30 Sep Tackling White Ignorance in International Law—“How Much Time Do You Have? It’s Not Enough”
1- White Supremacy and the International Legal Order
Writing in 1997, Charles Mills threw a grenade into political theory. With a touch of hyperbole, we might even say he collapsed the contours of the social sciences. Standard undergraduate philosophy courses, he tells us, cover two thousand years of political thought. Mainstream philosophers introduce students to liberalism and libertarianism, capitalism and communitarianism, socialism and welfarism. They teach Aristotle and Aquinas, Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau and Rawls, Kant and Marx. The evident Eurocentrism of the theorists is disturbing but predictable, “as if nonwhites were on a separate planet.”
More troubling than the whiteness of the curriculum are the efforts philosophers splash out to expel race, racialisation, and racism from the discipline. Few textbooks index these terms, let alone deliberate their place in political thought. To the extent they tackle them at all, they are shoehorned into the discussion of a respectable, even universal theory, and always as an infringement thereof (DeFalco and Mégret refer to this as the politeness of race). Textbooks thus represent racism as violating the tenets of liberalism, equality, democracy, and even capitalism. Yet, the beatification of these theories, where they come to inhabit a racial paradise devoid of prejudice, is pure fantasy.
Locke the Liberal was comfortable profiting from the enslavement of people with Black skin. The United States’ constitution had fully matured when their supreme court decided Roosevelt could intern Fred Korematsu to contain the presumptive threat of his Japanese ancestry. France was already a republic and self-proclaimed champion of Les Droits de L’Homme when it extorted compensation from Haiti for the financial losses French slave owners sustained during emancipation. It was in 2015 that Spain granted citizenship to the ancestors of Sephardic Jews exiled during the inquisition while denying the same to Muslims they also routed. This past year, Europe welcomed millions of white refugees, in contrast to the scores of Black refugees they watched drown in the Mediterranean. Racism has always been more spouse than mistress to liberalism, equality, and democracy. Yet, as Mills observed, you wouldn’t know this from a standard course on political philosophy. You wouldn’t know it from a standard course on international law either.
Just as philosophers exclude white supremacy from their syllabi—we should say their cognition—so do scholars of international law vanish it from the discipline. In a standard international law course, racism only merits cursory mention in reference to the International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and as evidence of the normative supremacy of human rights (see common article 2). The substitution of racism with racial discrimination is consistent with liberal race theory, reinforcing portrayals of the individual as both assailant and victim and stripping the phenomenon of its historic, systemic, and epistemic qualities. To make matters worse, liberal race theory also champions liberalism as the solution to the racial hierarchies liberal thinkers such as Locke, Lorimer, Kant, Vattel, and Westlake advocated for.
Mills situated white supremacy at the heart of his theorising. “White supremacy is the unnamed system that has made the modern world what it is today,” he announced. Feminists inspired him. Rather than sneak sexism into the conversation, feminists centred patriarchy as a political order of male domination and researched outwards. Unsurprisingly, various men (and some women) rejected the critique. They were not sexist: they had wives, sisters, and daughters who were women. Gender isn’t always a system of power or a source of oppression, they protested. These moves to male innocence were (are) common, yet did not derail feminists in positioning patriarchy as a semi-autonomous logic of domination that impacts upon other social phenomena including law, labour, culture, theory, and race. Adopting patriarchy as a locus of analysis has enriched academic disciplines not to mention our thinking about our surroundings and our complicity.
Likewise, naming white supremacy as a political system of racial domination counters the tendency to pathologise systemic manifestations of racism as individual moral failures or to disappear the proactive violence of racial injustice under the banner of unconscious bias. Mills went further, amalgamating white supremacy with racism to produce the ontologically provocative construct he named white racism. Feminism led the way again. Unlike sexism, patriarchy leaves no quarter for false equivalency, underscoring both the perpetrators and beneficiaries of a system of male domination. Sexist or not, fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands benefit from the inequalities patriarchy produces. Naming white supremacy involves a similar epistemological shift. It exposes the power structure that produces racialised inequalities to the benefit of people racialised as white (Cheryl Harris describes whiteness as an empty vessel in pursuit of power). This dialectic is absent from most discussions on race and racism, where liberal race theory commands the centre. The exclusion of white supremacy from debates about political theory and international law allows abstract claims about equality and meritocracy to circulate unchallenged. As a result, we elevate a mythical ideal to pseudo-anthropology, framing how we perceive actual society.
For philosophers and publicists racialised as non-white, teaching the courses Mills critiques feels like an exercise in self-flagellation. We deny our lived experiences to accommodate a hidden-in-plain-sight curriculum. When we raise our discomfort, colleagues tell us:
We must be pragmatic and teach our students the foundations of international law. Students need the knowledge and skills to advocate before the ICJ, ICC, and UNDP if we are to promote cooperation among the international community and tackle climate change, aggression, and development. We are not excluding race because it lacks importance but because there are more pressing threats to the wellbeing of all humanity. Without the luxury of time, we must make strategic curricular choices.
This is another familiar defence mechanism, one intended to gloss over the violence and privileges of white supremacy to preserve the underlying frame. It is the intellectual equivalent of playing ostrich or, more to the point, urging others to play ostrich while jackals circle. By contrast, imagine telling a female colleague they can only teach anthropology without referencing patriarchy, lest the contentious politics of gender derail the lesson. Such a move would be distasteful and disingenuous, denying the realities of domination and subordination. It would also mis-educate students about the social phenomena that embody their lives.
The ghettoisation of race is pernicious in academia. Most scholars and students, however, are unaware of this because of Mills’ second conceptual device: white ignorance. To understand the place of white ignorance in international law, we travel to Utrecht.
2- When Inclusion Cultivates Ignorance
To my astonishment, the organising committee of this year’s conference of the European Society of International Law invited me to speak about decolonisation and legal pedagogy. Anyone familiar with my scholarship can appreciate my confusion. ESIL’s outlook on international law differs widely from my own and it is difficult to imagine a scenario where they would endorse my critiques of the regime and its agents.
Moreover, because of the predatory relationship between Europe and the Third World, both past and present, a gathering of Europeans—let alone of European international lawyers—is an uncomfortable setting for someone from the Third World. While some colleagues have the luxury of treating this as an intellectual networking event alone, for those racialised as non-white, the existential is ever-present. We are aware of the violence perpetrated against Third World peoples and legitimised by international law. We are also cognisant of the advocacy of certain members of ESIL to support the violence directed at non-Europeans. While many Europeans may have exorcised their brutal history from memory, we have not. It also felt ironic to travel to the Netherlands to speak about decolonisation. For those unaware, half of the Dutch surveyed believe they should view their colonial history with pride. And, when one of their leading banks ‘discovered’ their success was achieved via profits from the transatlantic slave trade, they instituted a mentoring programme for disenfranchised youth as their contribution to reparations.
I thus worried about tokenism and co-optation when contemplating the invitation. There is also a suffocating degree of responsibility placed on non-white academics when we are solicited to speak on behalf of whichever disenfranchised group we belong to. White scholars, on the other hand, are invited to talk about the law. Ultimately, this year’s theme—inclusion and exclusion in international law—combined with the participation of comrades such as Tendayi Achiume and Mohammad Shahabuddin prompted me to accept.
When entering the lecture theatre for the welcome address, I was struck by the demographics of the room; it was not the General Assembly. There are reasons for the sea of monochrome I waded into. First, European legal academia is a densely white space. A variety of barriers have historically excluded those racialised as non-white from universities (at least its professoriate). And the hangover has been long and brutal. Second, travel to the Netherlands from beyond Europe is contingent on holding the right passport or being granted a Schengen visa, neither of which is straightforward. Regardless, I cannot fault the organising committee for the audience, though I hope it triggers reflection about who the ESIL is not in dialogue with.
What I fault the committee for is the constitution of the panel that delivered the welcome address. While it did not surprise me the rector and dean of Utrecht University were white and male, the whiteness of the other panellists did. Someone must have noticed the bizarre optics of launching a conference on inclusion in international law with an all-white cohort. While the following keynote panel included Achiume, I wondered again why she was the only non-white contributor. Importantly for this essay on white ignorance, she was also the only one to speak about racial justice.
Her keynote panel was more Picasso than Douglas, speakers tossed together because of their status rather than any symmetry between their ideas about inclusion and exclusion. To illustrate, while Achiume spoke forcefully about accounting for race in our deliberations, one of her co-panellists chastised the ICJ for not excluding the representatives of Myanmar from The Gambia v Myanmar for being “a bunch of killers.” I wondered if they made the same argument in 2004 to oppose Israeli participation in the Apartheid Wall advisory opinion or if they were comfortable denying standing to Europeans and Americans for their spirited records of killing. Another panellist cautioned us not to surrender too much universality in our quest for inclusivity since human rights provided the one “true universal frame that Afghan women and children” could rely upon for protection. I presume she meant to safeguard them against Afghan patriarchy rather than NATO bombs. I commend Achiume for her masterclass in diplomatic body language.
Most striking at the conference was a speech delivered by one doyen of ESIL. They pulled no punches, lamenting the vulnerability of the rules-based system, currently under threat because of… Russia. While the lecture swept across swathes of history, geography, and the speaker’s biography, one of the key points they highlighted was the absence of Third World support for the sanctions Europe and the United States imposed on Russia. Why had South American, African, and Asian states not endorsed what the speaker regarded as a presumptively legitimate response to illegal Russian aggression? My ears perked. Because the Third World remembers Iraq and the double-standards of Brits and Americans in launching an illegal war (they later mentioned Chagos Islands as well).
The reductionism was anti-climactic, albeit partially on point: it is difficult to forget Tony Blair pontificating about values of the human spirit while massacring Iraqis. However, the picture is more complex. Some African states hold fond memories of the Soviet Union because of their support for anti-colonial struggles, a contrast to European and American-sponsored counter-revolutions and neo-colonialism. And it is worth mentioning that 28 African states supported the original UNGA resolution, with the African Union condemning the invasion and affirming the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. South American states are grateful for Russian health philanthropy. While Europe rallied against the TRIPS waiver, Russia, China, and Cuba shared their COVID-19 vaccines with those who needed them. Last, Third World states deplore the grave human rights costs of economic sanctions (that special rapporteurs bemoan before the Human Rights Council). Half a million Iraqi children killed by sanctions may have been a price Madeleine Albright was willing to pay, but Third Worlders resent being repeatedly sacrificed at the alter of Pax Americana. Opposition to the sanctions regime is layered, nuanced, and principled; it is not a teenage grudge. Both past and ongoing brutalities are fresh in our minds, as is ESIL’s silence thereto. Thus, when the speaker concluded with an ode to “ESIL’s fearlessness in the face of injustice”, and the audience broke into ear-splitting applause, I hastily scoured travel sites for an earlier return flight.
ESIL’s nod to inclusion—and I do not question the sincerity of the organising committee—missed the mark on race. Why? Because its members remain ensnared by the white ignorance that envelops the soliloquy of international law.
3- Epistemic Violence: Addressing The White Elephant in the Room
In a forthcoming chapter on epistemic violence in international law (Crenshaw et al., 2023), I draw on Mills’ concept of white ignorance to explore the exclusion of debate about racial domination, racialised inequalities, and systemic racism from our discipline.
As a concept, white ignorance explains the embedding of racial domination in modern thought alongside the denial of the centrality of racism in our social milieus. In contrast to conventional ignorance, understood as a lack of knowledge, white ignorance exposes both false belief and racial privilege. It is not only about ‘not knowing’ of racial domination’s prominence but of actively maintaining a ‘way of knowing’ that refuses to acknowledge its prevalence. The rationale of aggressively cultivated ignorance is unmistakable. Acknowledging modernity’s afterlives of racism would destabilise pillars upon which our epistemology sits: liberalism, meritocracy, and equality. White ignorance is a way of fighting back, of resisting enlightenment about racial injustice, of “refus[ing] to go quietly.”
I am not the first to link white ignorance to international law. Achiume examined it in a piece on the racialisation of borders and Christopher Gevers tied it to the development of the discipline. In their articles, as in mine, we underscore the epistemic blind spots of the international legal academy. To illustrate, James Gathii exposed the American Journal of International Law’s rabid exclusion of debates about race and racism throughout its 100-year history. Smith and I argued the same, showcasing the aversion of specialist journals like the Journal of International Economic Law to the topic. The white ignorance that confronts us within the discipline is the same that prevailed in Utrecht.
Once we engage with the founders of international law’s explicit denial of the humanity of non-Europeans, with the regime’s history of racialised brutality, how can we still treat it—and teach it—as international let alone progressive? Do we believe the choices they made weren’t cultural, political, or racist? International lawyers are entrapped within an epistemology of ignorance where their efforts at knowledge production “might be [equally] understood as efforts not to know.” Again, the standard response when confronted by Pierre Schlag’s “career-arresting phenomena” is pragmatic: positivism plus critique, as Antony Anghie explained. However, white ignorance’s influence is also normative and epistemic. A commitment to not knowing produces cognitive dysfunction in international law and beyond. For non-Europeans, this leads to misrepresentation and alienation. For Europeans, the outcome is much worse: they “will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.” Du Bois was more scathing than Mills: “This is not Europe gone mad; this is not aberration nor insanity; this is Europe; this seemingly Terrible is the real soul of white culture.” Cue elections in Sweden, Germany, Austria, the UK, and Italy.
Misreadings were obvious during the keynote panel at the ESIL conference. While Achiume harangued us for the exclusion, even segregation of race from debates about international law, her co-panellists searched for opportunities to nod while boomeranging back to the regime’s supposed magnanimity. I recall one panellist admitting having not expected ‘this’ conversation about racial exclusion. Upon reflection, they suspected the committee invited them because their bilingualism—English and French—made the panel more inclusive. Some audience members giggled until they realised the speaker had not. Personally, I found the reference to Afghan women and children especially vexing, its dubious racial and gender overtones escaping the speaker’s attention. Their viewpoint was consistent with white ignorance: convey empathy for the plight of the native, set international law apart from the predations that produce their victimisation, and double-down on international law’s inherent benevolence and putative universality as the solution to their current plight. Blair echoed through my mind once more and, I hope, the lecture theatre, too: “Ours are not Western values. They are the universal values of the human spirit.” The combination of ignorance, arrogance, and tautology produced a perfect epistemic storm.
Most peculiar about some speakers in the keynote panels was their illiteracy in scholarship about racial injustice, racism, or even just race. Of course, the discipline is at fault. As per the data above, international law journals do not publish articles about race and textbooks disregard it altogether. However, without pointing fingers, the scholars also bear responsibility. As Mills asserted, scholars make up our disciplines and their commitment to not knowing ensures international law remains deficient.
Just as male scholars relegate feminism to peripheral spaces while claiming expert knowledge based on their experiences as men, so too are white scholars content with censoring race and censuring debates about race. They do so when the critique proves overly exposing of their racial privilege or incongruent with their outlook.
In keeping with Mills’ muscular optimism, I conclude this essay by making minor suggestions to translate this critique into strategies that can trouble the white supremacist elephant in the room. I address these comments to colleagues racialised as white and non-white for white ignorance is not the prerogative of white people alone. “When we use the term white supremacy, it doesn’t just evoke white people”, bell hooks reminded us. “It evokes a political world that we all can frame ourselves in relationship to.”
First, at Opinio Juris, we encounter instances of white ignorance frequently (and are surely guilty of it ourselves). A pattern is obvious in many of the overtures we receive to host symposia about sanctions, the use of force, the ECCC, and many more. Colleagues think it acceptable to coordinate an all-white cast to comment on the ECCC, to the exclusion of Cambodian scholars and jurists. They are comfortable writing about the use of force only from the perspective of states that bomb others, regardless of the defective depiction of both law and world this produces.
These manifestations of white ignorance are indicative of the pernicious nature of white supremacy, allocating people to fixed categories: those who intervene as experts are distinguished from those who are intervened upon as victims or data. This pattern prevailed to such a degree, we amended the language on our submissions page to underscore the necessity of racial and geographic representation. Accounting for demographics when hosting symposia, coordinating collections, or launching research projects is a minimum first step (even ESIL recognises this). Of course, it is also an easy step. Power relations produce patterns of epistemological hegemony and nods to inclusion do not go far in disrupting epistemic violence, hence the following two suggestions.
When developing future research agendas about international law, colleagues should ask where race fits into the picture. Extricating ourselves from a political system of racial domination, one that yields flawed cognition and a misunderstanding of the world, requires we actively seek ways to undermine it in the broader epistemic sphere. Naming and problematising it are vital steps in challenging it. And this suggestion applies principally to those not writing about race who would benefit from accounting for the epistemic blind spots in their projects.
Third, just as race is part of our day-to-day lives, it should also feature in our day-to-day pedagogy. Since courses on international law often run a full year, the time constraint argument is a red herring. If there is time for the ICC, a minor player in the discipline, there is surely time for domination, a building block of the regime. Moreover, it is immaterial whether the intervention involves integrating race as a lens of analysis throughout the course or folding a lecture on race into the schedule. Anything would be better than the famine we suffer today. To teach about race in international law requires learning about the race debate and, going by what I witnessed in Utrecht, that would be a transcendental first act.
White supremacy was never a universal way of knowing. It is a political system of racial domination designed to subordinate those racialised as non-white and to blind those racialised as white to the racial and epistemic violence they benefit from. International law is hegemonic and elicits consent to its racist logic from across the spectrum: positivist and critical, practicing and academic. I admit there are small margins of change in legal academia and in learned societies. Still, teaching our students by teaching ourselves to withdraw consent to white supremacy is the first step towards a future where we swap white ignorance for Black knowledge.
This essay draws upon themes in a forthcoming chapter in our co-edited collection: Mohsen al Attar, Ata Hindi, Claire Smith, and Binxin Zhang (eds), Emancipating International Law – Confronting the Violence of Racialised Boundaries (OUP, 2024).