Kwame Anthony Appiah | Identity

The interview was conducted in May 2021 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

About Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony Appiah was born in London to a Ghanaian father and a British mother. He grew up in Ghana but later on moved back to England to study. He earned his PhD in Philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge. Currently, he lives in New York and is a professor in philosophy and law at NYU. Prior to this, he has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, Harvard and Princeton universities and has given lectures around the world. He has spent many years contemplating the phenomenon of identity, which is also the topic of his latest book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture. from 2018.

Kwame Anthony Appiah's book The Lies That Bind - Rethinking Identity. The book contains Appiah's thoughts on topics like race, ethnicity, gender, transgender, class and nationality.
Appiah’s latest book was published in 2018 and is about how to think about identities.

In your book, your definition of identity consists of three elements. Could you please explain them?
– The first element of the definition is that to get an identity you have to have a label. This is what a philosopher would call nominalist. For example man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, trans, cis. These are labels. It does not need to be only one label; some identities have a lot of labels. But you need at least one. Second, the label has to mean something to the people who have it. This is basically a subjective identification, i.e. the process by which people think of themselves falling under the label. It has consequences for people and some of those consequences are what I call norms of identification. There are ideas about what you ought to do because you are a man or woman, gay or straight, trans or cis. The third element is what makes them social. People respond to the label. They respond to the identity. They treat people who are men differently from the way they treat women. They treat trans and cis people differently and so on. Those are the three elements: the labels, the identification and the treatment.

– However, these are things each of which can also be the subject of contest. There can be disagreements about whether a Muslim can really be Swedish, or whether someone who was born into a body which was identified as male can really become a woman. There can be disagreements about the label, about the norms of identification and about what it means to be someone who has that label. And of course, there can be disagreements about how you ought to treat people on the basis of their identity.

When we talk about who is part of an identity group and who is not, what are the rules? Is there an unwritten list of requirements that need to be fulfilled in order to be counted as a part of a certain identity?
– For the label to work there has to be some agreement about how to apply it. We could not work with labels if 90% of the people you thought were Swedish, I thought were not Swedish. We would not be able to keep track of what we were talking about. However, there can be disagreements about the boundaries. The standard rule for being Swedish presumably has something to do with the sorts of things that are in the citizenship law. Usually it is about being born in Sweden or being born to parents who are Swedish. Maybe also speaking Swedish, but of course not everybody in Sweden speak Swedish. These are things you use in order to apply the label and there has to be a general agreement about who they apply to. But there can be disagreements about who is really in or really out. For example, who is really a man? Is a female to male trans person really a man? There have got to be clear cases as well. Boris Johnson, Barack Obama, Xi Jinping are all men for sure.

“I have a great nephew, who is living near Oslo in Norway. He is half Namibian, a quarter Norwegian, an eight Ghanaian and British and he has a Norwegian passport. Is he Norwegian?”

The term family resemblance was popularized by Wittgenstein, and I understand it to be used in psychology. For example, there can be a list of ten symptoms and if you have four of them, then you belong to that category. It seemed like something that could be applied for identities as well. It does not matter how many criteria I list for being a Swede, but there will always be examples of Swedes who do not live up to those certain criteria, but all Swedes probably fulfill some of them. Does this make sense to you?
– The reason Wittgenstein called it family resemblance was that families are just like that. I have the same nose as my grandfather, but some of my cousins do not. However, some of them have the same eyebrows as my grandfather. In a family, any two members of the family will share a bunch of the features, but there won’t be a set of features that every member of the family shares and that distinguish them for everybody else. The things that everybody in the family have in common, they will have in common with lots of other people who are not in the family. But what marks the family is that each pair of the family members has resemblance to one another.

– This is especially true for something like a national identity. You wouldn’t be surprised if it was like a family resemblance, because just like a family, national identities essentially are characterized by sharing ancestry. People who have the same ancestors, inherit some of the genetic material from those ancestors. So it is not surprising that the notion of family resemblance often applies to identities, but I would say that it is in part because many of them are defined by ancestral and decent, just like a family. On the contrary, citizenship for example is defined by a precise set of rules. There are two ways of being a citizen, you can be born a citizen or you can become a citizen by following the rules. Those are the only two conditions you have to satisfy in order to be a citizen. A national identity on the other hand, is less precise. It does not have to be defined by law.

– I have a great nephew, who is living near Oslo in Norway. He is half Namibian, a quarter Norwegian, an eight Ghanaian and British and he has a Norwegian passport. Is he Norwegian? There might be people who think that he was never Norwegian because they have ideas about how much of your ancestry should come from Norway. In America, because so many people are the descendants of immigrants, that is part of the national self-understanding. We don’t insist that people have to be born in America to be fully American. There are many imported Americans, including some of the founders who signed the declaration of independence. None of them were born in the United States, of course, because it didn’t exist at that time.

A Norwegian passport - is that enough to be seen as having a Norwegian identity? How does identity and citizenship go hand in hand?

There are people who don’t see their national identity as zero sum. Rather than saying that they are for example 50% American and 50% Swedish, they say that they are 100% American and 100% Swedish. This is to emphasize that one national identity does not take anything away from the other. That they are not less American because they’re also Swedish and vice versa.
– The percentage is of course a sort of metaphor. To say that I am 100% Swedish is both to claim rights and also to make commitments. It’s to say that not only do I have all these rights, but I care about Sweden and I want Sweden to flourish. I do think that the idea of someone who has ancestry from several places is somehow incapable to be fully loyal to any of them, is just a historical mistake. There are plenty of examples of people who were fully loyal to somewhere while being born somewhere else. Napoleon was a Corsican, but that didn’t stop him from being 100% French in that metaphor. I believe Boris Johnson is half American. And of course Winston Churchill had an American mother. I think it would be strange to deny that Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill were fully British.

You have said that identity is a negotiation between the individual and society. If we have a conflict, in which I identify as for example working class but the rest of society considers me upper class, how do we solve that?
-In those cases you need to become a bit more explicit than you normally have to be about what you think the rules are for assigning the label. Someone would probably point out the fact that you have an income in the top 10% of the national incomes, that you went to the university and you have two degrees. All those are signs of upper class status. You could then counter with saying that you were born to poor people, that you grew up in very tough circumstances and in all the education you got, you started out far behind many of your contemporaries because they had been raised in middle and upper class households. As you can see, once you have made explicit what the contest is about, it can seem a bit silly to go on arguing. Now we know why you claimed to be working class and we know why others think you are upper class. Do we really need to go on to find the “real answer”?

“To me, the question does not seem to be metaphysical. It’s not about what the correct answer is in the social ontology. The question is ethical.”

Gender identity

In you book you write about different identity categories like race and nationality. One category that did not get its own chapter is gender. Gender is one of the most polarizing topics being discussed in society today. One side claims that gender is all about self-identification, i.e. based on a person’s subjective feelings their gender can change and society should accept that. The other side claims that gender is linked to objective biology and it doesn’t matter what you think you are. It seems like we need to solve this identity conflict, because it has an actual effect on rights. Most commonly discussed is the usage of locker rooms, bathrooms and participation in sports. It would be interesting to hear your take on this.
– I did discuss gender in the first chapter of the book, and that was in part because I think of the work that has been done by feminist philosophers on gender as a kind of model for analyzing other forms of identities. On the cis-trans question, I think this is a good example of a case where what is needed is negotiation. A conversation among all the parties about how we are going to adjust our thinking about gender. There are three kinds of relevant people here. There are cis-people who identify with the gender assigned to them on the basis of their sexual body at birth. There are people who do not agree with that and think of themselves as belonging to the other one of the two main gender categories. Then there are also the non-binary people who don’t really want to think of themselves either as men or women.

Gender is a type of identity. But is it completely subjective? Or to a big part objective and connected to biology?

– To me, the question does not seem to be metaphysical. It’s not about what the correct answer is in the social ontology. The question is ethical. Are we going to adjust our thinking about gender in ways that will increase the number of people who are happy with their gender identities? It costs me nothing to allow somebody who is assigned a female gender on the basis of their body at birth, to say that he is a man. On the other hand, it matters a lot to trans people to be recognized according to the gender of their identification. Of course, before most of us thought about the cis-trans question, we were used to the thought that locker rooms and bathrooms would be gendered. Therefore it was natural that we would only ever meet people who were clearly, by our own criteria, of our own gender in those places. When we meet someone there who is not, by our original criteria, clearly of our gender, it can be a bit discomforting because bathrooms and locker rooms are places where we are very conscious of our sexual bodies. Heterosexual cis-men are often anxious if they think, not just that there is somebody who might have a non-male body, but that there is someone who might desire a male body around. So they are already anxious about gay men in the locker rooms, but they understand that they can’t exclude gay men.

– Just as soldiers have gotten used to sharing barracks, dormitories and latrines with straight and gay men and straight and gay women, we can just get used to being in the locker rooms with trans-men if we are men and trans-women if we are women. To me, that seems like the decent thing to do. But in order to do that, we have to be willing to negotiate. Trans people have spent the last few decades urging us to think about it in this new way. They have been urging us to allow a space for them in our gender system and to reshape the system in order to allow them in.

“A movement to make race more a matter of subjective identification is perfectly possible. But whether that makes sense in our society or not is something that will have to be negotiated.”

Would you be willing to stretch this beyond gender and say that any identity would be okay to assign to somebody based on their subjective feelings?
– I don’t think you can do that without negotiation. Part of the utility of identities to us is that the rules give us some structure to our social lives. If you change the rules, you change the structure. People have to decide that they’re willing to go along with it that way. For example, there was a woman in the United States a couple of years ago called Rachel Dolezal. She was born to two white parents but had adopted African American children. I believe she also had an African American adopted sibling. She curled her hair in a way that made it look as though she might be African American and she had darkened her skin. She identified as African American. The problem was that she didn’t tell people that this was what she was doing. She didn’t say that she was born to a white family. She just went around pretending to be black.

– That is not an option in our current racial system in the United States. Maybe it should be, but to make it an option she would have had to do what trans people did. She would have had to engage in the social negotiation with all of us, to see if we could reshape our thinking about race. Her reasons to such a proposal would have made some sense. She was living in the black community. She was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had made moves to validate her claim and they were not made in order to deceive anybody. They were made because that’s how she felt. Nevertheless, the effect was deceptive. That’s not one of the things that is currently allowed by most people in our thinking about race. A movement to make race more a matter of subjective identification is perfectly possible. But whether that makes sense in our society or not is something that will have to be negotiated.

The topic of identity is complex.

– You can’t just declare yourself to be anything you like. I can’t declare myself to be Polish. If I were married to a Pole, learned to speak Polish, learned how to cook Polish sausages and started going to the Polish catholic church, you would begin to see why I was claiming to be Polish. Then people in the Polish community might accept me. In fact, in many communities today when a woman marries in, she’s allowed to adopt the ethnicity of her husband. This is provided that she goes along in the ways I just mentioned, like learning the language, dressing in the national costume and so on. That makes sense to people. This is how I think about it. You can’t just do it by yourself. These labels belong to all of us and we therefore have to negotiate how they work. But a decent person will want to adjust them in ways that make them work for as many people as possible.

The problematic factor is that some identities are linked to certain rights, and to have rules we need clear definitions. In the case you just mentioned, with you being Polish, you might be able to present good arguments. But in the real world we will not have the opportunity to look into every individual’s case. We need clear rules and definitions about who will be allowed to participate in certain sports or use certain locker rooms. We won’t know who is authentic and who deceives. Or can we?
– When you’re trying to settle legal rules, you need movements. The trans movement has asked us to reshape, not just the social understanding but the legal rules. To do that they had to engage in politics. They have convinced many of us that they should be allowed to have identity documents that define them by their preferred identity, and that we should then treat them as the gender that they identify with. So yes, we have to have rules. We have to negotiate them, and it’s obvious that there are arguments on both sides. When it comes to sports, the reason we have gendered sports have to do with statistical differences between the bodies of people who are of one sex and people who are of another sex. Issues arise with this because not everybody are either XX or XY.

Transgender participation in sports has caused a heated debate and it all comes back to identity.

– There is also a really important point here about gender, which is actually a point about all identities that I can think of. There is an enormous diversity within each of the uncontested cases of gender. Men who are uncontestably men, vary enormously in the amount of testosterone they have in their body, their physical strength, muscles and so on. So do women. In particular, there are men who lie within the same muscle strength and testosterone range as normal woman. For trans people, aspects of their bodies may well fall outside the standard rage for people of their gender. But that’s going to be true for some cis-people too. What makes you good in sports is, among other things, a great deal of hard work.


Yuval Noah Harari is praising nationalism as one of the greatest projects in human history. Obviously not the ultra-nationalism that leads to fascism, but he focuses on the good aspects of nationalism that makes us care about millions of people that we never met and probably will never meet. He doesn’t see any contradiction between nationalism and globalism. What you think about that?
– I think he is right in what he’s affirming. It is important to say as well, though, that there is bad nationalism as well as good nationalism. That is true about most identities. But yes, I’m very keen on national identity. Harari is Israeli, so he grew up in a new state. So did I, being born in Ghana before the independence. By the time I was three, we were independent and my father was in an independent parliament in this new country. I definitely know what good nationalism looks like. It’s the nationalism that kicked my mother’s people, the British, out of my father’s country and gave us self-governance. That project I’m in all favor of. But obviously over the last century and earlier, there have been horrible kinds of nationalism. Nationalism was often allied with racism unfortunately. But of course nationalism can be enormously positive, we just have to be careful to keep it on that path, and to keep it away from the negative nationalist path which is very, very dangerous, as we know from the history of the 20th century.

Does it seem like madness to you when people say that they are willing to die for their country?
– No, it doesn’t seem like madness. Enough people have done it throughout history that I take it to be a thing that humans do. But, I think we probably don’t want to have nations that you need to die for. The United Nations made the starting of wars a crime in international law. So we ought not to need to die for our countries. No form of nationalism that is legitimate will be starting wars. Of course, legitimate nationalism will be defending itself from illegal wars. But we ought to be making a world in which your country is something you live for, not something you die for.

Click here to buy the book:
The Lies That Bind – Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Appiah's book on identity, The Lies That Bind - Rethinking Identity.

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