On falling: white ignorance, anthropology and systemic racism

colston falling

Around the world, but predominantly in the United States, we have seen stirring images of fossilised symbols of white supremacy being torn down, removed, defaced and burnt. Christopher Columbus, Albert Pike, Robert E. Lee, King Leopold II, are just a few examples of statues now falling like dominoes, the force of one prompting the fall of the next. Here in the UK, Edward Colston was toppled, Robert Milligan removed, and Cecil Rhodes is set to fall. That statues are falling is a consequence of this recent global reckoning with white supremacy, coloniality and the racialized violence that sustains it.

Many of these statues have been contested since their erection, and that they are finally coming down speaks both to the potency of this moment, and to the endurance of their sculptors, their hammer and chisel – white supremacy and coloniality. Incidentally, coloniality continues to act as the plinth of whiteness, providing a durable foundation for the continuation of systemic racism. What does it mean for a statue to fall, and what else still needs to fall in order to move toward an anti-racist anthropology, society and university?

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes presiding above Oxford High Street is embodied white ignorance cast in stone hiding behind a seal of cultural heritage. White ignorance, broadly speaking is an idea of ignorance where ‘[…] race – white racism and/or white racial domination and their ramifications – plays a crucial causal role’ (Mills 2007: 20). Often it is an active epistemic practice, meaning it does not result from merely a lack of knowing but a substantive effort to not know, to misunderstand, misrepresent, and deceive. It is an embedded moral and cognitive phenomenon that was essential to carry out the horrors of conquest and colonisation and it continues to uphold the pillars of white supremacy.

Here in the UK, we are finding ourselves in a situation where white ignorance is challenged on a public platform more forcefully than many of us have ever seen before. At the same time, white ignorance is retaliating, continuing to manifest itself in a myriad of ways. It is no coincidence that last week the far right attacked peaceful demonstrators in support of asylum seekers in Glasgow; that Boris Johnson has appointed Munira Mirza to head the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities when she has publicly and repeatedly declared that she does not believe in institutional racism; that the far right and white supremacists “defended” a statue of Churchill, while proudly standing aside it performing the Nazi salute; and that another grand spectacle of white ignorance manifested itself, as other demonstrators engaged in a shouting match about whether it is the case that “all lives matter” or “white lives matter”. Evidently, much more needs to fall for white ignorance to fracture and its foundation to fragment.

Cecil Rhodes statue Oxford
Photograph: Jonathon/Flickr

fall (verb) – to come down onto the ground

Anthropology for one, needs ‘to come down onto the ground’, if it wants to dismantle white ignorance and contribute to decolonial and anti-racist struggle. British anthropology especially, has an ego issue and is blinding itself, inhibiting an honest and thorough interrogation of racism, anti-blackness and white supremacy within the discipline. Anthropology is firmly rooted in a continuation of the discipline’s colonial origins. Yet it bolsters its ego by showcasing a reflexivity that often times renders itself performative, and sustains a steadfast presumption of criticality, resulting in and driving the white space that anthropology still remains.

Many anthropologists’ perception on matters related to racism and racialisation is informed by a pervasive moral relativism. Recently, I heard an anthropologist weigh in on the statue debate, declaring his vehement opposition to the removal of statues by appealing to an anthropologist’s training and duty to respect all sides. But that is the thing. If you respect the side of a racist you do not respect the side of anti-racism, and you surely do not respect anybody that suffers the brunt of racism.

We do not need to stand on the plinth of grand figures or stand their guard to bolster our own ego. As a matter of fact, we should not. We need to contextualize but not pedestalize. If anthropology does not ground itself it will fail to see its perpetuation of racism veiled in a guise of a balanced, reflective, and nuanced approach. Still, it needs to go further than uncovering its own white ignorance. Anthropologists must take concrete steps to dismantle the discipline’s (perpetuation of) whiteness – think for e.g. hiring and citation practices, curricula, refusals…  Now is the time to ask what and for whom anthropology is for, and proceed to re-sculpt from a humbled foundation, otherwise anthropology too needs to fall.

fall (verb) – to become lower in size, amount, or strength

At the surface level, however, it seems that white ignorance is in fact ‘becoming lower in size, amount, or strength’. Social media is flooded with self-declarations of white privilege, of photographs and selfies at BLM protests, and of radical anti-racist ideas. Companies and universities are declaring and issuing statements on their commitments to anti-racism. Anti-racist books are topping UK and US book charts and politicians are kneeling in solidarity. Racist branding is questioned and removed (for example, the black farmer on Uncle Ben’s packaging) and some banks are looking into their links to slavery and contemplating “reparations”. Although these developments might seem positive, they also run the risk of removing the potency of radical anti-racist liberatory ideas and actions, by becoming an accessory one now ought to carry, to be able to walk on the liberal capitalist runway.

Photograph: Kipp Teague/Flickr

Tea companies like Yorkshire Tea and PG Tips, for example, parade their woke antiracism on Twitter, prompting the hashtag #solidaritea. If their wealth, however, is built on colonial exploitation and slavery, and they continue this legacy by having an ongoing track record of oppressive and exploitative practices, then this is the opposite of solidarity. It is a cunning way to wield your hammer and chisel to co-opt the decolonial radical potential of a movement, in order to adorn your façade and thus solidify the plinth of coloniality.  

Equally, however, we cannot downtalk the importance of this moment, for it is momentous in every sense of the word. Otherwise we would be erasing the history and importance of often decades and century long battles and activisms calling for the removal of these monuments. It, too, would negate and silence the very real pain and violence that these statues enact. It is thus a fine balance of reckoning. But if we really are committed to this moment of making white ignorance and supremacy fall then we need to contextualise, to look beyond the easily and readily available, the digestible – we need to confront the structural embedded racism and anti-blackness that very actively remains in the imperial debris that is Great Britain.

We need to ask ourselves why it is that Black people are four times more likely to die of Covid-19? Why more than 90% of doctors who lost their lives during the pandemic were from BAME backgrounds? Why Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Sheku Bayoh and many others died at the hands of police brutality and were never granted the justice they deserve? Why the Home Office continues to perpetuate a hostile environment by illegally deporting racialised asylum seekers and British citizens, and obliging educators to police their students in the Islamophobic agenda that is Prevent? Why justice and compensation still needs to be served to the Windrush generation and all those wrongfully deported? Why Grenfell could ever happen and why it too has not seen justice…? The list goes on and on. There is a tentative shift in consciousness in matters related to racism, but if injustice will not fall then neither will white ignorance or racism.

fall (verb) – to be beaten or defeated

If we are ever to get there, for coloniality and white supremacy ‘to be beaten or defeated’, many more things need to fall. That is the thing, even when Rhodes falls, Oxford will be neither decolonial nor antiracist. There is an entire political economy of whiteness which fuels its ignorance and supremacy. Rhodes was placed on that plinth because he donated money to Oriel College to whitewash his image. Colston donated to Bristol in a philanthropy propelled by plunder, and Milligan helped build the West India Docks which for a period of time had a monopoly on imports into London of all West Indian produce, such as Empire’s blood-stained staples of sugar, rum and coffee. All of these men earned their money and wealth by the exploitation, oppression and brutalization of racialized peoples.

Furthermore, why Rhodes did not fall in 2016 was because donors threated to remove funding. There is therefore, a colonial continuity of the political economy of white ignorance. Oxford continues to receive funding and donations from, and invests in companies and organisations that are complicit in the perpetuation of global racial capitalism and coloniality’s perpetual war (see for e.g. the recent Schwarzman donation, BP donations to colleges and their scholarships, arms deal fixer Wafic Saïd’s donation, and then there is plenty of MoD funding and military contractors sponsoring research at Oxford including BAE Systems, the Airbus Group, Honeywell International). It is by no means the only university nor the only neoliberal entity that is complicit in this global perpetuation of racialised violence and inequality. Equally, racial capitalism and the political economy of whiteness are not the only thing that needs to fall in order for us to arrive at a decolonial and antiracist university and society, but their toppling can provide space to begin the sculpting of a new foundation.

Reference: Mills, C.W., (2007). ‘White Ignorance’, in Sullivan, S., & Tuana, N. (2007). Race and epistemologies of ignorance. SUNY Press.

Victoria Klinkert is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at SOAS.

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