The Part of Being that Kwame Appiah Knows Better than You
Sheridan Wilbur, contributing writer
Kwame Appiah, NYU Professor of Philosophy and Law and Ethicist columnist for the New York Times Magazine, breaks down individual differences with ‘Five C’s’ — to rebuild our construction of identity and transcend across divides.
Kwame Appiah found himself in a sweat. Over the years and around the world, chatty cabbies placed him in the hot seat. He got sized up as “colored” in Cape Town and labeled as Ethiopian in Rome. When in London, the taxi driver refused to believe he did not speak Hindi. In São Paulo, Appiah was mistaken as Brazilian and addressed in Portuguese.
Appiah daydreamed about identities as taxi drivers scratched their heads in confusion — this passenger spoke with an accent that did not match his appearance. Eventually they reached enough discomfort in the driver’s seat to escape the suffocation of assumptions. They came up for air and asked Appiah, “So, where are you from?”
As someone who was born in the United Kingdom to an English woman who “happened to work in London,” who met his Ghanaian father, a law student from the Gold Coast, his origin answer can be long winded. Appiah comes from two families — two places — too far apart.
He could have reduced his identity. He could have simplified where he was ‘from’ and responded, “London,” but the taxi drivers did not want to know where he was born. They wanted to know where he comes from, originally. What the taxi driver wanted to really know is, “What are you?”
Everyone loses the complexity of “what we are” when we reduce our identity to sound bites or geographical categories. The truth of his response goes beyond small talk. Appiah, and every other human on earth, holds an identity with more nuance and complexity than location alone can accommodate.
What makes you, you?
The modern idea of identity is incomplete. We continue to live with unjust legacies of the 19th century.
“Each person’s sense of self is bound to be shaped by his or her own background, beginning with family but spreading out in many directions — to nationality, which binds us to places; to gender, which connects each of us with roughly half the species; and to such categories as class, sexuality, race, and religion, which all transcend our local affiliations.” — Kwame Appiah, ‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity’
‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity’ looks at “What makes you, you?” through the looking-glass of five categories: country, class, creed, color and culture. We inherited a mess. In nearly 300 pages, Appiah gives us the language of the ‘Five Cs’ to unravel the origin question and clarify components of identity.
Your inheritance — the culture, beliefs, social conditions, traits, stories and perspectives received from past generations — affects how you move through life and interact with others. These traits, tangled in culture or class or social expectations, shape a unique inheritance that help determine how you see the world, behave and communicate. The intersection of country, class, creed, color and culture broaden the vantage of your inherited perspective.
For many of us, explaining identity, whether to our friends or taxi drivers, can be overwhelming. While these dimensions and their intersections are important to acknowledge, they are not essential to what we ‘are.’ The multifaceted ‘Five C’s’ serve as a shared language to begin to explore identity.
What is identity? Why does it matter?
“There’s no dispensing with identities, but we need to understand them better if we can hope to reconfigure them and free ourselves from mistakes about them that are often a couple of hundred years old.” — Kwame Appiah, ‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity’
Appiah examines identity in categories and prioritizes our duty to know ourselves beyond labels. Categories of identity do not serve as a way to fit each other neatly into boxes. Categories allow us to open boxes up. We must acknowledge that people are complicated.
Beyond the personal journey to know yourself, Appiah envisions the pursuit of a collective, cosmopolitan identity. His goal is to overcome the individuated meanings we construct to expand connection across the spectrum of divides.
Our reluctance to recognize the differences and distortions between us leads to confusion and conflict. When you cannot recognize your differences with another person or community, this lack of recognition may actually make everyone feel more divided and stress the effects differences have on each other’s behavior.
A step-by-step guide to Appiah’s ‘Five C’s’
In order to see others clearly, you must first see yourself. How does your upbringing compare to your parents, family or peers? Have you moved to a different county or experienced dramatic social mobility? These questions, offered in ‘The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity,’ may provide insight into your inheritance and help cultivate empathy for those whose experiences differ from your own.
1. Name the country you were born in, raised in, and where your ancestors lived.
Country — a group of people bound by ancestry. According to Appiah, countrymen share a common descent and a bond that lies in the hearts and minds of its members.
In what countries were your family members born?
The country you associate with may not be the place you were born, raised in or even where your ancestors lived. The primary function of a country is to form a united state and to maintain itself as such but, oftentimes, citizens do not have one cohesive origin story.
What stories do you know about where your family and your ancestors came from?
Singapore, for example, hosts a multiplicity of origins and has a history of complicated linguistic and demographic inheritances among its citizens odf Chinese, Malay and Indian descent. What makes people Singaporean are the forward looking commitments they adopt and the shared commitment to live a common life together.
As a citizen, what responsibilities do you have to your country?
Citizens participate in their common ancestry through what the philosopher Charles Taylor called the “politics of recognition.” Singaporeans are united by what the state provides: identity cards, education and other tools of recognition to solidify the fluid boundaries of their nation-state. Over time, civic creeds among nation states have grown and so have stories about their peoples.
Take a moment to jot down some stories that stand out from your childhood about where your family is from.
2. Determine what class you belong to.
Class — the social hierarchies of income, education, and status that determine what social groups you identify with. You may have been born into a particular class, but identify with a different one today. Notice what comes up for you as you consider the following questions.
What social class were you raised in and what social class do you identify with now? Has it changed?
How do you determine class in others? Is it by the clothes they wear, or something else?
How does your class identity affect the way others perceive and treat you?
3. Reflect on your religious creed: the body of beliefs, rites, practices and community that comprise your religious or spiritual upbringing.
Religion is interdependent between belief, practice and community. Beliefs are embodied into practice and engaged within community. Your religious creed is a performance, as well as a proposition, enacted with others.
Were you brought up within a religious community with shared beliefs and practices?
Our religious rites and customs are powerful influences, but you don’t only form values and commitments in dialogue with the past. We also create them.
What inherited religious or spiritual beliefs have had the strongest impact on you? How have these beliefs shaped you?
Religious creed, according to Appiah, is a mutual practice among communities, rather than a rigid code. He sees religion as “more verb than noun.”
How were you raised to practice religion?
What creed(s), if any, were you raised with, and what creed(s), if any, do you identify with now?
4. Consider the color of your skin, and its impact on how you are treated in society.
Can you imagine a world where color is “merely a fact, not a feature and not a fate?” — The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity
If 2020 has taught us one thing, it is that the color of your skin is important, and affects the way you are treated in society. The rise of the BLM movement has brought this topic to the forefront, illuminating the need to understand and unpack how the color of your skin impacts your life and livelihood. While it is clear that race is a construct, the color of your skin has tangible implications based on the context of all your other C’s.
What color is your skin? How does your skin color influence the way others perceive and treat you?
In which environments or situations have you been most aware of your skin color? How did they make you feel?
5. Reflect on the imprint of your culture.
Culture — social behavior, beliefs, ideas and practices that create as ‘norms’ in human society.
19th Century Anthropologists, including influential scholars Sir Edward Burnett Tylor and Matthew Arnold, helped mold our understanding of culture. Tylor claimed culture was, “a complex whole of knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” To Tylor, culture was something we already have.
What are a few activities, traditions, customs or rituals that were important in your childhood?
What stories were you told about your inherited culture(s) by your family and community? How do you bring them to life?
What language did you grow up speaking?
Arnold saw culture as the, “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Arnold focused on the cultural ideal we should pursue to improve our existing society.
What cultural ideals are part of your inheritance? Describe them.
What cultural ideals do you strive for? Morally? Aesthetically?
Culture is confusing. Appiah does not see culture as a “good idea or improvement” because we draw arbitrary lines to determine its origin. Appiah asks us, “How can we persuade ourselves that we are rightful inheritors of Plato, Aquinas and Kant, when our existence is more Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian?” Culture is a practice, not a birthright. There is no guarantee you will care about Western Civilization if you live in the West. You can study the work of Sufi poet from your apartment in Brooklyn, sing ‘Strange Fruit’ from a balcony in a London flat or eat Chinese food in Chicago.
What values do you hold on to and practice?
How do you express attitudes and behave as a member of a particular social group?
Are there aspects of your cultural identity that you consciously integrate from the cultures of others?
If you answered these origin questions thoughtfully, you probably have a nuanced answer to the question, “What are you?” Your answers are most likely, longer than what Appiah’s taxi drivers expect. If you see the beautiful complexity of your identity with clearer eyes, what do you do now?
Appiah’s ‘Five C’s’ begin conversations about identity, not end them. Country, class, creed, color and culture provide a common language for us to find common ground despite our differences. At the Inheritance Project, we adapt the Five C’s to create a foundation for discussing our individual and collective inheritance and identities.
Strong emotions, challenging situations and conflict may arise when we examine our differences. These responses are an opportunity to move conversations from reactivity to curiosity. In a country rigidly divided along lines of race and class, this framework reveals the intersectionality and multiplicity of identities that exist in each of us. Once you name these multiplicities, you hold the tools to begin to break the mold of societal categories.
In light of recent events, Appiah’s ‘5 C’s’ offer an opportunity for you to investigate the source of your feelings and cultivate greater self-awareness. Appiah’s five questions on identity may seem simple, but the self-examination required to free ourselves from misunderstandings demands courage, thoughtful reflection and resolve.
Explore this framework with your free Inheritance Project Workbook.
All photography credit to artist Gillian Laub.