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Kwame Anthony Appiah in his New York apartment, 2002.
Kwame Anthony Appiah in his New York apartment, 2002. (AP Photo / Jerry McCrea)

The trouble with identity

AS KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH explains in his just-published book, ''The Ethics of Identity'' (Princeton), the Greek Stoics who came up with the word ''cosmopolitan'' meant it to be a paradox. A ''citizen of the cosmos'' was an oxymoron in ancient Greece: Being a citizen meant belonging to a particular city.

Today, of course, the term is common enough, but few embody it as well as Appiah. On his mother's side he is descended from English gentry and Labour Party eminences. His father was a prominent Ghanaian politician, related by birth to the country's royal family. (''I won't bore you with my Indian cousins or my Lebanese cousins or my American cousins or my Kenyan cousins, but suffice it to say that they exist,'' he told me during a recent telephone interview.) He is also gay. He is therefore uniquely well-suited to speak about the power and complexity of identity.

After starting his academic career as a philosopher of language, Appiah has increasingly applied himself to the question of how we form our sense of racial and cultural identity, especially in books such as ''In My Father's House,'' a memoir cum philosophical treatise, and ''Color Conscious,'' coauthored with Princeton's Amy Gutmann. With Henry Louis Gates Jr., who recruited Appiah to join Harvard's star-spangled Afro-American Studies department in 1991, he has also coedited such popular works as ''Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.'' Appiah left Harvard in 2002 to teach philosophy at Princeton.

Race plays a relatively minor role in ''The Ethics of Identity,'' which asks the broader question of how (or whether) to reconcile liberalism's promise of equality with the demands of difference. Ideas reached Appiah at his apartment in New York City.

IDEAS: You're well-known for writing that there's no such thing as race. What do you mean by that?

APPIAH: I'm no longer inclined to stress that way of formulating the claim, because it produces so much resistance, and I don't really care about that formulation. What I care about is getting people to see that race as a form of social identity is not the product of biologically significant ways of dividing human beings into groups.

I don't want to deny that it matters to many African Americans that they're African-American. Nor do I think it's any of my business whether it should matter to them or not. That's exactly the sort of thing that I take to be up to them.

IDEAS: There are, though, physiological differences between people whose ancestors came from different parts of the world. Doesn't that suggest some biological difference?

APPIAH: There's much more variation even within those continental populations than most people realize. If you take a characteristic like skin color, there are many biologically distinct ways of getting to look dark-skinned. Modern aborigines in Australia aren't especially closely related to modern Africans but they happen to both be, many of them, dark-skinned.

And if you start looking at [characteristics] other than the superficial ones on the basis of which we assign race, then some of them correlate with skin color and some don't.

IDEAS: In ''The Ethics of Identity'' you describe something you call the Medusa Syndrome. What is it?

APPIAH: It's really about freezing people in their identities by looking at them. Real identities have a kind of historical flexibility. A lot of cultural preservationists who purport to be respecting people in their identities are really just insisting that they stay the way they were.

IDEAS: Does this make you suspicious of attempts to preserve dying aboriginal cultures?

APPIAH: It depends why they're dying. If people want to live a certain way and they can't because they're sick and malnourished and we're taking their land away from them, I say cure them, make sure they have enough food, and give them their land back. But if it's dying because the young people want to do something else, that's just what happens.

Look, farming as a way of life is dying in the United States, but it's not dying because people are shooting the children of farmers, or abusing them, or denying them food or loans or anything--in fact, we massively subsidize them. It's just that people don't want to be farmers. Do I think that it would be a great tragedy if the form of life of a Midwestern farmer disappeared? Well, I don't want to sound un-American, but no, I don't.

IDEAS: You're one of the academics who started the blog Left2Right (, which aims to speak across the liberal/conservative divide. Yet you raised some hackles in a recent post by comparing right-wing evangelicals to Know-Nothings and peasants. What did you mean?

APPIAH: The Know-Nothings was a movement in the 19th century, and the analogy there was just to the hostility to intellectuals. Now, I don't think any fair-minded person can deny that there's a significant amount of hostility to intellectuals among right-wing evangelicals, so that just seems a fair comment.

As far as the comparison with peasants goes, I was thinking mostly about the foot soldiers in the movement, not the leaders. Somehow they care what the pointy-headed intellectuals think of them, in a way that the pointy-headed intellectuals don't care what the footsoldiers in the right-wing evangelical movement think about them. So I was making an analogy to the asymmetry between the ways in which peasants and aristocrats feel in a feudal society--the feudal lord doesn't care whether he has the respect of the peasant, but the peasant can be upset by the disrespect of the lord. This is actually a fairly mundane observation from sociology.

IDEAS: But it does imply a social hierarchy.

APPIAH: I wasn't endorsing the hierarchy, I was pointing to it and saying that it was a problem.

I got email about this--and it confirmed me in that opinion-- from people who apparently care what I think about them, but I don't care about their opinion about me, and I don't see why they should care about my opinion about them, because I think their opinion is misguided.

IDEAS: One of your chapters in the new book is titled ''The Trouble with Culture.'' What is the trouble with culture?

APPIAH: The trouble that most worries me is that people make appeals to cultural difference to justify resisting just the sort of moral demands that I think everybody ought to recognize. Appeals to culture are often appeals that aim to squash individuals, to say to the Saudi woman who wants to participate in the management of her society as a citizen, ''No, it's not our tradition, it's not our culture.'' That's just something that stops her exercising what I take to be her individual right. We can have an argument about whether that's OK, but it's not an adequate defense to say, ''Well, it's our culture.''

The problem is, there isn't consensus in the very societies that we're talking about. So maybe there are significant numbers of Saudi women who think [not being able to vote] is fine, but there are certainly some who don't, and there are some Saudi men who don't think it's fine, either.

Kwame Anthony Appiah will discuss his book ''The Ethics of Identity'' at the Harvard Book Store on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Information: Call (617) 661-1515.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. Email 

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