Introduction and background
I was introduced to Dr. Appiah by a friend. She gave me a hard copy of this book after I gave her another book to read, The Alchemist. The moment I started reading the first few pages, I was immediately captivated by Dr. Appiah’s style of writing and the way the text related to a reality I was familiar with in my daily life. I got even more interested as I learnt of the origins of the writer, born of an English mother and a Ghanaian-Asanti father who was a representative of Dr. Kwame Nkurumah in the UK, the latter leading Ghana to its independence a few years after the writer was born.
Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah was born in London and raised in Ghana, received his bachelors and PhD from Cambridge University. He has been described by his peers as a transcendence thinker and one of the foremost writers on identity, culture and difference. His other literally works include, Cosmopolitism, The Ethics of Identity, also he co-authored Africana; The Encyclopedia of the African and Afro-American experience. He is currently a professor of Philosophy at NYU.
The writer starts by addressing the issue of identity by sharing his experiences on what people usually ask when they hear his accent, “A brown skin man gets into a cab and talks with a vaguely British accent. If the driver is brown skinned too, he often tries to see if we have some sort of similarities. In the past few weeks, a Sikh and an Egyptian in New York have wandered where I was born. I answered, in London, knowing this is not going to be very helpful because that is not what they want to know really, what they want to know is where do your people coming from?”
The realities of our world today are changing as the writer observes that we are more connected than divided. He asks who is the real French? Is it the one in France with white skin or a Senegalese man with both passports who is rich in the French culture and language?
“A very large portion of the society now is mixed in terms of religion, mobility, cultures and interracial relations. Links and family ties change our perspective of who that group is, they are no longer distant strangers, they are now a distant cousin, friend who we identify with, we are no longer living in separate clusters. Human beings start from where they are”
The writer talks about the importance of family in forming one’s identity. He goes deeper into discussing gender, creed, color, country, class and culture as the driving forces in creating a person’s identity. He explains the theory of identity in the following way; “Identities come with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied; Your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and Your identity affects how other people treat you”
“Meritocracy, candidates with the combination of talent and the willingness to exert themselves should be awarded with opportunities to excel in education systems and other practices to rise in their careers. Work needs to have some meaning and education needs to make you a better human being”.
There is need for dialogue and understanding of identities to make society work. We need to take a Universal approach in taking care of children during their formative years through the system. As a society we should not settle for the way things are done but reflect on the fact that every human being matters and is entitled to opportunities within the society.
In Africa, a continent that was born out of divisions and misconceptions brought about by our white-washed history and distorted past, this book is like a deep-dive to our lives and our society. The writer covered dimensions of identity that reflect on many sources of conflicts in Africa namely Creed (Religion), Country, Color, Class and Culture. In recent history, identity in terms of the afore mentioned dimensions were the basis for apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda/Burundi, strong-man politicians throughout the African continent and so forth.
Modernism has put our identity in terms of culture, African culture, in jeopardy as western culture is promoted as superior. The writer discusses that, the high culture (the best notions from our culture) is not a natural possession of westerners. One must study and enter into a relationship with a culture to belong. An African can be an excellent scholar of another culture. One doesn’t belong to a given culture by simply being born into it. As Africans, we must study and embrace good practices within our culture in order to truly belong.
What stood out for me was regarding class identities that were the foundation of colonialism. The writer pointed out that, “Class identities don’t have to internalize these injuries of class and it remains an emergent collective endeavor to revise ways we think about the human worth in the service of moral equality”.
“We need to work to learn how to do what we don’t know how to do, that is, to eradicate contempt for those who are disfavored by the ethic of effortful competition”. The lives of the less successful are not less worthy. There is no way to compare human lives in that sense.”
This book is thought-provoking, invasive and a great way to learning one’s identity and understanding popular beliefs and their negative impact on identity. White, upper class people have no monopoly to high culture (the best that a certain group offers from their culture). Exclusive ownership of identity is not necessarily true, you become part of not born with a certain identity.