The Current

Trump, Brexit based on misconceptions about race and nationality, says renowned philosopher

Kwame Anthony Appiah says race and nationality are social constructs, yet essentialist myths surrounding these concepts are being used in politics to cause deadly divisions.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is the author of the award-winning book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. (

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As seen with the recent U.S. election, Brexit, and other "protectionist" movements across the world, citizens are increasingly putting their nations first at the polls. Race, ethnicity and nationality have become defining electoral issues.

However, philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah says race and nationality are social constructs, and essentialist myths surrounding these concepts are causing deadly divisions.

"The categories are created socially, and don't correspond to anything of biological interest — but people nevertheless think they do," says Appiah on The Current.

For example, the category of "black" in the U.S. is a tradition of slavery, in which that identifier was assigned to anyone who had a black parent. In the United States you can be African American and ostensibly look white. While in Brazil, concepts of race are predicated on the colour of one's skin.

Appiah maintains understanding racial misconceptions is one of the essential ways of moving forward after the U.S. election.

"If you recognize that this category is artificial, than you have a basis for an argument that we should focus on our shared project of governing the republic together — of being fellow citizens — and avoid these ways of dividing ourselves."

The author of Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, Appiah likewise points to the porous nature of what qualifies as a nation.

"I believe we should think of ourselves as citizens of the world, but a citizen of the world isn't a person who is not the citizen of anything else … You can be both a patriotic American and have a sense of shared obligations to the rest of humanity. That is traditional of cosmopolitanism."

"[Cosmopolitanism] values our shared humanity while celebrating that we're different from one another."

Listen to the full conversation.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.