On Willful Ignorance

More and more, I’m seeing people who object to the idea that perhaps racism is still a problem America is actively dealing with. I’ll illustrate this with a case in point: up in Bangor a few months ago, five Black students at the high school came forward to attest to the fact that they had experienced racists attacks during their time at school. Specific instances, like being called the n-word in the middle of basketball games, or having other students defend white supremacy and slavery in the middle of class. (Mind you, folks: this is in Maine. You don’t get more north than this without a whole lot of Canada.)

It was upsetting to hear of those experiences, and disappointing to think it’s happening here in Maine, but not really surprising or unexpected. (We just had a BLM protest canceled in Portland due to death threats against the organizers, after all.) There have been many other instances of racism I’ve seen reported in the media, from slurs to outright attacks. But I hoped that with all the attention and newfound support for ending racism, this trend would diminish in Maine.

Cue today, where a student and his parents got upset that a teacher in the high school was addressing privilege and bias head on. The student filmed some of the teacher’s lesson:

In the shared video clip, the teacher talked to students about how race and gender shape their identities and their treatment in society. As a white woman, the teacher explained, she does not face racial discrimination but has faced sexism.

“The fact that my race is white is part of my privileged identity,” she said. “Race is not something that gets in the way of me getting a job or puts me in danger, whereas my gender being female is something I have to think about and might be one of my more targeted identities.”

They then took that clip and shared it online in pro-Trump Facebook groups, and suddenly you had people clamoring for that teacher to be fired.

I’m baffled that people would object to this line of reasoning in the first place, though (again) I suppose I shouldn’t be. There have been times in the past that I have written about seeing prejudice or sexism at work first hand, only to have people show up in the comments section claiming that they’ve never experienced anything like that, and so they doubt that it could be true. (In my case, it was talking about sexism among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’d seen it. I’d talked to plenty of people who had experienced it. Yet there were multiple women who came forward after I wrote the post to say that they had never seen any sexism in the church, and to call my statements into question because of that.)

There just seems to be a lack of imagination for some people. An apparent inability to be able to think for a moment that their small slice of life experience might not be 100% applicable to the experiences everyone else is going through. In many ways, I try to think of it like when I learn a new word. I could have sworn I’d never heard that word before I learned the definition, but as soon as I know the definition, I start hearing the word in conversations all over the place. It’s not some big conspiracy. I just leveled up my vocabulary, and so I was suddenly capable of understanding more than I was before.

Though it’s not just that. I think the very idea that racism and sexism (or other isms) are present in our society is threatening to some people. Because we like to think of ourselves as good people. If our society still has flaws, that might lead to the conclusion that we have flaws and that we are not as good of people as we would like to think. Even worse, it might mean we need to change what we’re doing, and change is hard.

I don’t hold ignorance against people. I don’t think it’s fair. If someone truly doesn’t know about something, then it’s unjust to judge them for that hole in their knowledge. However, what I’m seeing more and more is willful ignorance. When a person decides to ignore facts or other people’s experiences, or dismiss them as invalid because they contrast with their own experiences, then they stop simply being ignorant and move into more dangerous territory. Once you’ve embraced willful ignorance as a way to deal with problems, it becomes easier to turn to it time and time again to solve other difficulties. Worse yet, you begin to doubt any evidence that goes against what you’re already inclined to believe, until you get to the point that anything that contradicts your worldview can be dismissed without even looking twice at it. At that point, I’m not sure you can be defined as willfully ignorant anymore, because you’ve stopped even looking at anything that might put your ignorance in danger. Let’s call this “stubborn ignorance.”

So what do we do about the stubborn ignorant? Or worse yet, those people who have learned the trappings of this conflict and try to use those trappings to justify their continued ignorance (or at least their continued actions)? For example, once someone knows the term “gaslighting,” they can use it to justify just about anything. If I have never seen (or at least acknowledged) racism at work in my country, I can accuse anyone who says it’s present of gaslighting. “My country isn’t racist. You’re trying to get me to believe something that doesn’t exist. Stop gaslighting me!” And then the argument moves away from anything remotely threatening to the core of a person’s actions or beliefs, centering instead on just what “gaslighting” means and who is or isn’t doing it.

I’m not sure what else to add to this. The points are probably lost on those who might benefit from them the most. But of course, I believe Americans live in two seemingly contrasting realities at this point. It’s like a sports rivalry, where anything the other team does or says is automatically wrong, except played out in real life, where actual lives are at stake. I can see there’s a problem. Others can see there’s a problem. But the people we need to actually see a problem refuse to acknowledge such a problem exists. As if we needed one more thing to be depressed about . . .

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