology at the University of Sydney whose recent research uses what is called ‘e-contact’ ‘or computer-mediated contact tools, that involves a synchronous 15-minute Internet text chat between in- and outgroup members’ to form ‘a common identity between minority and majority members’ such as ‘Muslims and catholics in Australia’ and reduce bias (source: Professor White’s Sydney University webpage).

In TSTTTER, the participating children are encouraged to talk about their experiences of racism and / or discuss their discomfort when they understand they benefit from white privilege. Racism is explained by Professor White as starting with stereotypes that stop us from seeing the individual’ which is then displayed in both blatant and subtle racial bias, as well as casual racism which, she proposes, leaves people ‘psychoemotionally affected’. The emphasis is on overturning common stereotypes and ‘understanding and embracing other cultures’.

My TikTok explainer on TSTTTER

Unfortunately, although members of the Stolen Generation share their stories and the White Australia Policy gets a brief mention, there is no attempt to explain the roots of race and the role it plays in maintaining rule over still colonised lands. The relationship between race and capital, and the practices of extraction, commodification, enslavement, indenture the exploitation of migrant labour today – the global redistribution of wealth for which race was a a key legitimatory strategy – gets no mention. In fact, white privilege is said not be ‘about finances or money’, the implication being that all negatively racialised people suffer racism understood as an interpersonal bias rather than a structural condition in the same way, and that all white people enact racism in the same way, an idea Mills explicitly refutes. This of course, discounts the way power can coopt the theme of antiracism by claiming to be against racism on its face while maintaining and extending the structural conditons for racial violence and exploitation which mainly affect those who are race/classed as lesser. This point, among many others is made by Joy James in her lecture, ‘The Algorithm of Antiracism’.

The way in which the structural conditions of race are experienced differently by differently classed Black and people of colour is something that is quite often elided by those who equate race as a structure of power with white bias understood as an individual trait.

In TSTTTER, a social psychological, individualising and culturalist approach ends up with equating race as a system of rule with prejudice or simple meanness, that can be overcome with intercultural awareness. These old hat approaches have been used again and again and have come up wanting because they insidiously shield the real origins of race and the reasons for its persistence from view, as Sivanandan showed.

It seems dangerous to me to expose children to these dehistoricised connections of racism that cleanse it from the messy details of racial coloniality – the very setting in which these kids live – and reassert it as a form of bias. White children understand that there is something discomfiting about the advantages that whiteness confers them but they never are taught how whiteness comes into being. The danger in this is that it can result in only two understandings: either children feel burdened by unproductive guilt or they become resentful. Neither is productive from an antiracist position and may increase the burden on Indigenous people and people of colour who may be forced either to cope with the unburdening of this guilt onto them by their white peers, a phenomenon evocatively described by Alison Whittaker, or they become the brunt of the very interpersonal racism that the TSTTTER programme wishes to end. Children can be taught the history of race in quite simple terms, and there is no need to dress it up as universal bias. However, the deeper problem appears to be the distinct lack of racial literacy among those designing programmes such as TSTTTER.

A similar problem to the one raised by TSTTTER is set out by Shirley Anne Tate in an article that explicitly makes use of Charles Mills’ white ignorance framework to counter the detrimental usages of the idea of unconscious bias (UB) – also the framework used by TSTTTER – referring to the ubiquity of UB training by universities as a response to institutional racism. There is nothing unconscious about UB rather it is an epistemology of ignorance, a wilful ignorance that maintains the structures of racialised injustice within institutions of higher education (and beyond). Unfortunately UB training is also being used in Australian education and other institutional settings, often coupled with depoliticised cultural awareness or cultural safety trainings which, as Debbie Bargallie and I have argued, are sometimes mislabeled racial literacy.

In an article by Jenny Bourne, she cites Jonathan Kahn’s critique of UB:

it denies history;
it reduces racism to merely another form of ‘bias’;
it obscures power relations which undergird contemporary race relations;
it promotes a mirage of an easy pain-free way to fight racism;
it is overenthusiastic about a technological fix for what is fundamentally a complex social, political and historical problem;
it opens the door to the biologicalisation of racism. (An Oxford research team is said to have come up with a drug to counter implicit bias!)


Jenny Bourne (2019) Unravelling the concept of unconscious bias, p. 74

Tate explains that new members of UK universities have to pass a training in UB that is often a short online course. They are said to have passed if ‘they learn the language, acceptable behaviours and moral psychology of unconscious bias’ (Tate, 2018; 142). In other words UB training allows one to identify what is considered UB and act to minimise the language associated with it in one’s speech; it does not change the conditions of structural racism. Tate notes the severe underrepresentation of Black people and to a lesser extent people of colour within UK universities. In 2013-14 only 1.48% of UK academics were Black and only 0.5% of professors were Black, a fact that UB training does nothing to alter.

For Tate, far from being unconscious, in the sense of unintentional, UB is ‘a technology of racialised governmentally which keeps the status quo of whiteliness in place within the libidinal economy of racism’ (p. 143). It enables what she calls ‘whiteliness’ to go on structuring the university despite the claim that society is postracial because the acknowledgement of UB is supposed to stand in for addressing systemic racism. Much like TSTTTER, UB training, Tate explains, ‘begins from this basis of inevitability and normality, that prejudice is intrinsically within us’ (p. 145). This means that there is no point in doing more than acknowledging its existence because – being universal and endemic – it cannot ever be completely overcome. This opposes Mills’ insistence on the historicised nature of race; by implication if race began, it can end. Any other view cuts antiracism off at the knees. On the other hand, the simplistic approach taken by TSTTTER, that if prejudice is acknowledged racism can be stopped, misdiagnoses the problem and prescribes the wrong solution: within individuals admitting their white privilege rather than collectivising to oppose the racial state.

As Tate remarks,

Getting people racialised as white to let go of such a false ontology, or to understand that racism is immoral, has been shown not to ring the death-knell for anti-Black and people of colour racism. The coloniality of white power keeps being re-centred because there is no interrogation of whiteliness, of its political, economic, social, imaginative, epistemic and affective boundaries.

Shirley Anne Tate (2018) Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind (un)conscious bias, p. 146

Whiteliness is kept in place by white ignorance which, as we remember from Mills’ 10 principles, includes the ability for racism to be construed as universal. There is no need for universities to address the exclusion of Black professors or the ‘attainment gap’ facing Black students because the idea of UB affords the possibility for non-white people to be racist too. Dehistoricised from what Miri Song (2014) call’s racism’s ‘severity, basis and power’, anyone can be a racist, or put in the terms of UB, anyone can be biased. The elevation of bias over racism literally edits race out of the picture because, of course anyone can have biases, but that is not what racism is. We return to the emphasis place on epistemology by Mills in The Racial Contract. Quite simply, whose account we listen to and who we believe as a result will determine the way race (and other structures of power) is interpreted. When we privilege a white epistemology of ignorance we allow the commonsense to become that racism=bias/prejudice.

What this creates, as Tate explains and which we saw also in TSTTTER, is a culture of confession, whereby white people confess to their biases and are trained to ‘unlearn’ them. Nothing about this makes an institution antiracist; rather it allows for boxes to be ticked while the status quo stays the same. As Tate says, in fact challenging UB would actually entail challenging The Racial Contract, but there is no motivation to do so as it is the system that continues to structure settle colonial societies such as Australia and from which whites (and to some extent other people of migrant origins on still colonised Indigenous lands) benefit.

Tate concludes by reading bias in a different way: as ‘thinking diagonally against the grain’ (p. 152). This thinking diagonally can trigger a decentering of whiteness which refuses to see it as vulnerable – a central trope of race wherein whiteness needs protection – but as ‘supremacist, a site of the coloniality of power and a location which is inimical to everyone’s psychic health, both Black and people of colour and white’ (p. 153). The question for us is what that would look like in practice.


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