Racial discourse has come to dominate modern political discourse and rightfully so. While America has made strives to reform its racial foundation that determines political, social, and economic interactions, the concept of race has entered into the American vernacular and societal consciousness. Kwame Anthony Appiah, rather than taking a socio-historical, classist, metaphysical, or scientific context, approaches through this previous frame of understanding.

Appiah comes to approach the notion of “biological race” as problematic, arguing that these categories and labels are actually detrimental to the individual by constraining their freedom and limiting their possibilities. Essentially, the categories of race that we have come to know of are merely oversimplifications that do little to tell us about the individual. His most prominent work, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, reverses the theoretical discussion, focusing on meaning and validity of race as a system of categorization rather than the consequences of race in society, or racism, that most theorists start from.

Thus, taking a radical shift, Appiah contends that “American social distinctions cannot be understood in terms of the concept of race”. There are no human races, just the human race itself. But if not race, what do we use to describe different ethnic, cultural, and societal groups? Appiah offers the term “racial identity” as a more suitable alternative, even though he will later argue that this is not an ever-lasting solution.

Going along with this criticism of a racial frame, Appiah, in his article “Education for Global Citizenship”, describes his conception of cosmopolitanism. According to him, different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.” Therefore, this connects back to his ideas of the human race itself being the center point for identification, not stringent racial categories that reinforce Eurocentric views of different people. Within this ideology, cultural differences should be valued in so far as they are not destructive to people and conflict with our primary universal concern for every human’s well being that precedes all other questions. In this cosmopolitan-like society, its role is to appeal to “our own” government to ensure that nation-states assume responsibility, protect, and provide for their respective citizens. Only under these conditions can true autonomy flourish to the point where racial markers make little sense in describing ourselves and others.

While these may seem controversial at first glance since race is a deciding factor in so many aspects of our daily lives, Appiah does still offer valuable considerations that are necessary for pursuing autonomy, freedom, and dignity. We should be careful to operate under skewed and limited understandings of people based only on little information. This in turn leads to stereotypes and violence that is detrimental to the growth of the individual and society as a whole.


To learn more about Kwame Anthony Appiah, watch these lectures or visit these sites!

Financial Times Magazine