Memorial lecture explores white ignorance and privilege

By: Amanda Carroll, Staff Writer

To Penn State University philosophy professor Eduardo Mendieta, the abolishment of slavery did not include the abolishment of white privilege.

Using Herman Melville’s pre-civil war era novella “Benito Cereno,” Mendieta explored this concept of white privilege and ignorance as part of an annual lecture series honoring a deceased student.

As someone with ranging academic interests and several published works, Mendieta said that he was excited by the lecture series because its goal is to “bring philosophy in conversation with the humanities.”

In his March 8 lecture, titled “Severed Heads and White Ignorance,” Mendieta said that “Benito Cereno” is “profoundly relevant to what is happening to our country.” The story follows a revolt on a slave ship that acts as a chronotope of slavery by exploring the spatial and temporal context of the practice.

In the story, the American merchant ship “Bachelor’s Delight” visits another ship in distress, the “San Dominick.” The ship’s captain, Benito Cereno, informs the merchant ship captain, Amasa Delano, that a storm has destroyed many of its provisions and killed many crewmembers.

When Delano offers to assist, he notices that Cereno has been acting passive, while he feels that the slaves have been displaying inappropriate behavior. He does not act on his suspicions; however, when he leaves the ship, he learns that the slaves had taken control of the ship and had forced the remaining crew to perform their normal duties.

Mendieta acknowledged that scholars have often read the story as Melville coming to terms with evil, with evil being represented by the slave revolt and its leader, Babo. However, he argues that the story itself is Melville’s way of exploring “willful white blindness.”

In terms of the severed heads of the lecture title, Mendita questions whose head was severed in the end. While Babo’s is physically severed, Delano, the captain in the story, loses his position and control thanks to white ignorance.

“I challenge philosophers that we ought to think through the slave ship as philosophically challenging as the allegory of the cave,” Mendieta said.

Melville utilizes the silence of slaves and one-dimensional portrayal of black characters in the story to demonstrate how slaves were perceived as inhuman, a mass figure in comparison to the interiority allowed to the white characters.

“To abolish slavery, we need to abolish white privilege,” Mendieta said.

He argues that the latter never happened.

Privilege, he says, perpetuates in a “certain kind of social system” in which “we are benefitting one way or another.”

“Ignorance is useful, that’s why it’s produced,” Mendieta said.

When asked what the next generation could do to dismantle white ignorance, Mendieta offered that “we need to develop new epistemic habits.”

“Election 2016 is a form of chronotope” he assessed, and we can go back to classic works to contextualize the present. “You can decide to be an epistemic rebel” as the slaves were in Melville’s tale.

The Ian Moore Memorial lecture is made possible by the Ian Moore Philosophy Fund, established in memory of a Towson Student who died shortly after completing his undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1996. The series is sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

“It’s an honor to be a part of this tradition,” Mendieta said.

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