In Mills’s view, white supremacy is a system of power and domination, one founded on racial oppression and which provides material benefits to people socially defined as “white.” More broadly, critical race theorists such as Mills emphasize the role of European colonialism, genocide, and chattel slavery in producing intertwined ideologies of white superiority and scientific racism in order to retroactively justify the (continued) exploitation of people socially defined as “nonwhite.” And here’s the kicker: Mills has convincingly argued that the maintenance of white supremacy involves and requires “cognitive dysfunctions” and warped representations of the social world that conveniently serve the interests of the majority population. These distortions and cognitive errors produce “the ironic outcome that whites [are] in general … unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
This brings us back to Mills’s rather esoteric phrase: the epistemology of ignorance. The word “epistemology” refers to the study of knowledge and its formation, so an epistemology of ignorance would involve creating “knowledge” based on … a profound lack of knowledge or stupidity. Using fancy academic language, Mills is basically saying that whites’ ideas “about race” are fundamentally based on misrepresentations and distortions of social reality, but their “not knowing,” their ignorance, gets routinely repackaged as credible, authoritative “knowledge,” even as “science.” But racial ignorance is not restricted to white folks, unfortunately. My sociological interpretation of Mills’s argument is that racist societies socialize all of us to be racial idiots, insofar as we are exposed to forms of racial ignorance. Moreover, this widespread ignorance sustains the racial power structure, and the racial order, in turn, helps maintain the economic power of capitalist elites. The powerful always thrive on the miseducation of groups they seek to exploit and control. As long as everyday citizens are fed a daily mental diet of white supremacist ideology, historical ignorance, and disinformation, the overall power structure remains difficult to detect—and oppose. Thus, becoming less stupid about race involves discovering how we’ve all been socialized in ways that obscure the realities of racial domination for the benefit of white male property owners.