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"A Particularly Wonderful Human Being": Linda Martín alcoff on Charles W. Mills

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").

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Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, and a long-time friend and colleague of Charles W. Mills. In this interview with Darren Chetty and Adam Ferner, she discusses Mills’ life and work and their shared history. The interview has been edited for concision.

Darren Chetty (DC): So launching straight in, when did you first meet Professor Mills, and had you encountered his work before you met him in person?

Linda Martín Alcoff (LMA): I first met him in the early ‘90s at the conference for the American Philosophical Association, Central Division. There was a panel on race and racism, which was rare in those days, and only three or four people in the audience in a pretty large room. Charles was the moderator and he was very funny about the paucity of the audience. I was in the audience with a mutual friend – Michael Stocker – so afterwards I asked Michael to introduce us. I also met Lewis Gordon that day – he was also in the audience – and so we all went to lunch together. In those days, people working on the philosophy of race could all sit at one table. There were so few of us that we naturally gravitated toward one together. What also connected Charles, Lewis, and I was that we were all from outside of the United States. Lewis and Charles are both from Jamaica – Charles had grown up in Jamaica and gone to university there, and Lewis had left when he was a child. I’m from Panama, which I think of as part of the Caribbean because of the migrant populations that came to build the canal. So we had similar backgrounds and a similar experience of finding ourselves in this strange place, North America. Charles and I both had an activist background too. We were both involved in Marxist organisations, the “organised Left” as we sometimes call it. So we were coming to philosophy and to questions about race and racism from that background. And we shared a broad political agenda. Immediately after that meeting, Charles and I began to email each other. We would see each other at events and attend each others’ talks. We developed a very close friendship.

Adam Ferner (AF): I’d be really interested to know how optimistic he felt, and how optimistic he made you feel, about the discipline.

LMA: Charles was optimistic that, with some effort, eventually the attention to issues of race and racism would increase within philosophy, but he was also realistic about the challenges we faced. In those early days we both thought that thirty years later things would be better than they are today. In the 1990s there began to be an increasing number of philosophy conferences focused on race and racism, and the discussion was beginning to expand beyond feminist philosophy circles. But at the same time Charles and I were both trying to get a toehold in the profession by securing our tenure. He had had some rather brutal experiences already. For instance, when he was hired at the University of Illinois he discovered that one of his senior colleagues had written a public article under a pseudonym calling into question his hire, as “affirmative action” and illegitimate. Fortunately, Charles had enough intellectual confidence to withstand that sort of thing. He actually fought back by contacting the publication that had run the article questioning his abilities and convincing them to let him run a rejoinder. (You can read about this incident in one of his autobiographical essays, “Red Shift: Politically Embodies/Embodied Politics.”)

I think Charles believed that through our collective efforts, as well as changes in our societies, things would slowly open up in the academy. The formerly colonized peoples of the world were really just at the beginning stage of decolonizing the space of intellectual thought. But he was also realistic about the profession, and the sociological aspects of the profession that blocked innovation and challenge. For example, graduate students have to write on topics that other people are already working on, resulting in a kind of conservatism about what can be discussed, and which texts should be read, and what kinds of arguments should be made.

AF: Which of his ideas has had the most impact on you, and which do you think has had the greatest impact on the discipline?

LMA: There is so much work and so many contributions to choose from, but if I had to name one it would be the epistemology of ignorance. It’s an important concept in epistemology, obviously, but Charles used it to launch his critique of political philosophy, and of the canon of political philosophy and its omissions. It’s a bridge concept in that way between the sub-fields of philosophy.

Looking at the canon of liberal political thought in Europe in the Modern period, and looking at political thought from Rawls onwards, there is a huge omission of what should have been obvious topics. Charles argues that this omission makes it impossible to work inside the modern liberal framework and then simply “add” the topics of racism and race. Within the framework of contract theory, an account of the “just society” involves reciprocity amongst citizens who are all obligated to obey the rules because they have been participatory in their production. But this is a very restricted set of participants and they have pushed questions of reparations and redress of structural injustice to the periphery. For Charles, we need to situate questions of knowledge in their social context – in the real world. And, rather than formulating problems of ignorance as deviations from the norm, we should see ignorance as the norm.

Rather than formulating problems of ignorance as deviations from the norm, we should see ignorance as the norm.

He also argued that the epistemology of ignorance leads to a corrective approach to epistemic norms, and thus a non-ideal methodology. This means that we should look at actual cases of ignorance rather than hypothetical ones from an invented thought-experiment, and think about the concepts we need to name the real-world problem. I should say, as well, that it’s a mistake to conflate the epistemology of ignorance with white ignorance. White ignorance is this hugely pervasive problem that he spent a lot of time on, but it’s only a part of his concept of the epistemology of ignorance (albeit the part that provides him with his main examples!). In his presidential address to the Central American Philosophical Association in 2018, he calls Rawls’ theory of justice a “white-topia” – which is funny and provocative – but he works through how to justify that understanding, developing this concept of group-related forms of identity that play a causal role in the manufacture and dissemination of ignorance. He talks about it as an epistemology involving perception, conception, memory, and testimony, and the interaction between all four. He argues that this systemic ignorance is a widespread phenomenon that is critical to explain why we haven’t made more progress on racial fairness and racial justice in the whole modern period, or even in the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Since the civil rights movement – when serious legislation was passed and major successes were made – the rates of racial incarceration have actually gone up, police violence and police killings continue, poverty has gotten worse (although now there’s a Black middle class), and gentrification and housing conditions are horrible. So we need to look critically at the ways in which justice was defined in that first legislation – with modern liberal concepts such as neutrality and universalism. If the whole domain of political philosophy set aside questions of structural racism, and imagined contractual conditions of equality and reciprocity, how can it address the legacies of colonialism? We need to think more deeply, and I think that’s what Charles does. By returning to the very founding of political philosophy, his work gives us a way to think more deeply about the very basic approaches we’re taking, the very basic concepts we’re using, that help to keep populations in a state of ignorance about the scope of our social problems. I hope this will have an increasing influence and increasing attention.

DC: I’m wondering how differently philosophy might be taught – at an undergraduate level, for example – if we take into account Charles’ work.

LMA: Philosophy is always taught in reference to a canon, and it is the maintenance of the existing canon that’s really at stake here. This is the reason for the resistance to Charles’ work. As somebody said at one of the memorials, Charles “decapitated” Kant and Rawls! In some ways that’s true – though at the same time Charles actually sees a lot of utility in Kant and Rawls (to the dismay of some of his radical readers). At the end of his life, he was trying to develop a Black radical liberalism (sometimes he called it a Black radical Kantianism). I think his desire to take what is good from Rawls and Kant is genuine: I don’t think it was an opportunistic or a merely strategic move to try to find some rapprochement between the liberal and radical traditions.

But he knew that you cannot just take the European tradition as the exclusive expression of political philosophy. In the paper “The Whiteness of Political Philosophy” (which is in his last published book, Black Rights/ White Wrongs) Charles discussed how the whole Africana political philosophy tradition, as well as the anti-colonial writings of the mid 20th century, are still left out of current compendiums of political philosophy. It’s really quite bizarre to leave out noted philosophers, such as Kwame Nkrumah. Sometimes exclusions are justified on the grounds that theorists were not identified as philosophers, but the European canon includes a lot of people who were not philosophers at the time because professional philosophy didn’t develop before the last couple hundred years. The criteria by which we decide to include some and exclude others just don’t justify the exclusion of these Africana and anti-colonial writings.

If our undergraduate students were to encounter Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, and José Carlos Mariátegui, for example, in their introductory classes and see from the beginning that the questions of political philosophy can address the reality of our societies (which is that they’re racially ranked, that there’s a racialization of the labour market that is completely connected to the history of colonialism), then we’re going to get a different crop of graduate students and I also think we will get better work. So we have to tackle this problem of the canon.

We need to begin philosophy where we actually are and that’s going to give us a very different conceptual armature.

Let me just say one more thing on this topic. Many today will acknowledge that Kant was a racist, along with John Locke and others, but they believe that we can apply their ideas in crystalline form, making their racist views just tangential – that Kant’s anthropological writings are not essential to the idea of the categorical imperative, for example. I think that’s the nut that Charles tried to crack, the issue certainly of central debate today. But if we take ignorance as a deviation, for example, and if we take the creation of justice as based on mutuality and reciprocity, how are we to apply this to settler colonial societies or societies enriched by centuries of slavery and colonialism? Even today, we don’t have mutuality, reciprocity or equal power. So can we get to where we need to be starting with the traditional canon? I think, and Charles thought, that we need to begin philosophy where we actually are and that’s going to give us a very different conceptual armature.

AF: You’ve already mentioned the activism. I wonder if you could say a little bit more about Charles Mills as a philosopher-activist, and whether you think that term applies, as well as what you understand by the term.

LMA: I do think of him as a philosopher-activist, although his days of being part of movements ended when he started being a full-time philosophy professor in the late ‘80s. But he was quite active throughout the ‘70s in Jamaica, and when he went to Toronto he remained active as the representative of this group from Jamaica. Since Toronto has a large Caribbean population he continued organizing through most of the ‘80s, against the US invasion of Grenada for example. This activity really informed his thinking about a variety of topics (see his essay “Getting Out of the Cave”).

He wrote his dissertation on the concept of ideology in Marx and Engels, so he was thinking about how to make social change and also about the blocks to social change – and whether we should understand racism as a form of ideology. His group was to the left of Michael Manley; they were trying to make more of a socialist change, and they were also trying to develop pan-Caribbean cooperative relations that could negotiate more effectively with countries like the UK, who held all the cards. His activism involved collaborating with others to try to make social change, and trying to figure out how to articulate ideas in an accessible way, in order to build a broad base of support for particular actions.

There are philosophical elements in all of this work. It’s not simply a case of doing philosophy in the classroom and then doing activist work. The activism involves philosophy, since one is challenged on philosophical issues when engaging in this broader work. Sometimes we talk about it as “militant research” or “participatory research” since one is taking a position, not just being neutral. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is a good example of this. Foucault did prison advocacy work for five years during which he was developing his analysis.

After the late ‘80s, Charles’s activism was focused, like mine, very much on the profession. He never turned down an invitation; he was on every committee on the American Philosophical Association. He helped with organizations like the Caribbean Philosophy Association and The California Roundtable on Race. He was writing, he was speaking, he was promoting young people who are doing the work, trying to help them get jobs and get their work published. This is the kind of activism some of us do. It is about making an intervention in the profession, trying to make it better, make it more inclusive, change its problematic, and help those young people. He loved working with young people who were trying, like you guys, to make a change. He knew how hard it was. He wrote so many letters of recommendation, he was doing so many manuscript evaluations. I worry it deteriorated his health because he was determined to do everything he could to help along this small but growing effort to change our profession.

DC: I met Charles when he came to the UK about seven years ago. I was nervous to meet him, but he was instantly warm and affable. It was a conference on aesthetics, and he was talking about comedy and taboo, and he was himself hilarious throughout, which was a complete shock to me – to see a philosopher so confident and so funny, even when he was dealing with the more hostile questions. He just seemed able to deal with them in a humorous way. A lot of people have commented on it – you have a few times already – and we’re interested in whether you think there was a critical aspect to this. He seemed to be very committed to dialogue and not overly concerned with the audience’s reaction. Whatever happened, he just dealt with it, in what seemed good humour at all times. What are your thoughts on how he did that?

LMA: It’s a great question. I do think Charles was naturally witty. Some people find the challenges we face to be demoralizing and depressing (as I do occasionally), but Charles approached them with humour. He just saw racism as so ridiculous, and he shared that view with his audiences. It’s tactical, in a way, to show how ridiculous racism is and thus to deflate the sting – and I think that can be so helpful for the victims of things like racism and sexism. Charles never did it in a flippant way, but was always being truthful in what he would say. And his informality also had the effect of disarming audiences. Whether he was talking at Oxford or Harvard, he would start a presentation with “Okay guys”, making it seem like you were having a conversation over a beer or something – and that’s very useful when you’re trying to raise uncomfortable ideas that might get people’s backs up.

But I also think the humour was related to his outsider point of view. He grew up in Jamaica in a majority Black country, and then he comes to North America (first to Canada and then to the United States) and he sees the strangeness of it all. He helps us to see the strangeness and even humour in it. I think this was genuine on his part, I don’t think it was calculated. He writes about how, when he came to North America in his twenties, his racial identity changed significantly. In Jamaica he was identified as “Brown” and sometimes called a “red man” because he was light-skinned – since racial rankings work in a different way there. But he was fairly privileged because, while he wasn’t from a rich family, he was from a very well-connected family. His father was a professor who was in the Michael Manley government, and one of his uncles was ambassador to the United Nations. And Charles was the top student at Jamaica College but then he comes to Canada and finds out he’s a Black guy, as he put it. He saw this as strange – and he never really lost a sense of that – although he was quite clear that he was a Black man in North America. He wasn’t going to claim to be mixed or something like that – he embraced the identity that was foisted on him and had solidarity with everybody who was treated that way. But he also saw how provincial this was. Our way of identifying racial identity is different from what you have in the UK, it’s different from what people had in Jamaica, it’s different from Central America where I’m from. It’s not based on natural perception – and it’s funny to be presented with it as if it was natural perception.

Charles had a wellspring of confidence and clarity that gave him the capacity to keep an even keel most of the time.

He also just had a much more informal attitude – maybe it’s Caribbean – toward social relations and social conditions, especially pompous ones (even though he took professional settings very seriously). I have to tell you that on one of his trips to the UK, he gave a talk – it was either at Oxford or Cambridge – and came back and told me with surprise that all his jokes fell flat. He was quite shocked. He would always make jokes about how in order to do a philosophy talk he has to use certain terms like “epistemology” and if he didn’t use such terms he would be shown the door. But at this university, people just looked at him oddly and he was taken aback. I think England was the only place he had that experience. There and maybe Germany.

DC: This might be too intrusive but I’m wondering whether there were times when the work got to him. I find that working on race, often working with white audiences, weighs heavily. Charles always seemed to have this levity when he presented. But were there times when this stuff really did get to him?

LMA: Oh yes, he had anger. He didn’t always see things as funny. But he kept his equanimity better than I do. Charles had a wellspring of confidence and clarity that gave him the capacity to keep an even keel most of the time. But he definitely got frustrated with how slowly things were going and how the whiteness of the profession didn’t seem to be seen as a problem. He was quite aware of that and he had emotions, like all of us do, and he had anger at times. I was glad we could share our experiences and thoughts so regularly these last five years when we were colleagues at the same institution. I mean, that’s how we survive in these spaces, right!?

AF: You’ve described him as an intellectual companion and as a stabilising presence and someone who is very generous spirited. It feels like there are lots of dimensions to your friendship with him. It would be nice, and I think important, to get more of a sense of this.

LMA: Charles had many, many friends, and since he’s passed I’ve found out more about his other friends. He didn’t choose his friends based on status or what people could do for him – he just spent hours on the phone with all sorts of folks, just human to human, discussing books and movies and whatever. My relationship with him was like this as well – we would talk about everything. From when we first met in the early ‘90s, we would talk about philosophy, but we also started talking about our lives because we both had family from outside the United States – and had family that we financially supported – and we would give each other check-ins and support around these difficulties. We would also talk about our marriages and our lives in a very open way. If we hadn’t talked in a week, he’d send me a message and say what’s the latest with you?

We had a really egalitarian relationship, and I have not found that to be the case too often with male academics.

We had a really egalitarian relationship, and I have not found that to be the case too often with male academics. You have relationships with male philosophers and you’re mostly being lectured and talked at. Charles was never like that. He totally respected my ideas and I totally respected his and there wasn’t any kind of a game-playing and I didn’t feel like he thought he was smarter than me, even though he’s such a better writer and sometimes I do think he was smarter than me, but he never acted like that. He just didn’t approach anyone in those competitive terms. We use to gossip a lot – that was part of our relationship – about people, and he had strong views about what was good philosophy and bad philosophy and good arguments and bad arguments, but he didn’t have any kind of arrogance about his own status vis-à-vis others. And so I, you know, I just really miss him.

AF: We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about him.

LMA: No, I’m glad to do it. I have this fear that his influence is going to wane, and I want it to grow so I’m very glad that you guys are doing this. And because you guys really need Charles’ work in the UK!

DC: We really do. It was such a shock to hear of his passing because it felt like he was a philosopher very much at the peak of his work. He wasn’t someone who you could say their best years were behind them. Apart from the personal side of things, that just made it all the more shocking. It didn’t cross my mind that he’d be someone who would be dying anytime around now.

LMA: You know, we didn’t think so either until pretty close to the end. We knew in early May, when he got the diagnosis of advanced stage cancer, but we thought he would survive the treatment. He was still sitting on dissertation committees within a month of his passing. He was at the peak of his intellectual ability, reading voraciously and speaking constantly. But it just took him faster than he or I predicted. I’m glad that you allowed me to talk about him as a human being and also as a philosopher. I think that’s a good reminder that we’re all human beings. He was a particularly wonderful one, but both are relevant to our work.

Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is a past president of the American Philosophical Association and her areas of research include epistemology, Latin American philosophy, feminism and critical race theory. Recent books of hers include Rape and Resistance (2018) and The Future of Whiteness (2015).


From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 2 ("The New Basics: Society").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

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