Racial identity is a biological nonsense, says Reith lecturer
Hannah Ellis-Petersen, Culture Reporter
Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah says race and nationality are social inventions being used to cause deadly divisions
Two weeks ago Theresa May made a statement that, for many, trampled on 200 years of enlightenment and cosmopolitan thinking: “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.
It was a proclamation blasted by figures from all sides, but for Kwame Anthony Appiah, the philosopher who on Tuesday gave the first of this year’s prestigious BBC Reith lectures, the sentiment stung. His life – he is the son a British aristocratic mother and Ghanian anti-colonial activist father, raised as a strict Christian in Kumasi, then sent to British boarding school, followed by a move to the US in the 1970s; he is gay, married to a Jewish man and explores identity for a living – meant May’s comments were both “insulting and nonsense in every conceivable way”.
“It’s just an error of history to say, if you’re a nationalist, you can’t be a citizen of the world,” says Appiah bluntly.
Yet, the prime minister’s words were timely. They were an example of what Appiah considers to be grave misunderstandings around identity; in particular how we see race, nationality and religion as being central to who we are.
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest thinkers on African and African American cultural studies, Appiah has taught at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and now NYU. He follows in the notable footsteps of previous Reith lecturers Stephen Hawking, Aung San Su Kyi, Richard Rodgers, Grayson Perry and Robert Oppenheimer…
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