The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Noel Ignatiev, scholar who aimed to abolish white racial privilege, dies at 78

Noel Ignatiev.
Noel Ignatiev. (Pekah Pamella Wallace)
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Noel Ignatiev, a onetime factory worker who became a Harvard-trained scholar and advocate of eliminating what he considered arbitrary racial classifications and who published an academic journal with the slogan “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” died Nov. 9 at a hospital in Tucson. He was 78.

The death was confirmed by his son, John Henry Ignatiev, who declined to specify the cause. Dr. Ignatiev, who lived in Connecticut, was visiting his daughter and grandchildren in Arizona.

For a brief time in his teens, Dr. Ignatiev (pronounced ig-NAHT-ee-ev) was a member of the Communist Party, and he remained committed to social change and radical ideals throughout his life. He held blue-collar jobs for 20 years in Chicago before entering graduate school at Harvard University.

He became an outspoken proponent of the notion that racial groupings were created to establish the social and economic preeminence of white people, at the expense of people of color. Some of Dr. Ignatiev’s ideas have been adopted in recent years by academics and writers who have criticized the concept of “white privilege,” or the social, economic and political advantages conferred by skin color.

“Race is not a biological but a social category,” Dr. Ignatiev said in a 1997 speech. “The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin.”

In his best-known work, “How the Irish Became White” (1995), Dr. Ignatiev wrote that 19th-century Irish immigrants to the United States faced widespread discrimination and were not considered “white” by the prevailing elites at the time, who were descended from English and Dutch immigrants.

The Irish did not possess a concept of “whiteness,” Dr. Ignatiev maintained, until they arrived in the United States. They occupied a place, along with African Americans, at the bottom of the U.S. economic ladder, but with time the Irish came to recognize the advantages accruing to people with lighter skin and moved higher in the country’s social order.

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“The real task is to challenge the operations of the institutions that create racial injustice,” Dr. Ignatiev said in a 2004 speech. “What I’m interested in doing is calling into question the nature of a whole society, of which racism is only a part.”

His ideas led to heated discussions in academic conferences and on editorial pages. Detractors suggested that Dr. Ignatiev was advocating racial wars or the elimination of white people, which he denied. Instead, he sought to abolish what he viewed as an artificial designation of “whiteness,” which, he wrote, led directly to segregation and other manifestations of racism.

White people benefited from a system that made it easier for them in every aspect of life, from housing and jobs to education and criminal justice.

“There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture,” Dr. Ignatiev said in 1997. “Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.”

He said that people designated as “white” should reject the designation and behave in ways that defied race-based expectations.

In 1992, Dr. Ignatiev helped found a journal called Race Traitor, which had as its slogan, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

He welcomed controversy and was eager to engage in intellectual combat with critics who cited Dr. Ignatiev as a prime example of academic liberalism crossing the line of absurdity. Critics in the academic world, including African American social psychologist Kelly Ervin of Washington State University, found fault with his observations.

“Disavowing one’s identity is not the answer,” she told the Seattle Times in 1999. “I don’t like the tendency for people to define whiteness as something that is all bad.”

In 1997, a New York Times reporter said to Dr. Ignatiev, “You’re white. Do you hate your own hide?”

“No, but I want to abolish the privileges of the white skin,” he said. “The white race is like a private club based on one huge assumption: that all those who look white are, whatever their complaints or reservations, fundamentally loyal to the race. We want to dissolve the club, to explode it.”

Noel Saul Ignatin was born Dec. 27, 1940, in Philadelphia. His father sold newspapers, his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Ignatiev, who changed his last name around 1980, attended the University of Pennsylvania for three years before moving to Chicago to work in factories and steel mills. He was a union activist and was also a member of the leftist organization Students for a Democratic Society.

With the labor movement in decline, Dr. Ignatiev applied to graduate school at Harvard and was accepted without having received a bachelor’s degree. He received a master’s degree in education in 1985 and a doctorate in American studies in 1994. He was a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute and later became a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston and had temporary appointments at other colleges until last year.

Dr. Ignatiev was married several times and had two children, John Henry Ignatiev of New Haven, Conn., and Rachel Edwards of Tucson. Other survivors include his partner in recent years, Pekah Pamella Wallace of Bloomfield, Conn.; a sister; a brother; and three grandchildren.

In recent years, Dr. Ignatiev launched a new publication, Hard Crackers: Chronicles of Everyday Life, and had completed a novel.

He urged white people to “defy the rules of whiteness — flagrantly, publicly,” he told the Times. “When someone makes a racial slur in your presence, say, ‘You probably think I’m white because I look white.’ Challenge behaviors that reproduce race distinctions.”

He was asked whether he would make that comment in “a bar full of rednecks.”

“Challenging people on their whiteness can lead to harsh confrontations, even blows,” Dr. Ignatiev said. “Sometimes that can’t be helped. But since we don’t accept labeling people, I’d ask you: What’s a redneck?”

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