White time: The chronic injustice of ideal theory

Charles W. Mills*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

58 Scopus citations


The racialization of space is the subject of a huge body of literature, most recently in George Lipsitz's (2011) How Racism Takes Place. But less has been done on the ways in which time could be racialized. Inspired by provocative treatments of the subject in writings by Michael Hanchard (1999) and Lawrie Balfour (2011), I suggest in this paper that we need to explore the workings of a White temporal imaginary analogous to Lipsitz's White spatial imaginary, which likewise serves to protect White racial privilege from the threatening encroachments of racial justice. Using Eviatar Zerubavel's (2003) Time Maps as a jumping-off point, I argue accordingly for the recognition of a White time, a sociomental representation of temporality shaped by the interests and experience of the White mnemonic community. The concept is obviously one of potentially very general usefulness, but in this essay I seek to apply it specifically to the dominant discourse on justice in political philosophy, as framed for the past forty years by John Rawls' ([1971] 1999c) ideal theory. The relevance to the postracial theme of this issue is that, because of the peculiarity of philosophy as a discipline, it can claim it was always, or always-already, postracial, dealing as it ostensibly does with the (timeless) human condition as such. By making ideal theory-the normative theory of a perfectly just society-central to the conceptualization of social justice, by never exploring how radically different actual societies are from the ideal of society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, an exclusionary sociohistorical framework is established that makes the Euro-time of the West-abstracted out of the West's relations of domination over people of color-the Greenwich Mean Time of normativity, while the alternative non-White temporality of structurally unjust societies requiring rectificatory racial justice remains a subject permanently untimely.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)27-42
Number of pages16
JournalDu Bois Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014


  • Ideal Theory
  • Philosophy and Postraciality
  • Racial Justice
  • Racial Time
  • Rawlsianism
  • Rectificatory Justice
  • Time Maps
  • White Mnemonic Community

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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