Racial Identities by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Appiah successfully writes a brilliant essay of racism, that not only provoke my thought but also reflect on my own human value. Among all of the weighted paragraphs, I am having a serious difficulty in understanding the second paragraph under “Differences among Differences” subtitle. It says,

“This much about identification said, we can see that Du Bois’s analytical problem was, in effect, that he believed that for racial labeling of this sort to have the obvious real effects that it did have – among ten, crucially, his own identification with other black people and with Africa – there must be some real essence that held the race together. Our account of the history of the label reveals that this is a mistake: once we focus, as Du Bois almost saw, on the racial badge – the signifier rather than the signified, the word rather tan the concept – we see both that the effects of the labeling are powerful and real and that false ideas, muddle and mistake and mischief, played a central role in determining both how the label was applied and to what purposes.” (p. 46)

Appiah challenges Dubois’ idea, “Du Bois’s analytical problem was, in effect, that he believed that for racial labeling of this sort to have the obvious real effects that it did have” I suppose he says that Du Bois was wrong in saying that racial judgment has a serious effect. But, isn’t Appiah himself argues in the beginning that racial labeling plays a serious role on human personality? Also, how does the effect of racial labeling connects to Du Bois’ identification with fellow Africans? I got confused further by Appiah’s next sentence, “there must be some real essence that held the race together”. Isn’t it obvious that the main essence of labeling a race is based on one’s physical feature? Appiah answers my question right away by saying that our study of history denies physical labeling. However, I could not get his implication of “the signifier rather than the signified” and “the word rather than the concept”. As I look up in the dictionary, signifier means a sign in physical form, while signified means the meaning that is expressed by a sign. Unfortunately, I still do not get the clue of these two ideas.

Perhaps, as I have been analyzing, Appiah’s message is that to label one’s race merely from the physical feature is an old immoral idea. The physical feature is a superficial judgment, whereas socio-historical value is a genuine essence of labeling one’s race. In the third paragraph, he explains further, “if as I say, you understand the sociohistorical process of construction of the race, you’ll see that the label works despite the absence of an essence.” In other words, Appiah says that one’s humanity value is the true essence that has shaped and bound human races together. Moreover, nowadays intermarriage is common, people who share the same tribe might have different morphology and so does the reverse. For example, I was born from a French-Chinese father and an Indonesian mother, and most of Indonesians think I am a Spanish while the French think I am a Filipino. Thus, Appiah says that since race labeling is a significant determinant of how people treat the one being labeled, a false, mischief ideas could hurt the people identified. Appiah speaks to people that all of us are the same human and that what binds us is our human value instead of our local tribe.


Works Cited

Bartholomae, David, Petrosky, Anthony, and Waite, Stacey (2013). Ways of Reading : An Anthology for Writers. Bedford St Martin’s, 10. 40-65.


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