All identities are intersectional

Identity markers are necessary, argues Kwame Anthony Appiah. They're also inadequate.

Asking myself the question “Who am I?” yields multifaceted answers: white, Christian, gay man, Midwesterner, New Yorker, American. Every identity comes with labels that matter, not just to those labeling and being labeled, but often to the law, always to our mores, and increasingly to our civic discourse. It is thus essential that we understand what we talk about when we talk about identity.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at New York University and author of the weekly Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine, seeks to deconstruct notions of identity rooted in essentialism, the idea that “at the core of each identity”—whether creed, country, color, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, politics, or any other marker—“there is some deep similarity that binds people of that identity together.” He observes that assumptions of similarity lead to hierarchies of status and unequal distributions of power, and much of his project lies in challenging these assumptions.

Appiah draws from stories of his own life and family, as well as capsule biographies of Erik Erikson (the developmental psychologist who developed modern notions of identity in the wake of World War II), Anton Wilhelm Amo (who in 1734 became the first African-born man to earn a doctorate from a European university), Michael Young (the British sociologist who coined the term “meritocracy” in his 1958 dystopian novel The Rise of the Meritocracy), and others. Appiah shows not only the hollowness of essentialism but also its continued influence on our emotions, our politics, and our lives. In this critique, he focuses on five identity markers—creed, country, color, class, and culture—although he could have easily, albeit less alliteratively, focused on several others.