Global IR and Global White Ignorance

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Doing Global International Relations”.


printsymbolBy Srdjan Vucetic


W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in 1918. (US Library of Congress)

International Relations (IR) suffers from excessive whiteness. This is manifested in the discourses, practices, and procedures that make up this field, starting with the systematic and wilful forgetting of the fact that IR’s original purpose was to help maintain and expand global white supremacy. While the discipline matured since its colonial heydays, still today black scholars are erased from most disciplinary histories. Any story of “constructivist IR” is a case in point. Most textbooks will tell you that the argument that the reality and knowledge of world politics are socially constructed, contingent and to various degrees contestable, originates with the “dissidents” in the 1980s and never with, say, W.E.B. Du Bois or Benoy Kumar Sarkar who had advanced essentially the same argument at least six decades earlier.

The “always already” of IR

As an IR scholar racialized as white, I frequently suffer from the ignorance described above—my intellectual and scholarly interest in racialization, race and racism notwithstanding. To begin to address this puzzle, I like to invoke a pair of Frenchmen dear to my generation of IR scholars, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. For the former, there is something called disciplinary power—that which targets individuals “both as objects and as instruments of its exercise” (Foucault 1977, p. 170). This power operates on “the body” and the body’s quotidian social activities. Like any other form of labour, academic labour is disciplined via judgment on what is normal/deviant (Ibid. p. 177-8). One example is “How is this IR?”—an assault posed in the form of a question that many IR students get when they present their work for the first time.

Bourdieu offers another angle on my own ignorance. Reflexivity, he posits, is primarily an aspiration, not something that scholars achieve in practice (Bourdieu 2004). We fail to even identify our social biases, privileges and protections, to say nothing of subjecting them to “control” and “correction” (Lynch 2000). Race is no exception and arguably an outstanding case in point. Contradictions always exist, as do implicit biases and assorted “habits of whiteness” (MacMullan 2009). To better understand how such habituated dispositions operate in the discipline, look no further than David Lake’s recent White Man’s IR: An Intellectual Confession” and the reactions his piece elicited among feminist and postcolonial scholars.

As helpful as Foucault and Bourdieu can be, here they put me in a pickle: why am I using the conceptual language of white theorists to explain my ignorance about black theorists? More importantly, was it not Franz Fanon who had addressed this puzzle many years earlier and much more directly? Of course he did. Fanon’s (1956, 1961) reflections on colonial psychiatry already show how metropolitan knowledge and imperial power become intertwined, always and by default.

This illumines the cave in which I found myself: being “always already” part of a white discipline means that ignorance can sometimes be furthered by attempts to explain it. And I am sure I am not alone: virtually every IR scholar knows something about Foucault and Bourdieu, but only a small minority is aware of their intellectual debts to Fanon and other first generation postcolonial scholars (Ahluwalia 2010, Go 2013), and, more generally, of the constitutive role the global South has played in the development of virtually every social science tradition influential in IR—Marxist, Weberian, whatever. In fact, this predicament is larger than any single epistemic community. Regardless of one’s position vis-à-vis social theory, social scientific validity, political and policy relevance and even social justice issues, the vast majority of knowledge we produce and consume tends to be shaped by powerful and pervasive forces within Western culture that contribute to what philosopher Charles W. Mills calls global white ignorance—a social cognitive structure that undergirds white privilege and protection in the modern world (Mills 2015: 217, also see Mills 1997: 18).

What is to be done?

This TRAFO series seeks to broaden our conceptions of what constitutes IR; arguably, the very act of thinking “Global IR” as presented here is an attempt to minimize white ignorance. To that end, I will add three of my guidelines—limited and frustrating as such things always are—that I have used to globalize my own IR.

Guideline 1: Recognize that there is no such thing as an IR “we.”  Example: the fact that American IR has no contemporaneous equivalents to The Death of White Sociology (1973) suggests that American IR theorists have been exceptionally slow to address their own white ignorance. However, there were at least two American IRs in the twentieth century—one “white”, one “black.” Reconstructing the latter as the “Howard School of International Relations,” Robert Vitalis (2015) has argued that “we” need to remember the philosopher Alain Locke, the historians Rayford Logan, E. Franklin Frazier and Eric Williams, and the political scientists Ralph Bunche and Merze Tate as IR theorists, too.

The Howard School’s struggles and failures to resist the orthodoxies, hierarchies, and dominant theory-policy nexuses of the then-new discipline of IR contain valuable lessons for the contemporary Global IR perestroika. One of them is that “Careers” matter a lot—one of the three upper case C’s the editors of this series have used to stimulate discussion and debate. Among the six scholars Vitalis studied, some remained faithful to critical thought at great personal and professional cost (the career of Merze Tate, the one female scholar in the group, stands out), and others gave up on it, in exchange for both disciplinary and extra-disciplinary benefits that white supremacy often bestows upon those who accept its terms of thought and action.

Again note that Vitalis’ book is a story of American IR only. Disciplinary historians sensitive to the ethos of Global IR have every reason to be interested in the stories of IR “origins” told from the vantage point of the “radical” thinkers in the 1920s and 1930s China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, South Africa, Turkey or Thailand. I, for one, am hoping that an edited IR history volume is in the making out there somewhere that takes a global centennial look at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. One way to expose and re-articulate IR’s multiple “we’s” would be to move analysis away from Western scholars like E.H. Carr and Alfred Zimmern and rather towards e.g. reactions to the failure of the Japanese delegation to insert a “racial equality clause” into the Covenant of the League of Nations.

Guideline 2. Read beyond IR. Studying IR as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto in the late 1990s, I was exposed to the critiques of the “mainstream” by scholars like Robert Cox, J. Ann Tickner and Richard Ashley. I also became familiar with feminist and Foucauldian approaches.

These sources contained no shortage of clues about the centrality of whiteness in modernity and social science, but they did not speak for themselves—they required a great deal of deciphering. Here is an anecdote from a DAAD party I attended in 2002 as a Canadian Stipendiat studying IR at the FU Berlin. Our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited us to a historical costume play. They would dress up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and say a few things about themselves. It was childish and therefore well-suited for us international grant-holders, many of whom still struggled with basic German. I have now forgotten all of the names of the historical figures our hosts showcased but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAAD fellow sitting next to me, a political science student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said. “1734.”

This was a major clue. Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. The lesson learned was that work by non-white scholars has historically been “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many, given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections. And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of Europe.

Following up on this and other clues eventually led me to address my own priors on what makes the modern world hang together. One entry point was an early “democratic peace” debate on the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. There, liberals argued that the Anglo-American war was averted thanks to the pacifying effect of democratic norms and democratic political structures. Realists retorted by calling it a ‘‘near-miss” and pointing to the decisive role of the British decision to back off. What I discovered by reading actual history was something else: crisis resolution was primarily a function of Anglo-Saxon supremacism, not of democracy or of appeasement. Beyond helping me de-reify IR conceptions of state practices, this foray also pushed me to think harder about the broader histories and legacies of imperial dehumanization—and what they mean for the nature of social scientific and philosophical reasoning, the standards of evidence, as well as political and policy relevance.

Guideline 3: Disseminate the right clues in the classroom. The previous paragraphs suggest I am especially partial to autobiographic clues. In Sarajevo, where I was born and raised, it was commonplace to define oneself in multi- or post-ethnic terms: “Yugoslav,” “Bosnian,” “cosmopolitan,” “Sarajevan,” etc. With the fall of the Berlin Wall our authoritarian cosmopolis was replaced by democratic ethnopolitics. Non-ethno-national identities became subject to routine denial, modification, and stigmatization. The rest of this story is Political Violence 101 material—stuff I now teach at the University of Ottawa.

In the wake of these horrible developments a phrase was coined that I sometimes use to introduce the concept of racialization: “the enumeration of blood corpuscles”. I believe this sarcastic Bosnian expression aptly captures the political ideology propagated by nationalists in the 1990s. If all humans of Bosnia were really Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs waiting to come out, then it was only logical to cast “children of mixed marriages” as “spares,” as some nationalists tried to do at the time. Because of its precision and horror, this expression renders visible political struggles around ethnicity and thus opens up at least two new modes of inquiry. One is an intersectional reading of ethnicity—a tradition of thought that spans from Fanon and Logan (1945) on the one hand, and contemporary thinkers like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Paul Gilroy, Ann Laura Stoler, David Theo Goldberg, Victoria Hattam and Linda Martín Alcoff on the other. The other line of inquiry is a more expansive approach to contemporary political violence, starting with the idea that post-Cold War “ethnic” and “civil wars” (“new wars”) are geo-historically connected, plural and nested. (Catherine Baker’s inspiring post in this series expands on the benefits of this approach further.). And I say “at least two” because the ultimate conversation should always bring the two modes together: how the intersectionalities of privilege, including “our own,” participate in the reproduction of violence—political, epistemic, or both at once.

Look Around

Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes. (US Library of Congress)

To be sure, not everyone gets to teach students postcolonial thought or intersectionality, much less an entire class on race and international politics. However, being always already implicated white ignorance also means that there is always already something to be productively questioned and interrogated. Thus, virtually any social science syllabus can be peppered with critical clues. To give one example: Basic social science statistics, which are necessary for understanding much of contemporary IR, cannot be fully understood without some reference to the history of this methodology. This history, if you look closer, has important and continuing connections to nineteenth and early twentieth century racial science. Karl Pearson, the father of the Pearson correlation coefficient or “Pearson’s r”, was a major contributor to “attempts to establish eugenics as the queen of the social sciences.” And if you think such contextualization is a little too smug, perhaps you can mention that one of the most creative data visualization thinkers in this same era was none other than Du Bois—for an example see the picture above.

Global IR requires not only awareness of white ignorance but also sustained energy and effective strategy to deprovincialize and decolonize our curricula. At least the material to do so is always already around us.


Srdjan Vucetic is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, Canada. His research interests revolve around the politics of international hierarchy. He is the author of The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations (2011).



Further Readings on TRAFO:

Antonia Witt, Felix Anderl, Stefan Kroll, Philip Wallmeier (2016), Clues, Careers, and Curricula – Doing Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amitav Acharya (2016), Developing Global International Relations: What, Who, and How?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anthoni van Nieuwkerk (2016),  Reflections on (not so) International Relations … and what scholars from the Global South can do about it, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Frank Mattheis (2016), New metres for a wider world: interregionalism and Global International Relations, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Catherine Baker (2016), South-East European Studies in the ‘House of International Relations’, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Amaya Querejazu (2016), Andean Cosmovision and Global Governanc,  TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Tim Rühlig (2016),  Is there a Chinese understanding of International Relations?, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Jochen Kleinschmidt (2016), Global IR and Academic Authorship in Latin America: Why Inclusion Is Not a Panacea, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Anna Grindle (2016), Global Learning in Northern Ireland: Challenges, Successes and Opportunities, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Study Abroad: You don’t always get what you paid for – Interview with Natalia Lombana, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Pinar Bilgin (2017), A Global International Relations Take on the ‘Immigrant Crisis’, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Felix Anderl (2017), How to open a panel on “Global IR“ at the ISA General Conference under the conditions of a “Muslim ban”?, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research



Citation: Srdjan Vicetic, Global IR and Global White Ignorance, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 01.06.2017,

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