The Charles W. Mills Memorial Page / Testimonials
Remembering Charles Mills by Larry Svabek September 27, 2021 (APA)

The House That Charles Built by Jared Loggins (Dissent Magazine, September 24, 2021)
Over a long career as a public intellectual, Charles Mills used his gut-punching wit and moral clarity in defense of racial justice.

A Personal Tribute to Charles Mills September 21, 2021

The World Lost a Great Philosopher This Week by Jamelle Bouie (The New York Times, September 25, 2021)

With Sagacity and Humor (German)

Robin Celikates's In Memoriam Charles Mills (1951-2021) (German)

Testimonials taken from personal emails, memorial services, and contributions to the site. If you want to contribute a testimonial, please write to info@charleswmills.com.
“One of the attractions of taking up my current position at CUNY Graduate Center was the chance to become a colleague of Charles Mills. Unfortunately, since I joined the GC just over a year ago and since my first year was virtual, I haven’t had the privilege to get to know him well. In fact, my only substantive conversation with Charles took place on the way to dinner after my job interview. He fell in step with me as we emerged from the elevator at the Graduate Center and we had what I hoped would be the first of many chats, walking down Park Avenue on our way to the restaurant. I was delighted that he wanted to talk to me because I’d been reading some of his work on the metaphysics of race and was eager to ask him about it. Though I’ve done some work on social ontology, I haven’t given sufficient thought to the nature of race and racial categories, at least from a philosophical point of view. So I mentioned one of his recent papers and told him I had a question about it. With a characteristic twinkle in his eye, he asked me: “Can you remind what I argued in that paper?” At the time, I was relieved that someone of his stature would be willing to admit his lack of instant omniscience about his own work. It reassured me that it was all right not to have all of one’s previous arguments at one’s fingertips, ready to unfurl them at the mere mention of a paper title. But now that I think back on it, I wonder whether he wasn’t checking my comprehension, effectively continuing the job interview. I’m very sad that I’ll never get the chance to ask him — but more importantly, that I can’t follow up on that brief but very memorable conversation about race and social ontology."
—Muhammad Ali Khalidi
Presidential Professor of Philosophy
CUNY Graduate Center
“I'm a late-stage PhD student at Bristol University in the UK, writing up a thesis provisionally entitled "A Philosophical Investigation into the Epistemology of Ignorance in the work of Charles W. Mills". I had the immense pleasure of meeting Charles a number of times dating back to 2015, when I was fortunate enough to secure funding to fly to a SWAP conference at Florida State University where I presented on his work, on three arguments for white ignorance in his work. He spent much of the day quizzing me on me and my work -- how was it that I, a white disabled woman from England (albeit of Italian, Jewish, and Anglo-Indian--i.e. complicated colonial provenance and inheritance, something we discussed more than once, and something which I would never have understood as I now do without Charles's work), happened to be working on his work, and doing deep, close reads trying to untangle nuances in his remarks on things like ideology and epistemology.
We met a few times afterwards at various conferences and events after I lucked up and manouvred myself into being in the same places as he was -- in Leeds, Cambridge, and Toronto, including on a panel with he and Frank Cunningham--as well as over Zoom a few times, and we corresponded over email from time to time.
I am what I now understand to be one of tens, perhaps hundreds, of graduate students who were beneficiaries of his extraordinary generosity and enormous spirit, and I consider him to be a friend and mentor, with whom I broke bread multiple times, and who wrote a letter in support of my continued PhD funding and research when I experienced difficulties relating to health and disability early on in my PhD. Every time I met him in person, except the last time, I asked him to sign one of his books, but decided that he must have signed the Racial Contract so many times that he might appreciate signing any of the others; by the fourth book he was struggling to know what to write, so offered a quip about how I should get on and finish my PhD (I have a picture I can send if it's welcome).
One of his CUNY students, Nicholas Whittaker, wrote recently, that what on earth does it mean to claim Charles Mills? The memorials and other conversations with others who knew him have led me to think that this gets things the wrong way round, and I think Charles claimed us, me and so many others, as his, and gifted us his time, and his energy.
I feel immensely privileged to have spent any time at all with Charles the man and the philosophical giant--as well as the wry philosopher-comic who when asked, repeatedly, who his major influences were from social contract theory beyond Pateman and Rousseau, replied, more than once, "Marx!"
Something I've not seen anyone say but I'd like to, is that one of the things I appreciated most about Charles is how fantastically he encountered challenge and critique. I pressed him on the complicated presence and absence of issues relating to disability, especially as a sociopolitical configuration, and his response was always engagement and good humour. I talked to him about the fact that for all his commitment to feminism, there was a sense among some in the field that his citational politics could be improved when it came to engaging Black women's and women of colour philosophical and social theory; not once did he get defensive, and not once did he cite what I now know he could have, in terms of chapter and verse of the ways in which he materially and practically showed up for so many women of colour across his career. His reaction on both fronts was always sincere interest, and openness; never anything else.
I feel similarly privileged to have dedicated the last 8 years, albeit with interruptions for health and other reasons, to have dedicated my scholarship to reading and interpreting Charles's work, arguing in print and with interlocutors that he should be read more widely than he is, well beyond the obvious classics of the Racial Contract, 'White Ignorance' and 'Ideal Theory as Ideology'; that he should be read as a systemic thinker, whose contributions on epistemology should never be divorced from his work theorising white supremacy as a political system and everything that entails; and that his work on liberalism, both descriptive and prescriptive, should always be read with his Marxist scholarship in hand. I've published two papers that argue for the importance of Charles's work in the British context--especially given Britain's role in industrialising colonialism, imperialism and enslavement--and really everything I write, I write in his stead.
—Zara Bain
PhD Candidate in Philosophy
Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol / University of Cardiff
“I first met Charles in 1994 when he gave a stunning presentation at the Radical Philosophy Association that turned out to be an early version of ideas that ended up in The Racial Contract. Charles argued that the Western philosophical tradition has been fundamentally shaped by ideas of white racial superiority, and that this influence has now become so much a part of our thinking that not only do we no longer even notice it, we have difficulty seeing it even when it is pointed out to us. He called this phenomenon, as I’m sure all of you well know, the “epistemology of ignorance.” Ideas and theories that favor whites thus seem natural to those of us in Western cultures and in positions of dominance, rather than unusual in any way; they no longer seem racist to us, but rather merely “normal.” The invisibility of such influences and our resistance to understanding them remains a problem that affects the very way most people—but especially most whites—perceive the world. They are trained from birth to see the world in these ways, so one fundamental task of philosophy should be to uncover such presuppositions and expose them to the full criticism that they deserve as flawed and biased ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling.
As I sat there listening to Charles, I remember thinking, “He’s right!” and that epiphany made me feel as if the floor in front of me had opened up and I was tumbling into another world, where all the racist things that I’d read Kant, Hume, and Locke say suddenly made a new kind of sense. While before I’d more or less thought that the conventional way of dismissing their racism as an unfortunate aberration was accurate, I suddenly realized that it was central to their overall philosophical projects and had infected those projects themselves. This feeling of epistemological vertigo while listening to Charles critique Philosophy in terms of ‘white supremacy’ and the ‘epistemology of ignorance’ inspired me to go on and make the critique of philosophy’s racism central to my research.
At that fateful RPA (at least for me), I presented an essay that applied Martin Bernal’s infamous critique of Classism in Black Athena to philosophy. I remember Charles was in the audience (which was not much of an accomplishment, given that there were only about five people in it). After I’d read my paper he asked me for a copy of it, which made me feel both complimented and approved of, as he was a tenured faculty member who gave a stunning presentation and I was a lowly graduate student stumbling my way toward what I thought of as professionalism. We later corresponded about my essay and he encouraged me that the ideas it presented were sound and worth pursuing, and that encouragement was pivotal to my continuing to work on them and eventually getting the essay published.
Charles’ ideas that I heard then, nearly three decades ago, and in his work over the next couple of years gave me a framework from which to talk about philosophy of film, and I have been working in that vein ever since. My own white viewership as well as white viewership in general, I realized, had been similarly shaped by white supremacy, the epistemology of ignorance, and the racial contract. Nearly every essay I’ve written in the years since I first met Charles has referenced his work, and I often thought of Charles as my ideal reader, as the person I wanted most to understand what I was trying to say. It helped, too, that as I continued to see Charles at conferences over the years that he was friendly and approachable—and continued to give brilliant presentations in words that flowed out of him faster than I could ever imagine speaking or writing down, and to compensate for that (I imagine) he started to give out those famous handouts, so that listeners would have something that contained all those rapid-fire ideas afterward. I went to every presentation that he gave at the APA-Central, from the late 1990s to 2016, as well as any other conference we both attended. We had many a lunch and dinner over those years where we talked about race, philosophy, politics, movies, feminism, and whatever else popped into our heads. Those were conversations that I continue to treasure and I will miss them as we continue on without him.
I also invited Charles out to Montana, where I live and work, in 2000 and he gave one of his famous presentations on the whiteness of philosophy to an audience of more than 150. Many were stunned into silence by his criticisms and a few may have had the road-to-Damascus moments that I had experienced a few years before. (I know that some of my students have done so over the years when I taught The Racial Contract and other essays to literally hundreds of undergraduates in the three decades since he began producing them.) I also gave Charles a tour of Yellowstone National Park and we talked as we drove about the racism of national parks in America and his frustrations at philosophy’s slowness and resistance to change, as well as how he felt he was eating nearly every variety of wildlife that he saw in the area (bison burgers, elk steaks). He relished the idea of being one of the first Blacks (or perhaps even the first Black) to go to some of the places we went. I think he went out of his way to use one of Yellowstone’s restrooms in order to enter a place that had formerly been segregated. I took a picture of him at the 45th parallel in Yellowstone, where he feigned running across the border. I also convinced Charles to travel to Victoria, British Columbia in 2010, to be part of an author-meets-critics panel on my book. He gave what he called more an appreciation than a critique of my work, which proceeded to express (probably better than I did) how movies can be sources for self-knowledge and social knowledge that can come from the unlikeliest of places— namely, movies in general and African-American film noir in particular. I also remember going out to get ice cream with Charles and in the process discovering that we shared the weakness of having a sweet tooth. He ordered mango gelato every time. The last time I saw him was 2016, when the APA-Central was again in Chicago. By then he was receiving accolades from the APA, gave the John Dewey lecture there, and would serve as President of the Central Division the following year. In spite of being very busy, we once again had lunch together and whiled away a couple of hours talking. I remember us both agreeing that the Republican backlash against Obama was clearly racially motivated, something that proved to be all-to-prescient later that year.
The last time I corresponded with him was last November, when I sent him a paper that one of my students had written that used his ideas to analyze Jordan Peele’s movie Us. He said that he looked forward to reading it.
I’m truly grief-strickened that I’ll never get to speak with Charles again and hear his wry, brilliant commentary on life, politics, and philosophy. I know our discipline many times frustrated him, but through hard work and brilliant writing as well as life-changing presentations he also advanced philosophy by compelling it to examine itself, perhaps its highest duty, and getting many philosophers to do similarly in the Socratic spirit of knowing one’s self. Charles changed my life as well as Philosophy, and for that I will forever be grateful to him.
Rest in peace, Charles. You’ve made the world as well as our discipline better places, and you made me a better person in the bargain. Those of us who remain will carry on your work as best we can. I can’t think of higher praise to offer in honor of celebrating your life. ”
—Daniel Flory
Philosophy of Film, Aesthetics, Critical Philosophy of Race
Montana State
“ For me, Charles’ spirit has been like a river so deep to suggest no bottom and so wide to suggest banks from which nothing is seen plainer than a mist on either side. Yet his spirit, as always, commands us to say one word more.
Yes, Charles shall be known for blowing the hypocrisy, ignorance, and sogginess off the prevailing philosophical styles practiced in white academic circles. As a philosopher of color, Charles knew what those who are white needed to peruse and study even just to suspect.
But Charles shall be further known for inspiring philosophers and students, black and non-black, female and non-female, to thoughtful discipline on race matters, marking each who shall have him in memory.
Thirty years have gone by since I first met Charles with Linda in Kansas City. We laughed gregariously then over a department’s “twice-told tale” of my forced departure from and the same department’s “twice-told tale” of Charles’ needed arrival to the University of Oklahoma.
Eventually we came to have each other’s back, if and when needed, when both Charles and Linda came to CUNY.
I was at a soiree a few years ago where the small talk turned to philosophy. A guest cynically noted that “philosophy’s importance is about this big,” as he held his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart.
I said nothing then but, as I sit here today, I say now, “Many people hold that view, but might not we thank the ancestors that Charles Mills did not.””
—Frank Kirkland
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Hunter College