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Philosophy and racial identity

Philosophy and racial
Linda Martin Alcoll

In the 1993 film Map of the Human Heart an Inuit man
asks a white engineer who has come to northern Canada
to map the region, ‘Why are you making maps?’ Without
hesitating, the white man responds ‘They will be very

Map-making and race-making have a strong
historical as well as conceptual relationship. The
ordering and labelling of natural terrain, the classifying
of natural types, and the typologies of ‘natural races’

emerged simultaneously in what Foucault called the
Classical episteme. Arguing via Foucault, both Cornel
West and David Theo Goldberg have attempted
genealogies of modern racism – meaning here not
contemporary racism so much as the racism of
modernism – that link the Western fetishistic practices
of classification, the forming of tables, and the
consequent primacy of the visible with the creation of
metaphysical and moral hierarchies between racialized
categories of human beings.! Given this genesis, the
concepts of race and racial difference emerge as that
which is visible, classifiable and morally salient. West
argues that the application of natural history techniques
to the study of the human species yields a comparative
analysis ‘based on visible, especially physical,
characteristics … [which] permit one to discern identity
and difference, equality and inequality, beauty and
ugliness among animals and human bodies. ‘2 Goldberg
argues that the universal sameness that was so important
for the liberal self required a careful containment and
taxonomy of difference. Where rights require sameness,
difference must be either trivialized or contained in the
Other across a firm and visible border.

The result of these classification practices juxtaposed
with liberal ideology is a paradox wherein ‘Race is
irrelevant, but all is race. ‘3 Visible difference is the route
to classification and therefore know ledge, and yet visible
difference threatens the security of claims to know by
challenging universal applicability and invoking the
spectre of relativism. Classification systems can contain

this threat and impede relativism by enclosing the
entirety of difference within a taxonomy organized by a
single logic. In this way the continuing hegemony of
liberal discourse is ensured. But the resultant
juxtaposItIOn between universalist legitimation
narratives that deny or trivialize difference and careful
delineations of supposedly morally relevant phenotypic
human difference is one of the greatest antinomies of
modern discourse.

We have finally come to recognize and acknowledge
this paradox, but we have not yet solved or moved
beyond it. Today the naturalistic classification systems
which would reify human variability into moral
categories, the Eurocentric teleologies which would
excuse if not justify colonialism, and the phallogocentric
binaries which would obscure relations of domination
by presenting them as ‘separate spheres’, have been
largely exposed as specious. And the realm of the visible,
or what is taken as self-evidently visible (which is how
the ideology of racism naturalizes racial designation), is
recognized as the product of a specific form of perceptual
practice, rather than the natural result of human sight.

Thus Foucault claims that
the object [of discourse] does not await in limbo
the order that will free it and enable it to become
embodied in a visible and prolix objectivity; it does
not preexist itself, held back by some obstacle at
the first edges of light. It exists under the positive
conditions of a complex group of relations. 4
His central thesis in The Birth of the Clinic is that the
gaze, though hailed as pure and preconceptual, can only
function successfully when connected to a system of
understanding which dictates its use and interprets its

What defines the act of medical knowledge in its
concrete form is not … the encounter- between
doctor and patient, nor is it the confrontation
between a body of knowledge and a perception; it

Radical Philosophy 75 (JanlFeb



is the systematic intersection of two series of
information … whose intersection reveals, in its
isolable dependence, the individual fact. 5
On this account, which is largely unique to Foucault,
visibility itself cannot serve as the explanatory cause of
the development of racial taxonomies. The apparent
obviousness of racial difference – the emphasis on hair
type, nose shape and skin colour – is a produced

The visibility of racial identity is a peculiarly
variegated phenomenon, with little acknowledgement of
this by dominant discourses. Those of us with hybrid
identities surely have a better sense of this, as our public
identity is variously interpellated across geographical
borders or even just neighbourhoods. When the mythic
bloodlines which are thought to determine identity fail to
match the visible markers used to identity discourse to
signify race, one often encounters these odd responses
by acquaintances announcing with arrogant certainty
‘But you don’t look like … ‘ or then retreating to a
measured acknowledgement ‘Now that you mention it, I
can sort of see … ‘ To feel one’s face studied with great
seriousness, not for its (hoped-for) character lines, or its
distinctiveness, but for its telltale racial trace, can be a
peculiarly unsettling experience, fully justifying of all
Sartre’s horror of the Look. 6
Anti-essentialisms have corroded the sense of visible
difference as the ‘sign’ of a deeper, more fundamental
difference, a difference in behavioural disposition, in
moral and rational capacity, or in cultural achievement.

Moreover, there is a newly emerging scientific consensus
that race is a myth, that the term corresponds to no
significant biological category, and that no existing racial
classifications correlate in useful ways to gene
frequencies, clinal variations or any significant human
biological difference. For semantic realists such as
Anthony Appiah, the only philosophically respectable
position one can take in the face of this evidence is that
the concept of race cannot be used correctly, that there is
no philosophically defensible way to realign the term
‘race’ with a referent, even one which would invoke
historical experience or culture rather than biology.7
So today race has no semantic respectability,
biological basis or philosophical legitimacy. However,
at the same time, and in a striking parallel to the earlier
liberal attitude toward the relevance and irrelevance of
race, in the very midst of our contemporary scepticism
toward race stands the compelling social reality that race,
or racialized identities, have as much political,
sociological and economic salience as they ever had.

Race tends toward opening up or shutting down job
prospects, career possibilities, available places to live,


potential friends and lovers, reactions from police,
credence from jurors, and presumptions by one’s
students. Race may not correlate with clinal variations,
but it persistently correlates with statistically overwhelming significance in wage levels, unemployment
levels, poverty levels, and the likelihood of incarceration.

As of 1992, black and Latino men working full time in
the USA earned an average of 68 per cent of what white
men earned, while black and Latina women earned 59
per cent. As of 1995, Latino and blac·k unemployment
rates were more than double those of whites.

But these sociological facts are not thought to be of
philosophical significance. For those still working within
a liberal framework, the devastating sociological reality
of race is but an artificial overlay on more basic elements
whose specificity can be legitimately set aside toward
the aim of a general analysis. For postmodernists, race is
a contingent construction, the epiphenomenon of
essentialist discourses, and thus ultimately without any
more explanatory power or epistemological relevance
than the liberal view. Thus, for all our critical innovations
in understanding the vagaries of racist domination and
the conceptual apparatus that yields racism, we remain
stuck in the modernist antinomy that race is
(fundamentally) irrelevant, even though all is race. It will
be my contention that we will not be able to progress
beyond this unworkable dilemma until we acknowledge
the philosophical salience of racial identity, a project that
must begin with understanding what racial identity is~

Race as ontology
Refusing the reality of racial categories as elements
within our current social ontology only exacerbates
racism, because it helps to conceal the myriad effects
that racializing practices have had and continue to have
on social life, including philosophy. In claiming that race
is an ontological category, I don’t mean to say that we
should begin by treating it as such, but that we must begin
acknowledging the fact that race has been ‘real’ for a
long time. And I am not putting this forward as a strategic
essentialism: the claim that race is philosophically salient
is not merely a strategic claim, but a truth claim. There is
a visual registry operating in social relations which is
socially constructed, historically evolving and culturally
variegated, but nonetheless powerfully determinant over
individual experiences and choices. And, for that reason,
it also powerfully mediates SUbjectivity. Consider the
following passage from Richard Rodriguez:

I used to stare at the Indian in the mirror. The wide
nostrils, the thick lips. Starring Paul Muni as
Benito Juarez. Such a long face – such a long nose
– sculpted by indifferent, blunt thumbs, and of such

common clay. No one in my family had a face as
dark or as Indian as mine. My face could not
portray the ambition I brought to it. s
This mediation through the visible, working on both the
inside and the outside, both on the way we read ourselves
and the way others read us, is what is unique to racialized
identities as against ethnic and cultural identities. The
processes by which racial identities are produced work
through the shapes and shades of human morphology,
and subordinate other markers such as dress, customs
and practices. And the visual registry thus produced has
been correlated with rational capacity, epistemic
reliability, moral condition and, of course, aesthetic
status. Yet, as a result of the theoretical critique of race,
this visual registry has largely not been brought into
theoretical play, in either cultural studies or in
This visual registry cannot be fully or adequately
described except in ontological terms, because the
difference that racializing identities has made is an
ontologizing difference, that is, a difference at the most
basic level concerning knowledge and subjectivity, being
and thinking. If we say that race is not an ontological
category, and that it is a mere artificial overlay on top of
more basic and more real categories, we risk losing sight
of how significant the effects of racial identities have
been, and how those effects have permeated every
philosophical idea. Ontology itself might then be able to
avoid a needed self-critique. Metaphysics and epistemology could proceed with their habitual disregard for
issues of race, and political philosophy could continue to
introduce racial topics only in the stages of applied

Obviously, when I say that race is an ontological
category I am using ontology here to refer to basic
categories of reality which are within history, at least
partly produced by social practices, and which are
culturally various. Race itself signifies differently and is
lived differently between different discursive and
cultural locations. This usage of ontology is
controversial, and I cannot take the space here to justify
it fully, but I will make one point. The problem with the
social constructionist, anti-essentialist view that we
should give up the language game of ontology altogether
is that we are then left with a reduced ability to offer
deep descriptions of reality, descriptions which can
differentiate between more and less significant and
persisting features of reality. The weakness of a strict
social constructionist approach is that it tends toward
flattening out all descriptive categories as having equal
(non-)metaphysical status. Thus, for example, male/
female is put on the same plane as masculine/feminine,

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Ethnography, 1939

and the importance of the biological division of
reproduction is made analogous to gendered dress codes.

In order to avoid this, without lapsing back into
essentialism, the traditional ontological project or
ascertaining certain basic categories can be reconfigured
as the attempt to ascertain those elements of reality
which, although mutable, currently intersect and
determine a wide variety of discourses and practices, and
thus are more fundamental not because of their
ahistorical or transcendental status but because of their
central intersectional position.

The fact that race has lost its scientific credibility does
not entail, then, that it has lost its ontological status, since
on this usage ontology does not imply a reference in a
transcendental reality. Race does not need to refer to a
natural kind or a piece of reality in a metaphysical realist
sense if it is to have any ontological meaning. What is
race, then? Race is a particular, historically and culturally
located form of human categorization involving visual
determinants marked on the body through the interplay
of perceptual practices and bodily appearance. Race has
not had one meaning or a single essential criterion, but
its meanings have always been mediated through visual
appearance, however complicated.

The criteria determining racial identity have included
ancestry, experience, outside perception, internal
perception, coded visibility, habits and practices – all


these and more are variously invoked for both individual
and groups. The criteria which will be primarily
operative vary by culture, neighbourhood, historical
moment, so that some people place ancestry as all
determining, while others make subjective identification
the key.

What is a philosopher to do in the face of this
variation? We could take ordinary language, the way in
which people speak of race, and use it to sift through
these criteria to show which are most consistent with the
way we speak. This approach could certainly be useful
in pointing out contradictions between the way we speak
and what we believe, and in showing the presuppositions
we are implicitly committed to by the way we speak, but
it cannot show us what the ‘truth’ of racial identity is.

Phenomenological description of the experience of racial
designations would also be useful in achieving a better
understanding of the lived reality of race, but this again
is not decisive in establishing the ‘underlying essence’

of race. My view is that the meaning of race will shift as
one moves through the terrain and interplay of different
discourses, where here discourses signify practices and
institutions as well as systems of knowledge (a usage
well exemplified in Wittgenstein’ s concept of a language
game, which involves linguistic practices connected with
and embodied in actions). The ‘answer’ to the question
of what racial identity really is will depend on what
language game we are playing, although the relativism
of this situation can be mitigated by showing overlaps
between language games, and by offering immanent
critiques that reveal internal contradictions, such as a
language game that claims to be non-racist but actually
is racist.

Philosophy is a prime example of the latter. It has
committed both crimes of omission – the neglect of race,
and crimes of commission – correlating race with
epistemic reliability (Kant) and potential for selfgovernment (Mill). But given this, we still have yet to
understand either what racial identity is how we should
articulate its relationship to philosophy. In order to
answer these questions, we must first address several
others, not only the scepticism toward race but also the
postmodern critique of identity and of the visible, and
the political debate over identity politics. It is these
debates, more than the scientific status of race, that will
determine the future of philosophical treatments of racial
identity. I will summarize some of the relevant issues in
these debates, and then try to address them in the context
of race.

The principal argument against identity politics has
been that it assumes an essentialist, coherent identity that
is efficacious over one’s political orientation, epistemo-


logical standpoint and justificatory status. And so it might
be thought that making racial identity epistemologically
salient, for example, could lead to a reductionist form of
evaluation that puts identity considerations over
argument, that is, holding that that which is pious is so
because the gods love it rather than the gods love it
because it is pious.

Also relevant is the critique of the tyranny of the
visible, as in Rorty’ s denigration of the visual metaphor
for metaphysical realism, to Martin Jay’s discussion of
the anti -ocularcentric thrust of critical theory, to
Jameson’s blunt claim that ‘the visual is essentially
pornographic … ‘ One thing that this view has in its favour
is that it would make sense of the non-reciprocal
visibility of dominant and non-dominant racial identities:

where the invisibility of whiteness renders it an
unassailable form, the visibility of non-whiteness marks
it as a target and a denigrated particularity.

And the concepts of identity and race are both often
charged with assuming a unity and homogeneity that do
not in fact obtain. Iris Young, building on Derrida and
Adorno, criticizes the idea that identity is a coherent unity
which can serve as the origin of thought and practice,
and which can be neatly separated from external things
such as others or discourses. lo This description is
metaphysically incorrect, for reasons with which we are
all familiar, having to do with the fundamental disunity
of the self, its lack of complete self-knowledge, an~ its
constitution by and through processes of narrativization
which are only partially accessible to the subject

Henri Matisse, The Hindu Pose, 1923

herself. lIOn the basis of these arguments, Young would
have us make a parallel case against group identity, and
reject identity concepts altogether.

Racial identities are increasingly recognized as
particularly disunified (since their group status is even
more obviously arbitrary or conventional than nation or
culture), split within by class, gender, sexuality, etc., and,
as Engle and Danielson point out in their collection After
Identity, without clear borders or a unifying internal
essence. 12 Moreover, Freud argued that the effort to
overcome disunity through collective identification or
group solidarity may itself be the sign of a pathological
condition caused by ‘the inability of the ego to regain
autonomy following the loss of an object of desire’. 13
Thus, the conclusion of these critiques is that racial
identity is a dangerous illusion.

Now, I take all of these worries about racial identity
very seriously. My original entry into this area of work
was motivated by a concern to understand and in some
sense validate hybrid identity or hybrid positionality
against purist, essentialist accounts. And the motivation
for this was the felt alienation of having a mestizo
identity (normative in Latin America and the Caribbean)
but living in a purist culture (the USA), where racial
categories are assumed to be mutually exclusive. In my
nuclear family, which is anything but nuclear, I have a
cholito Panamanian father (mixed Spanish, Indian,
African), a white Anglo mother, and, through my father’s
multiple liaisons, a range of siblings from black to brown
to tan to freckled, spanning five countries and three
continents at the last count. This personal genealogy has
not motivated me to try to repair dissonance into a
coherent unity, but rather to understand the formation
and position of the self precisely within an unresolvable

If I did not have any sympathy for the antiessentialist, my concern with the persistent paradox of
the relevance of race would not be felt so strongly. It is
because the arguments against racial identity have merit
that the paradox is a paradox and not simply an error. But
in the face ofthese anti-race arguments, we need a better
position than one which merely relies on the withering
away of racial categorization. And we need one that can
do two things the anti-essentialist positions cannot do:

(1) take into account the full force of race as a lived
experience, understanding this not as mere epiphenomenon but as constitutive of reality; and (2)
acknow ledge and account for the epistemological and
theoretical importance racial perspective has had on, for
example, the undermining of modernist teleologies (e.g.

Du Bois’ use of slavery to undermine US supremacist
claims, and the Frankfurt School’s critique of Western

rationality from the perspective of the Holocaust). These
facts suggest that we need to understand racial identity
as having both metaphysical and epistemological

Race as identity
Racial identifications have been causally associated with
classical liberalism and philosophical modernism. Given
the fact that the practices of racializing identity
developed within the greatest period of colonialism and
genocide the world has ever known, anti-racists have
been understandably sceptical about the possibility of
racial identity coexisting alongside equality and justice.

Furthermore, the liberal conceptualizations of justice and
enlightenment presupposed a decrease if not an end to
the social relevance of racial particularity, and this can
be traced out in the history of integrationist thought in
the USA, as Gary Peller has so usefully shown:

A commitment to a form of universalism, and an
association of universalism with truth and
particularism with ignorance, forms the infrastructure of American integrationist consciousness …. Integrationist beliefs are organized around
the familiar enlightenment story of progress
consisting of the movement from mere belief and
superstition to knowledge and reason, from the
particular and therefore parochial to the universal
and therefore enlightened. 14
Where truth and justice require universalism, racial
identity cannot be accorded salience without
endangering progress. Racial identity threatens to return
us to feudal hierarchy, a system in which identity
determined one’s life, which was precisely the system
against which liberal enlightenment was organized and
developed. As a result, anti-racism is assumed to require
an anti-racial identity (at least in so far as race has
political or non-trivial salience).

Furthermore, an anti-racism that pursues
universalism against particularism also ‘confirms our
sense of the possibility of true and authentic relations
that transcend racial status and other forms of cultural
distance and difference’ . 15 It thus legitimates our perhaps
natural hope for significant human relationships against
ones that are necessarily deformed or atrophied by
structurally produced separations. For whites and others
who benefit in the present from a history of oppression,
the appeal of universal racelessness may also lie in its
ability to deface their/our race-based connections with
that unpleasant past; in other words, it may entitle whites
to believe they/we don’t need to acknowledge the
salience of white identity and thus to avoid the moral


discomfort that that identity cannot help but present.

But there is an argumentative complicity – whether
intentional or not doesn’t matter of course – between the
suspicion against the visible, against identity, and
certainly against the intersection of these which would
occur in a racialized conception of identity, and the
continuing inattention to race matters in philosophy and
political theory. As many people have pointed out, one
of the persistent problems with the discourses in the USA
around multiculturalism and cultural studies is that race,
racism and racial hierarchies are relatively ignored.

Explorations of culture and ethnicity can all too easily
avoid any account of white supremacy and focus instead
on the recognition of difference, flattening out differences in a way that makes them appear equal. Race, on
the other hand, is difficult to focus on for very long
without it working to discredit the imagined landscapes
of pluralist difference that cultural studies so often
presupposes. And mainstream political language in both
Britain and the USA codes racial talk as cultural talk, so
racist claims can be cloaked as claims about cultural

Interestingly in this context, Lewis Gordon’s recent
book, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, argues that, in an
antiblack world, blackness signifies absence, the absence
of identity in the full sense of a self, a perspective or a
standpoint with its own self-referential point of view. 16
In other words, what is denied black people is the ability
to wield the Look, to be a source of value and meaning.

The infamous three-fifths formulation from the US
Constitution might be explicated as a concept of black
personhood as having a consciousness without
judgement, or a limited capacity for affective sensibility
and cognitive distinctions. Antiblack racism denied
visible black people the standpoint of a subject as capable
of judging and knowing and reciprocating in an
intersubjective relationship between persons.

Charles Mills argues in his essay ‘Non-Cartesian
Sums: Philosophy and the African American Experience’ that the concept of ‘sub-personhood’, or
Untermensch, is a central way to understand ‘the defining
feature of the African-American experience under
conditions of white supremacy (both slavery and its aftermath)’.17 By this concept, which he develops through a
contrast drawn between the Cartesian sum and Ralph
Ellison’s invisible man, Mills elucidates the
comprehensive ramifications that white racism had on
‘every sphere of black life – juridical standing, moral
status, personal/racial identity, epistemic reliability,
existential plight, political inclusion, social metaphysics,
sexual relations, aesthetic worth’ .18
To be a sub-person is not to be a non-person, or an


object without any moral status whatsoever. Rather,
Mills explains,
the peculiar status of a sub-person is that it is an
entity which, because of phenotype, seems (from,
of course, the perspective of the categorizer)
human in some respects but not in others. It is a
human (or, if this seems normatively loaded, a
humanoid) who, though adult, is not fully a person
… [and] whose moral status was tugged in
different directions by the dehumanizing
requirements of slavery on the one hand and the
(grudging and sporadic) white recognition of the
objective properties blacks possessed on the other,
generating an insidious array of cognitive and
moral schizophrenias in both blacks and whites. 19
On the basis of this, Mills suggests that the racial identity
of philosophers affects the ‘array of concepts found
useful, the set of paradigmatic dilemmas, the range of
concerns’ with which they each must grapple. He also
suggests that the perspective one takes on specific
theories and positions will be affected by one’s identity,
as in the following passage:

The impatience, or indifference, that I have
sometimes detected in black students [taking an
ethics course] derives in part, I suggest, from their
sense that there is something strange, for example,
in spending a whole course describing the logic o~
different moral ideals without ever talking about
how all of them were systematically violated for
The result is an understanding that black lived experience
‘is not subsumed under these philosophical abstractions,
despite their putative generality’ .21
As a further example of Mills’ claim, consider the
following passage from Hannah Arendt:

In America, the student movement has been
seriously radicalized wherever police and police
brutality intervened in essentially nonviolent
demonstrations: occupations of administration
buildings, sit-ins, et cetera. Serious violence
entered the scene only with the appearance of the
Black Power movement on the campuses. Negro
students, the majority of them admitted without
academic qualifications, regarded and organized
themselves as an interest group, the representatives
of the black community. Their interest was to
lower academic standards. They were more
cautious than the white rebels, but it was clear from
the beginning (even before the incidents at Cornell
University and City College in New York) that
violence with them was not a matter of theory and

rhetoric. Moreover, while the student rebelling in
Western countries can nowhere count on popular
support outside the universities, and as a rule
encounters open hostility the moment it uses
violent means, there stands a large minority of the
Negro community behind the verbal or actual
violence of the black students. Black violence in
America can indeed be understood in analogy to
the labor violence in America a generation ago;
and although … only Staughton Lynd has drawn
the analogy between labor riots and student
rebellion explicitly, it seems that the academic
establishment, in its curious tendency to yield more
to Negro demands, even if they are clearly silly
and outrageous, than to the disinterested and
usually highly moral claims of the white rebels,
also thinks in these terms and feels more
comfortable when confronted with interests plus
violence than when it is a matter of nonviolent
‘participatory democracy’.22
The ambivalence Mills points to can be discerned in this
account. On the one hand, black students are clearly
persons, having a self-interested perspective which they
pursue through collective action, and capable of greater
collectivity across campus and community divisions than
the white students. On the other hand, this perspective is
less intelligent, hence its desire to lower standards; and
(probably as a result) it is too self-interested, too

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair 1940

particular, and thus unable to achieve the moral
approbation of the purportedly disinterested white rebels.

Arendt clearly pits morality against self-interestedness,
the universal against the particular, once again. But the
result is a curious replay of the liberal antinomy between
having a racialized self and having a less developed self;
between being a person with a perspective and being a
non-person precisely because ofthat perspective: having
‘demands’ but demands which are silly, outrageous, and
pursued through what she clearly considers unnecessary

There is no question that Arendt’s white racial
identity affected her ability to assess black student
actions, or that her response to the possibility of blackorganized violence was affected by her identification
with its targets. This is so obvious as to be uninteresting.

But does this judgement entail the reductionist
evaluations imputed to adherents of identity politics? Are
we forced into holding that Arendt’s views can be
reduced to a consideration of Arendt’s race? Or, if we
want to avoid such a position, are we forced to conclude
that her race was irrelevant to the above account? It
seems clear to me that racial identity is a crucial category
of analysis to have at our disposal in order to understand
Arendt’s reactions to and assessment of black students.

Yet I believe we can retain this category without
essentializing racial identity or reducing philosophical
analysis to racial identification. I will devel~p this case
through a reading of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic:

Modernity and Double Consciousness. 23
This book has a twin purpose. On the one hand,
Gilroy’s purpose is to reconfigure and reconceptualize
the concept of black identity so important to cultural
studies, black studies and Afrocentric theory, in such a
way that he can avoid the metaphysical criticisms of prior
concepts of identity and develop a more adequate
accounting of the cultural formations and political
practices created under diaspora conditions than Afrocentric theories can explain. As Gilroy tells the story,
there is an identifiable cultural formation organized by
the black diaspora and existing in multiple sites which he
groups together under the term ‘black Atlantic’. Given
the internal cultural, linguistic and geographic
heterogeneity of this group, to call it a ‘culture’ would be
actually misleading and more evocative of homogenization than the term ‘black’. Moreover, the racial
designation more accurately signifies the principal
organizing logic of this group, which was and is the
historical experience of an institution of slavery that
operated through phenotype. This experience has yielded
an ongoing process of identity formation that cannot be
traced back to an African essence or distilled into its pure


concepts of reason and liberation to critique its practices
and its self-understandings will not go deeply enough. In
his readings of Du Bois, Richard Wright and others,
Gilroy claims to be able to trace
the formations of a vernacular variety of unhappy
consciousness which demands that we rethink the
meanings of rationality, autonomy, reflection,
SUbjectivity, and power in the light of an extended
meditation both on the condition of the slaves and
on the suggestion that racial terror is not merely
compatible with occidental rationality but
cheerfully complicit with it. 26

Cheri Samba, Self-Portrait, 1991

type, but that is persistently involved in the proliferation
of ever new hybrid identities. Thus, Gilroy’s analysis is
both centred around identity and insistent on the
fundamental hybridity and openness of identity.24
Against those who would emphasize the enduring
manifestation of roots in black culture, and against the
association of black liberation with a return in some sense
to those roots, Gilroy uses the imagery of the diaspora
precisely to articulate a mobile and mediated identity,
internally heterogeneous, and whose very survival and
ability to flourish has been predicated on its character as
always open to new mutation.

In opposition to … nationalist or ethnically
absolute approaches, I want to develop the
suggestion that cultural historians could take the
Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in
their discussions of the modern world and use it to
produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective. 25
His choice of the word ‘produce’ rather than ‘discover’

is clearly intentional.

The second major purpose of this book is to show
how this perspective has been and can be brought to bear
on an account of modernity generally. Along the lines of
Mill’s argument above, Gilroy claims that a critique of
modernity which is entirely immanent is insufficient.

That is, a critique which uses the Enlightenment’s


Thus, it is through ‘the slaves’ perspective’ that a more
thoroughgoing critique of the Enlightenment can
advance. This perspective begins from a more sceptical
position on ‘the democratic potential of modernity’ than,
for example, Jiirgen Habermas is said to have. It would
insist that Columbus accompany Luther and Copernicus
as the standard bearers of modernity, with all the
repercussions that must then follow concerning how we
assess that standard. Locke’s Second Treatise could no
longer be taught without a mention of his contribution to
writing the Carolina slave constitution. 27 Gilroy uses
Frederick Douglass’ s slave memoirs to suggest a revision
of Hegel’s Lord and Bondsman narrative, wherein it is
the slave that ‘actively prefers the possibility of death’

rather than the master. Douglass’ s version reveals the
prior structure of enslavement which mandates ‘the·
slave’s survival in bondage over the possibility of death,
and locates the slave’s first moment of agency in his
determination to counter violently the violence which has
already been inscribed in the social relation. This
retelling of the narrative more correctly locates the origin
of institutional violence as prior to the slave’s
enslavement, and thus raises ‘queries about the
assumption of symmetrical intersubjectivity’ which
grounds so many modernist accounts of self-formation.

Gilroy’s point is not to draw a sharp border between
slave and non-slave perspectives, and at one point he
even aligns Habermas with ‘a good many ex-slaves’ in
his commitment to ‘making bourgeois civil society live
up to its political and philosophical promise’ .28 But,
although there is much intermixture and overlap between
perspectives, they are not all coextensive, and one can
shift the horizons of visibility by occupying the centre as
opposed to the periphery of a black Atlantic perspective.

This understanding of identity in terms of perspective
suggests a definition of identity as a social location, a
location within a social structure and marked vis-a.-vis
other locations which gives the identity its specificity
rather than its internal characteristics. 29
Gilroy is not arguing here that the perspective

engendered by identity has a singularly deterministic
effect on thought. He rejects Patricia Hill Collins’ s
‘collapse’ of being and thinking ‘so that they form a
functional unity that can be uncritically celebrated’ .30
And he suggests, rightly, that a determinist view of the
impact of identity on thought would inhibit the scope of
critical reflection on that thought. Moreover, he argues
that such an account of knowledge would ‘simply end up
substituting the standpoint of black women for its
forerunner rooted in the lives of white men’, simply
replacing white men with black women in the myth of
‘stable, ideal subjects’ .31 And as a myth, postulating a
convenient but specious concept of the self, such an
account cannot last very long.

However, despite his hybrid, postmodern-influenced,
problematized notion of identity, for Gilroy ‘identity’ and in this book it is racial identity he is exploring remains the central term of his analysis. He repeatedly
criticizes those whose critique of racial essentialism
leaves them ‘insufficiently alive to the lingering power
of specifically racialised forms of power and
subordination’ or those who have been ‘slow in
perceiving the centrality of ideas of race and culture’ to
the investigation of modernity. 32 And he repudiates
theories of the self which would, like Marshall Berman’ s,
try to conceptualize it at a more abstract, more putatively
universal level, below the effect of racial configurations.

The Black Atlantic does a masterful job arguing
against purist, nationalist paradigms by showing how
these cannot account for what is essentially an ‘intercultural and transnational formation’ .33 It makes the
unifying theme not an internal core or original historical
moment or homogeneous cultural elements, but the
‘well-developed sense of the complicity of racialised
reason and white supremacist terror’ which provides a
perspective informing literary, musical and philosophical
creativity.34 In this way, hybridization and identity can
coexist, at least as long as global white supremacy
continues to structure intersubjective relations through
racialized identities.

Gilroy’s book also serves as an empirical rejoinder to
the metaphysical arguments of postmodernism, which set
a priori limits on the plasticity of identity concepts. 35
Gilroy’s argument comes out of specific analyses of
cultural products, rather than accounts of the limits of
language, and demonstrates the usefulness of a unifying
concept like the Black Atlantic to understand and
appreciate a wide range of forms.

There are others besides Gilroy who are making
similar moves. Kobena Mercer’s recent collection of
essays exhibits the same reluctance either to embrace
nationalist or Afrocentric treatments of black identity or

to dispense with identity as irrelevant. 36 And, like Gilroy,
Mercer negotiates between these conceptions through a
diasporic aesthetic, which relies on analogous positionality and historical experience rather than a deep self or
unified politics to establish identity. Roberto Fernandez
Retamar’s ‘Caliban’ is another example, proposing
Caliban, a figure from English literature, as the symbol
of Latin Amer:ican identity. Fernandez Retamar’s
account this exemplifies what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls the
fearless affirmation of the hyphen, as well as a conception
of identity primarily in positional terms:

To assume our condition as Caliban implies
rethinking our history from the other side, from
the viewpoint of the other protagonist. [Quoting
Marti:] ‘We must stand with Guaicuipuro,
Paramaconi [heroes of Venezuela, probably of
Carib origin], and not with the flames that burned
them, nor with the ropes that bound them, nor with
the steel that beheaded them, nor with the dogs that
devoured them. ’37
I would argue that the concept of identity found in
these works, as in Gilroy, Mills and Gordon, is a concept
not organized around a claim to sameness, which is what
invites much of the criticism of identity concepts. Rather,
as in Gordon’s diagnosis of racism as positing an
absence, what the claim of identity here is organized
against is the assumption of lack. In this context identity
is put forward not as sameness opposed to difference but
as substance opposed to absence. It is also opposed to
notions of the self which formulate it primarily as an
abstract form without content, a decontextualized ability
to reason without any interested positionality. Examples
here would be the Cartesian sum, a self as a thinking,
abstract process or ability, and the early Sartrean model
of the self as the ability to negate.

Against such contentless models, works such as
Gilroy’s could be understood as consistent with a more
substantive understanding of the self which can sustain
particular identities in a way I have time here just to
sketch. From Bourdieu one might take the concept of the
self as a sedimentation of dispositions and practices
developed through a personal history, and understand
that history in terms of an experience which is always
carried forth even if interpreted anew (as in the later
Sartre). Racial identifications will affect the particular
manifestation of both these elements (practices,
experience), but in order to account more fully for race
we must also include the element of visibility, as an
embodied manifestation that invites and elicits
determinate though contextually variable meanings.

On this kind of account, race can be understood to


figure in identity formation not as a metaphysical
necessity but as a necessity within a given historical
context. And from here one might go on to develop a
phenomenology of racial identity as, for example, a
differentiation or distribution of felt connectedness to
others. This will necessarily be a complex issue,
undetermined solely by phenotype. The felt connectedness to visibly similar others may produce either flight or
empathic identification or other possible dispositions.

Gilroy’s description of the black Atlantic identity has
the power to incorporate this openness and constant
mixture with the connecting elements of a post-slavery
diasporic perspective, such that phenotypic race is never
sufficient yet never completely absent. This provides us
with a metaphysically more accurate, and politically less
problematic, formulation of racial identity, not based on
purity or the continuity of original essence, and one not
closed to new incarnations.

I began this paper with the example of a non sequitur
exchange, where an Inuit questioned the point of mapmaking and a white man responded with a reassurance of
accuracy. The assumption in some of the anti-identity
dismissals of race seems to take the form of an inverse of
this exchange, such that a denial of the possibility of
accuracy is somehow taken to entail a denial of the
possibility of maps. My argument would be that this
response is no less of a non sequitur than the one before.

1. David Theo Goldberg, Racist Cultures: Philosophy and
the Politics of Meaning, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1993;
Comel West, Prophesy Deliverance!, Westminster Press,
Philadelphia, 1982.

2. West, Prophesy Deliverance!, p. 55.

3. Goldberg, Racist Cultures, p. 6.

4. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans.

A. M. Sheridan Smith, Pantheon, New York, 1982, p. 45.

5. Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic, trans. A. M.

Sheridan Smith, Vintage Books, New York, 1975, p. 30.

6. See also Adrian Piper, ‘Passing for White, Passing for
Black’, Transitions 58, pp. 4-32.

7. Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the
Philosophy of Culture, Oxford University Press, New
York, 1992, pp. 32,45, and chs 2 and 3 generally.

8. Richard Rodriguez, Days of Obligation: An Argument with
My Mexican Father, Viking, New York, 1992, p. 1.

9. See, for example, the special issue of Identities: Global
Studies in Culture and Power on ‘(Multi)Culturalisms and
the Baggage of “Race'” edited by Virginia Dominguez,
vol. 1, no. 4, April 1995.

10. Iris Young, ‘The Ideal of Community and the Politics of
Difference’, in Linda Nicholson, ed., Feminism/
Postmodernism, Routledge, New York, 1990, pp. 303-5.

11. For a recent development of this idea, see Paul Ricoeur,
Oneself As Another, trans. Kathleen Blarney, University
of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

12. Dan Danielson and Karen Engle, ‘Introduction’, in D.

















Danielson and K. Engle, eds, After Identity: A Reader in
Law and Culture, Routledge, New York, 1994, pp. xiiixix.

Michael Steinberg,
“‘Identity” and Multiple
Consciousness’, paper delivered at the workshop
‘Identity: Do We Need It?’, sponsored by the
Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften, Vienna, Austria, May 1995.

Gary Peller, ‘Race Consciousness’, in Danielson and
Engle, eds, After Identity, p. 74.

Ibid., p. 76.

Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and AntiBlack Racism,
Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, NJ., 1995, esp. ch.


Charles Mills, ‘Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the
African-American Experience’, Teaching Philosophy,
vol. 17, no. 3, October 1994, p. 228.



Ibid., p. 226.

Ibid., p. 225.

Hannah Arendt, On Violence, Harcourt, Brace,
Jovanovich, New York, 1969, pp. 18-19; quoted in
Gordon, Bad Faith, pp. 88-9.

Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double
Consciousness, Verso, London, 1993 and Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

Ibid., p. xi.

Ibid., p. 15.

Ibid., p. 56.

See Mills, Neo-Cartesian Sums, p. 226.

28. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 49.

29. See my ‘Cultural Feminism vs. Poststructuralism: The
Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory’, Signs, vol. 13, no~ 3,
1988, pp. 405-36, for further elucidation of this point.

30. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, p. 52.

31. Ibid., p. 53. He calls Hill Collins’s account of knowledge
‘experience centred’, meaning to differentiate it from
theoretical critique, but I would take issue with this
characterization. One could have an experience-centred
account of knowledge, or at least one that emphasizes the
importance of experience, without either a transparent
view of experience or an anti-theoretical disposition. The
complex history of twentieth-century radical empiricism
as well as the phenomenological tradition are
counterexamples to this assumption.

32. Gilroy, The Black Atlantic, pp. 32 and 49.

33. Ibid., p. ix.

34. Ibid., p. x.

35. For a similar argument against setting a priori limits on
the plasticity of social practices, see Judy Butler’s review
essay ‘Poststructuralism and Postmarxism’ in Diacritics,
Winter 1993, pp. 3-11. Here she is critiquing Ernesto
Laclau’s ‘description of the logical features by which any
social practice proceeds’ on the grounds that it postulates
‘a logic to which social practices are subject but which is
itself subject to no social practice’ (p. 9). I would make a
related claim that we cannot determine in advance, outside
of social practice, the ‘logic’ of identity concepts, or their
inevitable political effects.

36. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in
Black Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1994.

37. Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Caliban and Other Essays,
trans. Edward Baker, University of Minnesota Press,
Minneapolis, 1989, pp. 16 and 19.

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