By Philosophy Students || Contributing Writer

To anyone who is confused about the climate on campus:

Following the racist Halloween incident, we’ve heard a lot people saying things like “they didn’t know it was bad.” However, this appeal to ignorance left many people unsatisfied.

Let’s be clear; there are different types of ignorance. It is one thing to be unaware that your Halloween costume choice will hurt your fellow students. It is another thing to be aware that this costume is offensive and will hurt others and yet fail to understand why.

Such ignorance extends beyond an isolated Halloween incident. This failure to recognize the issue of racially offensive Halloween costumes is only one example in which some members of our campus community fail to see the problem due to their privileged social standing.

The culprit?

Philosopher Gaile Pohlhaus deems it “willful hermeneutical ignorance.”
You might be thinking, WTF is that???

Willful hermeneutical ignorance is the intentional rejection of the marginalized perspective, which leads to the continual misinterpretation of reality. Here’s how it works.

Pohlhaus distinguishes between “dominantly” and “marginally” situated “knowers.”

Dominantly situated knowers are people who have any one of the social identities privileged in our society (being white, male, cisgender, straight, middle or upper class, able-bodied, neurotypical, etc.) Marginally situated knowers are those whose social positions are relatively less privileged in one or more contexts. For example, in contemporary US society, a white queer woman could be privileged as being white, but also vulnerable for being a woman and queer.

One of the advantages of the dominantly situated knowers is getting to determine what counts as “common” knowledge and which terms we use to express knowledge. Those in a marginalized position, in turn, are forced to engage with the world on those terms.

Another advantage of dominantly situated knowers is the luxury of not needing to attend to the issues that marginalized knowers face daily. Over time, we develop habits of attention, or inattention, based on the unique perspectives our social identities provide us. Men, for instance, don’t grow up conscious of dressing provocatively or needing to walk in groups and protect their drinks. Likewise, white people generally grow up comfortable with law enforcement, without fearing violent force as a potential outcome of their interactions.

This lack of awareness inevitably causes conflict. In times when the dominant narrative has no means of expressing a certain lived experience, marginalized people and their allies often create the necessary terms. This is where terms like “sexual harassment,” “homophobia,” “heteronormativity,” “white privilege,” “date rape,” “mansplaining,” “microaggressions,” and yes, “cultural appropriation,” come from.

The “willful hermeneutical ignorance” comes when people in a dominant position, intentionally or not, reject or distrust these marginal views and terminology. We’d like to apply Pohlhaus’s concept of willful hermeneutical ignorance to the ongoing dialogue regarding racial bias on campus.
Dominantly situated knowers might think that protests and demands are overreactions to the racist acts of a few students.

However, a dominantly situated knower only sees the isolated hateful acts of a handful of students. The marginally situated knower sees more: a pattern of injustice on this campus. This isn’t just about Halloween costumes. It’s about a culture of racism. It’s about the underfunding of cultural organizations, a lack of representation in our classrooms, and a broad pattern of daily interactions that people of color constantly endure.
If you are part of the dominant group, you might not have noticed these things- or other issues, whether they pertain to race, class, gender, or sexuality. This ignorance contributes to injustices and allows it to go unchecked.

In the face of unchecked injustice, marginalized knowers are our assets. Like bloodhounds of social injustice, they clue us into offenses that are invisible to dominant knowers.

Don’t get us wrong.

It is not the responsibility of the marginally situated knowers to “teach” the dominant group. Rather, it is the responsibility of the dominantly situated knowers to go out and seek this intel themselves. Dominantly situated knowers have to trust that marginalized people have experiences that they do not.

Let’s say I stepped on your foot and you said “ow, that hurts!” I wouldn’t say, “I didn’t feel anything, so what’s the big deal??”

Clearly, there are two different standpoints here.

Similarly, let’s say, hypothetically, someone dresses up in a racist halloween costume. The target of racism might say, “that’s hurtful.” A person in the dominantly situated group shouldn’t say, “No, I didn’t feel anything, so what’s the big deal??”

Even if we “can’t understand” it, lacking the relevant experiences and conceptualizations of the marginalized knowers. Even if we don’t like it. Even if it means admitting we were wrong.

This task is extremely difficult for dominantly situated knowers. For them, it is counterintuitive to question their own judgments, especially those that systematically advantage and empower them. Still, it is unacceptable to remain comfortable in a dominant perspective.

So, what does that mean in practice?

Recognize situations in which you are a dominantly situated knower.

Question yourself: whose voices are you not hearing (and we mean truly hearing) in this situation?

Take a genuine interest in the position of those who are marginally situated. Attend to their experiences and understandings. This involves trust and concern for others. Try to understand their perception of the world. Try to see what you are missing. Ask!

If you are a dominantly situated knower, be an ally. Respectfully call out other dominantly situated knowers and work to affirm the perspective of the marginally situated individuals.

Yes, it will involve making some mistakes as you are trying to become more attuned with the world. And yes, you may be called out for making these mistakes and it’s not going to feel great. But carefully attending to these mistakes and trying to correct them will ultimately lead you to see a more objective reality. These mistakes will pale in comparison to the mistake of failing to know what the world really is.

Five female philosophy students

This article was written by an anonymous coalition of philosophy students. Please email with any questions.