kwame appiah’s identity obfuscations

Kwame Appiah is an English/Ghanian “cosmopolitan” philosopher at NYU. The first time I wrote about him, it was because he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that there’s discrimination against autistic people, based on invoking Simon Baron-Cohen and not doing the slightest amount of background research. Threw the idea of affirmative action for autistic people under the bus, when to my knowledge he has no stake in the issue.

He has a new book called The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity, which I haven’t read. I’m inherently suspicious of a high-profile black guy questioning “identity politics” for white audiences. Sean Illing interviewed him about the book in Vox. He starts off by saying things that aren’t wrong:

The short answer is that identities are labels that we use to group each other. When you take one seriously, when you identify with a label, then you think of it as giving you reasons to do things and not to do things. If you’re a Catholic, you have reasons to obey the Catholic church and its teachings. You have reasons to help with Catholic organizations, and all the people associated with it, and that’s what makes it social.

And we respond to people in terms of these identities — so it’s not just that you have the label and you and the people who share it with you take it seriously, but other people do as well, and so the label affects how you’re treated. And once you see that that’s how identities work, you can see that they must be important at both the personal and political levels.

The problem with that passage is subtle. It’s that he’s making personal identification primary, and being identified that way by others secondary. This makes identity seem like more of a choice and less like something that’s imposed involuntarily by the people around you. In academia where Kwame Appiah lives, there’s a prevailing ethos of colorblindness. Standards in something like neuroscience are race-neutral. What could race possibly have to do with the interpretation of statistics about mice? Speaking from experience, you can spend long periods of time in that environment and not have to think about what race you are at all. There’s a sort of scholarly identity that’s more important. Of course, this colorblindness makes the white people more comfortable, and for them it’s an option to consider their whiteness or not. It seems positively backward-thinking to choose to make a big deal out of needless tribal divisions.

The empathy problem on display here is described in Loneliness and Its Opposite. A white person, or someone with the “privilege” of living in a colorblind environment, cannot simply imagine themselves to be something else on a shallow level, guess how they’d feel, and call that understanding other people.

Iris Young highlighted the dynamics of “symmetrical reciprocity” in order to draw attention to the way fantasies of identification and similarity–of being able to put oneself in the place of another–efface difference and disguise relations of power. She points out that while trying to imagine the perspective of another is helpful in carrying one beyond one’s own immediate standpoint, it is a mistake to think that we can ever capture or occupy the standpoint of the other person. “When people obey the injunction to put themselves in the position of others,” she writes, “they too often put themselves, with their own particular experiences and privileges in the positions they see the others being in.” Hence, “when privileged people put themselves in the position of those who are less privileged, the assumptions derived from their privilege often allow them unknowingly to misrepresent the other’s situation.”

That’s what Kwame Appiah is doing, by foregrounding individual choice. He was asked if identities reduce people to abstractions:

I think it can certainly do that. Especially when you forget that identity groups are incredibly diverse and that even people who share significant identities differ in all sorts of other ways. White people, for instance, are incredibly diverse, and one reason is that some of them are men and some of them are women, some of them are straight and some of them are not, and so on.

I think we run into dangers when we allow our identities to push us around, to make us do things we don’t actually want to do or need to do, just because we feel that’s what a black person would do or that’s what a white person would do or that’s what a Republican person would do. These identities can make all sorts of demands on us, and often that can overwhelm who we are as unique individuals.

The point in the first paragraph is trivial. The most identity politics of intersectionality people would agree.

The second paragaph is insidious by treating the demands of all identities as morally equivalent and not obligatory. He’s ignoring the fact that disidentification really can be an abdication of moral duty.

White people, by virtue of being white people, are obligated to do something about racism within their community. Colorblindness is an abdication of that duty.

The Black Bourgeoisie could do better.

Notice how he uses passive voice to downplay the fact that white people invented the concept of black people.

I don’t think it was always thus. People have always used labels to justify other people and those labels have always had something to do with appearance and ancestry. But there’s something distinctive about the modern way of doing it.

With the rise of the Atlantic slave trade, color comes to be very, very important in the Western world. The distinction between black people and white people and the native populations of the Caribbean, of the Americas, are mapped onto color, and these distinctions suddenly become extremely important.

And then in the early 19th century, with the rise of modern scientific ideas about humanity and the rise of modern biology, people come to think that these differences, these superficial differences in appearance, are a reflection of some deep physical separation. And so biology becomes this attempt to study the differences between these races and with that we get racism as we currently understand it.

The implicit white male subject of academic writing.

Yes, it’s very important to remember that someone you don’t share identities with is likely also someone you do share identities with. We’re currently very divided into political tribes in this country, and this defines the lines of conflict. But the areas of disagreement can become so outsized that they obscure the things we do share, like the fact that we’re all Americans.

We have to be very careful not to reduce other people to caricatures based solely on their partisan identity. You can never truly engage with people like that, and you’ll miss the things you actually do share. But if we get locked into fixed identities and locked into a cartoon interpretation of the other “team,” then we’re in deep trouble.

Sure, there’s something to the idea that we’re all global citizens, that there’s a shared human condition. The Enlightenment wasn’t all bad. But isn’t this just a way of repeating the racist trope that anyone complaining about current conditions is being “divisive?” There’s a reaction, so you should keep quiet.

“We’re all Americans?” Isn’t that exactly what’s at stake in politics right now? It’s not as easy as simply declaring yourself to be American. Even actual Americans have something to be worried about, with federal agents demanding to see their papers and an effort to end birthright citizenship underway.

If you allow your identity to be totally shaped by your opposition to a dominant culture, as many racial groups have done because of the history of racism and xenophobia, you can become locked into that minority status. The first time a group becomes conscious of itself as an important social group, it is because they realize that they’re all being subjected to something.

But if you define yourself through the act of opposition, then you’re letting the oppressors set the terms. And it might be better — though of course it’s proper to resist the racism, the xenophobia, the homophobia, the sexism — to give your identity an affirmative content.

First, you come together as a group to protect yourselves, but later you can develop an identity with positive content that isn’t based purely on hostility to your oppressors. That is far better in the long run.

Did I miss the memo where any social liberation movement definitively got the oppressors off their backs? We’re obviously not pretending we’re a post-racial society because Obama was president anymore. He’s saying that, for oppressed groups, efforts to get free are the reason they’re “locked into that minority status.” That’s just victim-blaming. It continues to be the oppressor’s fault.

On the one hand, he’s saying that I can choose to identify with blackness or not, and that we should question identity-based expectations. On the other hand, he’s saying that, because white people made up the idea of black people, black people need to invent special black people stuff to feel better, instead of just getting people off their backs.

He can only bring himself to condemn Donald Trump, official demagogue of people who’d want to murder his whole family for diluting white blood, in the most milquetoast of terms:

The key thing I think is to make sure that the teams are held together by more than just hatred and contempt for the other team. There’s always going to be an element of that, but if you lead with the hatred and contempt, as Donald Trump often does, then you’re leading irresponsibly.

We desperately need a way of doing politics that illuminates shared interests and emphasizes improving the conditions for everyone, not just a particular group. And we’ve seen this many, many times before, such as during the Civil Rights movement in which white and black people worked together for the welfare of everyone.

The goal there wasn’t merely to get recognition for one group over another, or to give one group a special standing over others, it was to produce an outcome in which everyone enjoyed the same rights and privileges.

Yes, Donald Trump is “leading irresponsibly.” Deep analysis like that is what we’d expect of an NYU professor.

And in the end he concedes that a lot of the preceding was irrelevant, because identity is necessary for the functioning of society:

It’s simply not possible to do politics without identity, unless we’re talking about the sort of politics that Aristotle imagined, which is politics in a community where everybody knows everybody else — but that’s not the world we live in. We have to be communities of strangers, and the only way communities of strangers can do anything together is through imaginative identification. And that’s what identity gives us.

So I completely agree with you, and that means we have to notice the dangers of identities and demand responsible leaders who will use them with an awareness of those dangers, and with a desire to advance common causes.