Presidential Lecture Series
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Stanford Humanities Center



From: In My Father’s House:

In My Father's House

“The Invention of Africa”

…there are many distinct doctrines that compete for the term racism, of which I shall try to articulate what I take to be the crucial three.

The first doctrine is the view—which I shall call racialism—that there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, which allow us to divide them into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. These traits and tendencies characteristic of a race constitute, on the racialist view, a sort of racial essence; it is part of the content of racialism that the essential heritable characteristics of the “Races of Man” account for more than the visible morphological characteristics—skin color, hair type, facial features—on the basis of which we make our informal classifications. Racialism is at the heart of nineteenth-century attempts to develop a science of racial difference, but it appears to have been believed by others—like Hegel, before then, and Crummell and many Africans since—who have had no interest in developing scientific theories.
Racialism is not, in itself, a doctrine that must be dangerous, even if the racial essence is thought to entail moral and intellectual dispositions. Provided positive moral qualities are distributed across the races, each can be respected, can have its “separate but equal” place.

Racialism is, however, a presupposition of other doctrines that have been called “racism,” and these other doctrines have been, in the last few centuries, the basis of a great deal of human suffering and the source of a great deal of moral error. One such doctrine we might call extrinsic racism: extrinsic racists make moral distinctions between members of different races because they believe that the racial essence entails certain morally relevant qualities. The basis for the extrinsic racists’ discrimination between people is their belief that members of different races differ in respects that warrant the differential treatment—respects, like honesty or courage or intelligence, that are uncontroversially held (at least in most contemporary cultures) to be acceptable as a basis for treating people differently. Evidence that there are no such differences in morally relevant characteristics—that Negroes do not necessarily lack intellectual capacities, that Jews are not especially avaricious—should thus lead people out of their racism if it is purely extrinsic. As we know, such evidence often fails to change an extrinsic racist’s attitudes substantially, for some of the extrinsic racist’s best friends have always been Jewish. But at this point—if the racist is sincere—what we have is no longer a false doctrine but a cognitive incapacity.

I said that the sincere extrinsic racist may suffer from a cognitive incapacity. But some who espouse extrinsic racist doctrines are simply insincere intrinsic racists. For intrinsic racists, on my definition, are people who differentiate morally between members of different races, because they believe that each race has a different moral status, quite independent of the moral characteristics entailed by its racial essence. Just as, for example, many people assume that the bare fact that they are biologically related to another person—a brother, an aunt, a cousin—gives them a moral interest in that person, so an intrinsic racist holds that the bare fact of being of the same race is a reason for preferring one person to another. For an intrinsic racist, no amount of evidence that a member of another race is capable of great moral, intellectual, or cultural achievements, or has characteristics that, in members of one’s own race, would make them admirable or attractive, offers any ground for treating that person as she would treat similarly endowed members of her own race. (p.13-15)

"Old Gods, New Gods"

The accommodative style is possible because orality makes it hard to discover discrepancies. And so it is possible to have an image of knowledge as unchanging lore, handed down from the ancestors. It is no wonder, with this image of knowledge, that there is no systematic research: nobody need ever notice that the way that traditional theory is used requires inconsistent interpretations. It is literacy that makes possible the precise formulation of questions that we have just noticed as one of the characteristics of scientific theory, and it is precise formulation that points up inconsistency. (p.130)

It is this belief in the plurality of invisible spiritual forces that makes possible the—to Western eyes—extraordinary spectacle of a Catholic bishop praying at a Methodist wedding in tandem with traditional royal appeal to the ancestors. For most of the participants at the wedding, God can be addressed in different styles—Methodist, Catholic, Anglican, Moslem, traditional—and the ancestors can be addressed also. Details about the exact nature of the Eucharist, about any theological issues, are unimportant: that is a theoretical question, and theory is unimportant when the practical issue is getting God on your side. After all, who needs a theory about who it is that you are talking to, if you hear a voice speak?

These beliefs in invisible agents mean that most Africans cannot fully accept those scientific theories in the West that are inconsistent with it. I do not believe, despite what many appear to think, that this is a reason for shame or embarrassment. But it is something to think about. If modernization is conceived of, in part, as the acceptance of science, we have to decide whether we think that evidence obliges us to give up the invisible ontology. We can easily be misled here by the accommodation between science and religion that has occurred among educated people in the industrialized world, in general, and in the United States, in particular. For this has involved a considerable limitation of the domains in which it is permissible for intellectuals to invoke spiritual agency. The question how much of the world of the spirits we intellectuals must give up (or transform into something ceremonial without the old literal ontology) is one we must face: and I do not think the answer is obvious.

“Tout Africain qui voulait faire quelque chose de positif devait commencer par détruire toutes ces vieilles croyances qui consistent à creer le merveilleux là où il n’y a que phénomène natural: volcan, forét vierge, foudre, soleil, etc." says the narrator of Aké Loba’s Kocoumbo, l’etudiant noir. But even if we agreed that all our old beliefs were superstitions, we should need principles to guide our choices of new ones. Further, there is evidence that the practical successes of technology, associated with the methods and motives of inquiry that I have suggested, are largely absent in traditional culture. The question whether we ought to adopt these methods is not a purely technical one. We cannot avoid the issue of whether it is possible to adopt adversarial, individualistic cognitive styles, and keep, as we might want to, accommodative, communitarian morals. Cultures and peoples have often not been capable of maintaining such double standards (and I use the term nonpejoratively, for perhaps we need different standards for different purposes), so that if we are going to try, we must face up to these difficulties. Scientific method may lead to progress in our understanding of the world, but you do not have to be a Thoreauvian to wonder if it has led only to progress in the pursuit of all our human purposes. In this area we can learn together with other cultures—including, for example, the Japanese culture, which has apparently managed a certain segregation of moral-political and cognitive spheres. In this respect, it seems to me obvious that the Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu is right. We will only solve our problems if we see them as human problems arising out of a special situation, and we shall not solve them if we see them as African problems, generated by our being somehow unlike others. (p.135-36.)

"The Postcolonial and the Postmodern"

I want to argue that to understand our—our human—modernity we must first understand why the rationalization of the world can no longer be seen as the tendency either of the West or of history; why, simply put, the modernist characterization of modernity must be challenged. To understand our world is to reject Weber’s claim for the rationality of what he called rationalization and his projection of its inevitability; it is, then, to have a radically post-Weberian conception of modernity.

Postmodernism can be seen, then, as a new way of understanding the multiplication of distinctions that flows from the need to clear oneself a space; the need that drives the underlying dynamic of cultural modernity. Modernism saw the economization of the world as the triumph of reason; postmodernism rejects that claim, allowing in the realm of theory the same multiplication of distinctions we see in the cultures it seeks to understand. (p.144-46)

If there is no way out for the post-colonial intellectual…, it is, I suspect, because as intellectuals—a category instituted in black Africa by colonialism—we are always at risk of becoming Otherness-machines. It risks becoming our prinicpal role. Our only distinction in the world of texts to which we are latecomers is that we can mediate it to our fellows. This is especially true when postcolonial meets postmodem, for what the postmodem reader seems to demand of its Africa is all too close to what modernism—as documented in William Rubin’s Primitivism exhibit of 1985—demanded of it. The role that Africa, like the rest of the Third World, plays for Euro-American postmodernism—like its better-documented significance for modernist art—must be distinguished from the role postmodernism might play in the Third World. What that might be it is, I think, too early to tell. And what happens will happen not because we pronounce upon the matter in theory but out of the changing everyday practices of African cultural life.

For all the while, in Africa’s cultures, there are those who will not see themselves as Other. Despite the overwhelming reality of economic decline; despite unimaginable poverty; despite wars, malnutrition, disease, and political instability, African cultural productivity grows apace: popular literatures, oral narrative and poetry, dance, drama, music, and visual art all thrive. The contemporary cultural production of many African societies—and the many traditions whose evidences so vigorously remain—is an antidote to the dark vision of [the “manufacture of otherness.”] (p.157)

"African Identities"

“Race” disables us because it proposes as a basis for common action the illusion that black (and white and yellow) people are fundamentally allied by nature and, thus, without effort; it leaves us unprepared, therefore, to handle the “intraracial” conflicts that arise from the very different situations of black (and white and yellow) people in different parts of the economy and of the world.

The African metaphysics of Soyinka disables because it founds our unity in gods who have not served us well in our dealings with the world—Soyinka never defends the “African World” against Wiredu’s charge that since people die daily in Ghana because they prefer traditional herbal remedies to Western medicines, “any inclination to glorify the unanalytical [i.e. the traditiona] cast of mind is not just retrograde; it is tragic.” Soyinka has proved the Yoruba pantheon a powerful literary resource, but he cannot explain why Christianity and Islam have so widely displaced the old gods, or why an image of the West has so powerful a hold on the contemporary Yoruba imagination; nor can his mythmaking offer us the resources for creating economies and polities adequate to our various places in the world. (p.176)

There are, I think three crucial lessons to be learned from these cases. First, that identities are complex and multiple and grow out of a history of changing responses to economic, political, and cultural forces, almost always in opposition to other identities. Second, that they flourish despite what I earlier called our “misrecognition” of their origins; despite, that is, their roots in myths and in lies. And third, that there is, in consequence, no large place for reason in the construction—as opposed to the study and the management—of identities. One temptation, then, for those who see the centrality of these fictions in our lives, is to leave reason behind: to celebrate and endorse those identities that seem at the moment to offer the best hope of advancing our other goals, and to keep silence about the lies and the myths. But, as I said earlier, intellectuals do not easily neglect the truth, and, all things considered, our societies profit, in my view, from the institutionalization of this imperative in the academy. So it is important for us to continue trying to tell our truths. But the facts I have been rehearsing should imbue us all with a strong sense of the marginality of such work to the central issue of the resistance to racism and ethnic violence—and to sexism, and to the other structures of difference that shape the world of power; they should force upon us the clear realization that the real battle is not being fought in the academy. (p.178-79)

From: Color Conscious:

Color Conscious

African-American identity, as I have argued, is centrally shaped by American society and institutions: it cannot be seen as constructed solely within African-American communities. African-American culture, if this means shared beliefs, values, practices, does not exist: what exists are African-American cultures, and though these are created and sustained in large measure by African-Americans, they cannot be understood without reference to the bearers of other American racial identities. (p.95-96)

Once the racial label is applied to people, ideas about what it refers to, ideas that may be much less consensual than the application of the label, come to have their social effects. But they have not only social effects but psychological ones as well; and they shape the ways people conceive of themselves and their projects. In particular, the labels can operate to shape what I want to call "identification": the process through which an indiviaul intentionally shapes her projects—including her plans for her own life and her conception of the good—by reference to available labels, available identities. (p.78)

It does not follow from the fact that identification shapes action, shapes life plans, that the identification itself must be thought of as voluntary. I don’t recall ever choosing to identify as a male; but being male has shaped many of my plans and actions. In fact, where my ascriptive identity is one on which almost all my fellow citizens agree, I am likely to have little sense of choice about whether the identity is mine; though I can choose how central my identification with it will be—choose, that is, how much I will organize my life around that identity. Thus if I am among those (like the unhappily labeled “straight-acting gay men,” or most American Jews) who are able, if they choose, to escape ascription, I may choose not to take up a gay or a Jewish identity; though this will require concealing facts about myself or my ancestry from others.
If, on the other hand, I fall into the class of those for whom the consensus on ascription is not clear—as among contemporary socalled biracials, or bisexuals, or those many white Americans of multiple identifiable ethnic heritages—I may have a sense of identity options: but one way I may exercise them is by marking myself ethnically (as when someone chooses to wear an Irish pin) so that others will then be more likely to ascribe that identity to me. (p.80)

First of all, it needs to be argued, and not simply assumed, that black Americans, say, taken as a group, have a common culture: values and beliefs and practices that they share and that they do not share with others. This is equally true for, say, Chinese-Americans; and it is a fortiori true of white Americans. What seems clear enough is that being an African-American or an Asian-American or white is an important social identity in the United States. Whether these are important social identities because these groups have shared common cultures is, on the other hand, quite doubtful, not least because it is doubtful whether they have common cultures at all.

The issue is important because an analysis of America’s struggle with difference as a struggle among cultures suggests a mistaken analysis of how the problems of diversity arise. With differing cultures, we might expect misunderstandings arising out of ignorance of each others’ values, practices, and beliefs; we might even expect conflicts because of differing values or beliefs. The paradigms of difficulty in a society of many cultures are misunderstandings of a word or a gesture; conflicts over who should take custody of the children after a divorce; whether to go to the doctor or to the priest for healing.

Once we move from talking of cultures to identities whole new kinds of problems come into view. Racial and ethnic identities are, for example, essentially contrastive and relate centrally to social and political power; in this way they are like genders and sexualities. (p.88)

Collective identities, in short, provide what we might call scripts: narratives that people can use in shaping their life plans and in telling their life stories.

This is not just a point about modern Westerners: cross-culturally it matters to people that their lives have a certain narrative unity; they want to be able to tell a story of their lives that makes sense. The story—my story—should cohere in the way appropriate by the standards made available in my culture to a person of my identity. In telling that story, how I fit into the wider story of various collectivities is, for most of us, important. It is not just gender identities that give shape (through, for example, rites of passage into woman- or manhood) to one’s life: ethnic and national identities too fit each individual story into a larger narrative. (p.97)

They would all produce a population less various in some of the respects that make a difference to major socioeconomic indicators. This would not mean that everybody would be the same as everybody else—but it could lead to a more recreational conception of racial identity. It would make African-American identity more like Irish-American identity is for most of those who care to keep the label. And that would allow us to resist one persistent feature of ethnoracial identities: that they risk becoming the obsessive focus, the be-all and end-all, of the lives of those who identify with them. They lead people to forget that their individual identities are complex and multifarious—that they have enthusiasms that do not flow from their race or ethnicity, interests and tastes that cross ethnoracial boundaries, that they have occupations or professions, are fans of clubs and groups. And they then lead them, in obliterating the identities they share with people outside their race or ethnicity, away from the possibility of identification with Others. Collective identities have a tendency, if I may coin a phrase, to “go imperial,” dominating not only people of other identities, but the other identities, whose shape is exactly what makes each of us what we individually and distinctively are. (p.103)

From: "The Multiculturalist Misunderstanding"
The New York Review of Books, 44:15, October 9, 1997.

Have you noticed that “culture”—the word—has been getting a heavy work-out recently? Anthropologists, of course, have used it zealously for over a century; though the term’s active life in literature and politics began long before that. But some current ways in which the concept of culture has been put to use would have surprised even mid-century readers; especially the idea that everything from anorexia to zydeco is illuminated by being displayed as the product of some group’s culture. It’s got to the point that when you hear the word “culture,” you reach for your dictionary.

The growing salience of race and gender as social irritants, which may seem to reflect the call of collective identities, is a reflection, as much as anything else, of the individual's concern for dignity and respect. As our society slouches on toward a fuller realization of its ideal of social equality, everyone wants to be taken seriously—to be respected, not “dissed.” Because on many occasions disrespect still flows from racism, sexism, and homophobia, we respond, in the name of all black people, all women, all gays, as the case may be, taking the high road of Kantian principle. But the truth is that what mostly irritates us in these moments is that we, as individuals, feel diminished.

And the trouble with appeal to cultural difference is that it obscures rather than illuminates this situation. It is not black culture that the racist disdains, but blacks. There is no conflict of visions between black and white cultures that is the source of racial discord. No amount of knowledge of the architectural achievements of Nubia or Kush guarantees respect for African-Americans. No African-American is entitled to greater concern because he is descended from a people who created jazz or produced Toni Morrison. Culture is not the problem, and it is not the solution.


Thanks to Paul Thomas, Area Studies, Stanford University Libraries,
for assistance with these excerpts.

Stanford University ©2004.


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