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

After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he spent some 20 years in factory jobs before returning to academia.
After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he spent some 20 years in factory jobs before returning to academia.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2000/Pat Greenhouse

Several years after helping found the journal Race Traitor, with its slogan “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” Noel Ignatiev was leading a class at the Massachusetts College of Art and challenging his students’ views about race — taking particular aim at “white privilege.”

“Doing away with the social significance of whiteness does not mean killing white people,” he said in a 2000 Globe interview, around the time of that class. “It’s like royalty. If you abolish it, you don’t kill the king and queen, you get rid of the crowns, thrones, and titles. Whiteness functions much like royalty, since it is upheld by social practice.”

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An Ivy League student turned factory steelworker turned college professor, Dr. Ignatiev was 78 when he died Nov. 9 in Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson. Kingsley Clarke, a longtime friend, told The Los Angeles Times that the cause was an intestinal infarction.

According to The Washington Post, Dr. Ignatiev had been living in Connecticut and was visiting his daughter and grandchildren in Arizona.

After dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania, he spent some 20 years in factory jobs before returning to academia, graduating from Harvard University with master’s and doctoral degrees without having finished a bachelor’s.

He then wrote, lectured, and taught, focusing on eliminating what he considered arbitrary racial classifications. Dr. Ignatiev was 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 his 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,” he said in a 1997 speech. “The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin.”

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Dr. Ignatiev, who formerly lived in Somerville and Dorchester, was also a force behind a group, founded in New York City more than two decades ago, that advocated for abolishing white supremacy.

In his best-known work, “How the Irish Became White” (1995), he 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.

Until the Irish arrived in the United States, they did not possess a concept of “whiteness,” Dr. Ignatiev maintained. They occupied a place, along with African-Americans, at the bottom of the US 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.

“The real task is to challenge the operations of the institutions that create racial injustice,” he 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.”

Some critics in Boston academia noted that, for example, young whites who grew up in housing projects wouldn’t understand and would often reject the idea that being white carried entitlements.

Dr. Ignatiev countered that even economically disadvantaged whites benefit from the relative privileges of having white skin, such as not being harassed on the streets by police, and not being followed by security while shopping. They also enjoyed comparatively better school and employment connections, and wouldn’t face questions about whether they were hired because of their skills or because of affirmative action.

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Dr. Ignatiev’s ideas led to heated discussions in academic conferences and on editorial pages. Detractors suggested he 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.

“There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture,” he 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 people designated as “white” should reject the designation and behave in ways that defied race-based expectations.

Dr. Ignatiev welcomed controversy and was eager to engage in intellectual combat with critics who cited him as a prime example of academic liberalism crossing the line of absurdity. Critics in the academic world, including African-American social psychologist Kelly Ervin, a longtime professor, 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?”

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“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 in Philadelphia on Dec. 27, 1940. His father sold newspapers, his mother was a homemaker.

Dr. Ignatiev, who changed his last name around 1980, told the Globe that neither of his parents was college-educated, but they were Russian Jewish intellectuals and “readers of the old Yiddish socialist ilk.”

The oldest of three children, Dr. Ignatiev grew up in a household that valued racial equality. He told the Globe that his parents refused to purchase a $1 membership for the city’s public pools, and instead frequented free pools, where they often were the only whites.

He left the University of Pennsylvania after three years to work in factories and steel mills, mainly in Chicago, where he refused to become a supervisor.

“I wanted to be a worker because I thought they had something to teach me,” he told the Globe in 2000. “I gained an appreciation for their knowledge, sense of realism, and capabilities.”

Arriving at Harvard in the 1980s, he graduated with a master’s and a doctorate, and was a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute. Along with teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art, he held teaching appointments at other colleges.

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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.; his sister and 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 once 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?”