. 3
( 8)


which is that it explains not only the identities but their durability in
the face of their own contradictions. Racial identities are the contin-
gent effect of a series of different events, different concerns, and differ-
ent agendas. These last include such different aims as the attempt of
wealthy landowners to keep their extensive property holdings, the
urge of non-landowners to acquire property at whomever™s expense,
and the efforts of displaced, imprisoned individuals to survive in a
strange country. Because of the different aims that racial identities
reflect they are cobbled together and likely to be inconsistent.
Different parts of the construction coexist in different sorts of tension
with one another and issue in the contradictory decisions we have
canvassed issued by different legal and political authorities at different
times. Why do these differences not raise suspicions about the racial
categories? There are at least two reasons. First, as long as the criteria
of race can change over different times and different states, authorities
can make and justify whatever racial identifications they want.
Depending on the circumstances, black identity can refer to skin
color, hair texture, ancestry, or reputation, and white identity can
refer to status as a Caucasian, status as a European, or status as a
group the founders must have had ˜˜affirmatively in mind.™™ Second,
the micro-level of racial identification means that individuals
adopt and demand recognition for the identities they have
66 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

internalized. Racial construction is both a top-down and a bottom-up
process in which macro- and micro-levels loop into and reinforce one

A social constructionist answer to Evans-Prichard-type worries about
racial identity would be to wonder not at their Whiggishness but at
their na±vete. ˜˜Ask all you want about the apparent incoherence of our
racial conceptions,™™ social constructionists might say to our alien

Identity is a question of power and of the introjection of power. The
inconsistencies and incoherencies to which you point not only do
not undermine power but rather give it room to maneuver.
Moreover, the appropriation of racial identifications by individuals
means that the attempt to question race comes too late.

On this view, what is required to deal with exasperations of race
is not the abolition of race but an acknowledgment of the contribu-
tions of racial diversity. All individuals have already become racial-
ized; race is thus a fait accompli. The project now is to see what race
can achieve. Or so Du Bois argues after cataloguing his own exasper-
ations. It may be, he complains, that individuals cannot be coherently
grouped together on the basis of color, hair, cranial size, or morphol-
ogy, since these features do not line up with one another to provide for
separable groups. Instead, people with dark skin may have straight
hair like the Chinese and those with white skin curly hair like the
Bushman. ˜˜Nor does color agree with the breadth of the head, for the
yellow Tartar has a broader head than the German.™™45 Still, Du Bois
insists that different races stand for different ideals and, moreover,
that the promise of the ˜˜Negro™™ race means that blacks must work
against assimilation. ˜˜We are Americans, not only by birth and by
citizenship, but by our political ideals, our language, our religion,™™ he

Du Bois, ˜˜The Conservation of Races,™™ p. 109.
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 67

writes. ˜˜Farther than that our Americanism does not go. At that point
we are Negroes . . . the first fruits of this new nation, the harbinger of
that black to-morrow which is yet destined to soften the whiteness of
the Teutonic today.™™46 The contemporary philosopher, Lucius Outlaw
echoes this claim: ˜˜Both the struggle against racism and invidious
ethnocentrism and the struggles on the part of persons of various
races and ethnicities to create, preserve, refine, and, of particular
importance, share their ˜messages™ that is to say, their cultural mean-
ings with human civilization at large, require that the constantly
evolving groups we refer to as races . . . be ˜conserved™ in democratic
What Charles Taylor calls the politics of recognition takes up
this demand for racial conservation.48 The politics of recognition
differs from older struggles for civil and political rights by replacing
demands for the equal treatment of minority groups with demands
that social and political institutions acknowledge and accommodate
difference. Women and ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities are not to
try to reshape their distinct identities to fit a standard that the politics
of recognition claims is modeled on the majority culture or white
Western European men. Instead, women and minorities are to demand
a form of participation in social and political institutions that suffi-
ciently respects who they are.49 Taylor traces such demands back to
the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Gottfried von
Herder, who both reject the ideas of honor associated with social
hierarchies in favor of the ideas of dignity associated with demands
to be true to oneself and to one™s Volk.50 Yet, the demand also derives

Ibid., p. 114.
Lucius Outlaw, ˜˜On W. E. B. Du Bois™s ˜The Conservation of Races™,™™ in Overcoming
Racism and Sexism, Linda A. Bell and David Blumenfeld, eds. (Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), pp. 79“102.
See Charles Taylor, ˜˜The Politics of Recognition,™™ in Multiculturalism: Examining
the Politics of Recognition, in Amy Gutmann, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1994), pp. 25“73.
See, for example, Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1989).
Taylor, ˜˜The Politics of Recognition,™™ pp. 27“31.
68 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

from principles of equality. Individuals are arguably not equal partic-
ipants in civic and political life if the institutions and practices that
compose this life privilege certain identities over others or require
minority identities to become more like majority ones. Nor are indi-
viduals arguably equal participants if allegedly neutral laws have a
greater impact on the ability of certain identities to sustain them-
selves than they do on others. For this reason, theorists such as Will
Kymlicka insist on the necessity of forms of group rights that can
protect minority cultures from external decisions of the larger society
that threaten their existence and hence the identities of those who
belong to them.51
On the one hand, then, the account of race as a social construction
leads to the politics of identity. The idea here is that since we are already
racially constructed, we should live with that fact and demand recog-
nition for our racial identities. On the other hand, to the extent that
racial identities are the result of arbitrary and contradictory decisions
and of contemptible actions, policies, and events, they are difficult to
square with Rousseau™s and Herder™s ideas of being true to oneself. Racial
identities are the product of racializing actions and events; they were
imposed on individuals as sources of negative and demeaning expect-
ations and impoverishing life-conditions. Why then, we might ask,
should we be true to precisely these identities? To be sure, racial identi-
ties have not only been imposed on us from above, we have also created
them from below as a result of the bonds of solidarity and opposition to
power forged between individuals along the lines that Douglass stresses.
Still, it is unclear why we should demand continuing recognition for the
identities just because they were once crucial to our survival. Why
should we take up just those identities and identifications that history
has imposed on us? Why should we demand recognition in their terms?
We might argue that we should do so because we are not free to
choose or reject these identities. Insofar as our history and traditions

Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 35.
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 69

have bequeathed them to us, they are simply part of who we are. At the
very least, then, we should insure that they are respected. Yet, we fail
to choose many of our identities and identifications, those as widows
and cancer patients, for example. Must we demand recognition for
these identities or should we not rather try to prevent or to overcome
them? We identify people as racists, bigots, and sexists, as well. Should
we recognize them? Bigots are surely socially constructed through
events, controversies, and actions. They can also introject and take
pride in their identifications. Yet, if they organize around the politics
of recognition, should we applaud their efforts as expressions of being
true to themselves?
We tend to think, instead, that individuals ought to make a
normative decision about their identities. They ought to endorse
them as good and valuable identities or reject their value and try to
develop other identities. To be sure, trying to become a different sort of
person from the sort one is already can be difficult. Moreover, it may not
be possible to revise all of one™s identities at once. Still, we often try to
revise some of them, to stop being pushovers, alcoholics, and insensi-
tive brutes, for example. Why should the same not hold for our other
identities, including our racial ones? History, institutional authority,
and social power may have made me white. Yet, why should I endorse
that identity if I cannot justify it as a good one?52 The same question
could be asked about our identities as blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.
Nor does a concern with collective self-esteem provide a clear
case for the politics of recognition. The politics of recognition tries to
mobilize groups to combat the negative evaluations their identities
once involved. Individuals are to wear what Du Bois calls the ˜˜badge of
color™™53 as a badge of victory rather than defeat. Nevertheless, it is
unclear that we should expect to reverse evaluations in this way.

See Harry Frankfurt™s distinction between first-order and second-order desires in
˜˜Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person,™™ in Harry Frankfurt, The
Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1988), pp. 11“25.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race
Concept (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), p. 117.
70 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Eighteenth-century libertines tried to treat adulterous identities and
identifications as sources of value. Rather than shunning the label of
˜˜adulterers™™ they embraced it as who they were and tried to assert the
equal value of being adulterers with respect to less sexually adventure-
some identities.54 Yet, the identity of being an adulterer does not
easily admit of this sort of revaluation “ in part, it seems, because
the ascription brings its history and its disvalue with it. Why suppose
that the transformation of the identities of black or white has any
more potential? Suppose we were to try to achieve equal recognition
for ˜˜savages?™™ We might value the art, literature, philosophy, and
culture produced by those labeled as savages. Indeed, we might con-
clude that the poignancy, beauty, or profundity of their art and
thought stemmed at least in part from their being labeled as savages.
Nevertheless, what we seek equal recognition for in these cases is the
art and thought, not the identity that the label constructs. Indeed, to
the extent that we emphasize the identity at all it is to marvel at the
potential for human creativity in the face of how humans brand and
treat one another. We could object that we would not have the art
without the identity but that fact does not provide a reason to seek
equal recognition for the identity, any more than the art of refugees or
cancer patients should lead us to devote our energies to their equal
recognition. Instead, surely, we ought to eliminate the causes of refu-
gees and cancer patients.
Instead of looking to eighteenth-century libertines, then, we
might look to Hester Prynne, whose identity as an adulterer in
Nathaniel Hawthorne™s novel is marked by the scarlet letter she is
forced to wear.55 While she herself becomes a respected member of the
community, she does not do so by transforming the meaning or value
of an adulterous identity. Instead, she transcends it so that the scarlet
letter no longer carries that meaning. Were we to follow Hester
Prynne™s model instead of that of the politics of recognition, we

See George E. Haggerty, Men in Love (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999),
pp. 10“15.
The citation is The Scarlet Letter (1850) (New York: Penguin Books, 2003).
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 71

would not struggle to transform the value of racialized identities.
Instead, we would work to strip various marks of their racial implica-
tions. Just as the scarlet letter no longer carries the meaning of
adultery at the end of Hawthorne™s novel, physical characteristics,
ancestry, or whatever other ˜˜badge™™ we looked to would no longer
carry the meaning of race.
This solution raises other questions, however. Hester Prynne
transcends her identity as an adulterer and the scarlet letter becomes
the sign of a healer. Yet, towards what would we transcend our racial
identities? What could we aspire to be? What if we were to embrace
identifications as Yoruba, Xhosa, Roman, or Celt rather than black or
white? Yoruba, Xhosa, Roman, and Celt are no less constructed and
introjected identities than black or white. Like the latter, they were
forged through macro-level events, practices, histories of exclusions
and inclusions, through micro-level appropriations, and through the
looping of these constructions into one another.56 It is questionable
whether tracing our identities beyond black and white to ˜˜prior™™
identities resolves the questions that race raises since we have no
reason to suppose that identity as a Celt is better or worse than
identity as a white, or that identity as a Xhosa trumps identification
as a black.
More importantly for issues of equality, it is not clear that we
could continue to monitor the deleterious effects of racism if certain
badges no longer carried the meaning of race. If we were to transcend
our racial identities and identifications, would we not risk losing the
ability to trace the racism in our history or to tend to its on-going
effects? A 2004 study found that whites were one-and-a-half times
more likely than blacks to come from families with assets. Further,
among those families who were able to pass financial wealth on to
their families, the amount white families were able to pass on was four

See K. Anthony Appiah, In My Father™s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. chapter 9.
72 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

times that of blacks.57 This discrepancy is not an accident. One need
only look at twentieth-century housing policy to see part of its cause
and to trace it to the wave of white violence against blacks. In reaction
to the wave of black migration from the south to the north between
1900 and 1920, whites burned black homes in what were once inte-
grated neighborhoods and shot, beat, and lynched blacks found in
white Subsequently, communities employed
restrictive covenants to preserve certain areas for white-only residen-
tial expansion and threatened sellers or their agents who tried to
violate this color line.59 The federal government provided low-interest
loans to white homeowners who lost their homes in foreclosure
actions while intentionally diverting funds from black neighborhoods
and from neighborhoods that looked as if they might become black.
When they were established the Federal Housing Authority and the
Veterans Administration in housing followed suit.60
The consequences are clear. On threat of death, blacks of all
economic classes were forced into black ghettoes. Funds were not
available to rehabilitate housing in these areas or to encourage home-
ownership. The neighborhoods therefore acquired outside, ˜˜slum™™
landlords and were seen by private and public institutions as poor
credit risks. While housing in white neighborhoods increased in
value, housing in black neighborhoods did not. While the wealth
that whites invested in their real estate increased, that of blacks did
not. While whites passed on their wealth to their children and con-
tinue to do so, blacks could and can pass on much less. How can we
trace progress toward eliminating this discrepancy unless we continue
to categorize people as black and white?
On the one hand, then, in taking up identities as blacks and
whites we take up dubious identifications, identifications that are,

See Thomas M. Shapiro, The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth
Perpetuates Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 62.
See Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and
the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993),
p. 30.
59 60
Ibid., pp. 36“7. Ibid., pp. 50“53.
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 73

at least in part, the results of coercion and violence and, moreover, that
are riven with internal contradictions. On the other hand, in not
taking them up, we threaten our capacity to assess progress towards
and retreat from equality. What, then, should we do about our racial
identities? In order to answer this question, we need, I think, to return
to the question of what our racial identities are. Calling them the
consequences of power, solidarity, and opposition to power does not
answer the question of what they are. In order to do so, I want to look
at the phenomenon of passing.

K. Anthony Appiah attempts to get clear on what race is (and is not) by
turning to Hacking™s account of Sartre™s description of the garcon de
cafe. Hacking employs this description to illuminate the contextual
character of identity: like a witch, the garcon de cafe, whose move-
ments are ˜˜quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid,™™61
is possible only within a certain set of social practices, institutions,
and linguistic formulations. One can no more possess the identity of a
garcon de cafe in the United States of the early twenty-first century
than one can possess the identity of a witch or a serf in 1940s Paris.
Yet, while the identity of a garcon de cafe requires a specific institu-
tional, linguistic, and practical context, Appiah insists that racial
identities require more: ˜˜The ideal of the garcon de cafe lacks,™™ he
says, ˜˜the sort of theoretical commitments that are trailed by the idea
of the black and the white.™™62
What theoretical commitments does the idea of black and white
trail? Examining the phenomenon of passing sheds some light. There
is no difference between being a garcon de cafe and passing as one in a
Parisian cafe in the 1940s. If one functioned as a waiter in the

Cited in K. Anthony Appiah, ˜˜Race, Culture Identity: Misunderstood Connections,™™
in K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality
of Race (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 78. Also see Appiah,
The Ethics of Identity, p. 66.
Appiah and Gutmann, ˜˜Race, Culture Identity,™™ p. 79. Also see Appiah, The Ethics
of Identity, p. 66.
74 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

appropriate context and if one has mastered the appropriate move-
ments and sensibility, one simply is a garcon de cafe. In contrast,
there is a difference between being a white and passing as one in the
United States. Suppose one functioned as a white undergraduate in a
1940s American university and suppose one mastered the appropriate
movements and sensibility of a white American undergraduate. One
might still have been ˜˜passing.™™ If we want to know what the source
for this difference is “ that is, the source of the difference between, on
the one hand, being a garcon de cafe and passing as one and, on the
other hand, being a white and passing as one “ we should ask, first,
what the source is for the difference between being a white and passing
as one. When certain nineteenth-century courts appealed to the
behavior and the exercising of the privileges of whites in as criteria
for being white, they did not do so because they thought that passing
as white was the same as being white. Rather, they feared the con-
sequences of looking much beyond behavior and privileges. To have
been brought up as a white person sometimes counted as being a white
person but not because the courts thought there was no difference
between passing as and being white. Rather, at least according to
Randall Kennedy, given the intermixing of populations, courts could
not guarantee that they would not find skeletons in the wrong closets.
So, if there is a difference between being white and passing as
white, what is it? It cannot rest on physical characteristics since the
condition of passing is that there are none of the physical features that
might signal membership in the ˜˜wrong race.™™ Nor can the difference
rest on genetic characteristics. To be sure, if suspicious university
administrators had had the technology in the 1940s, they might have
swabbed the insides of prospective students™ cheeks in order to
retrieve DNA samples, just as Olympic officials currently do in trying
to determine the sex of athletes. Of course, given that 21 percent of
whites had black ancestry in 1958 and that most ˜˜blacks™™ were then
living as whites, 1940s university administrators might have had to
sustain a serious deficit in eligible students if they had looked to DNA.
Nor is it clear that the DNA samples would have done them any more
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 75

good than they do Olympics officials. Just as one can be a woman with
XY chromosomes, one can be a white with a very different genetic
make up than another white.63 Indeed, although some recent research
correlates certain short segments of DNA known as markers with
broad geographical groups that sometimes correspond with the groups
that count socially as races, they do not always do so. Furthermore, the
long history of population mixing between people from different con-
tinents (for both conquest and other reasons) means that we would
need to select a necessarily arbitrary date for linking markers with
groups to have any correlation between genes and social races. Among
others, Armand Marie Leroi tries to defend distinctions between races
(without considering them ˜˜very fundamental™™) by insisting that
˜˜people of European descent have a set of genetic variants in common
that are collectively rare in everyone else.™™64 The problem for the
university administrators, however, would be to decide, first, whether
by white they meant European and, second, whether a prospective
student who possessed the set of genetic variants was a European or
someone belonging to the group in which the genetic variants were rare.
The difference between being a white and passing as a white
cannot be attributed to physical or genetic features. So to what can it
be attributed? Appiah™s claim that our ideas of black and white trail
˜˜theoretical commitments™™ suggests that the difference lies only in
these ˜˜theoretical commitments.™™ That is, it lies only in our commit-
ment to the belief that there is a difference. Holding firm to this
commitment, we admit that we may not yet possess plausible or
consistent grounds for making racial ascriptions. Nevertheless, we
remain faithful to three ideas: first, it is possible that there is a racial
difference between whites and blacks as well as between whites,

See Cornell and Hartmann, Ethnicity and Race, pp. 22“23; Amy Gutmann,
˜˜Responding to Racial Injustice,™™ Appiah and Gutmann, Color Conscious, p. 115;
and Lawrence Blum, I™m Not a Racist, But: The Moral Quandary of Race (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2002), pp. 138“140.
Armand Marie Leroi, ˜˜A Family Tree in Every Gene,™™ New York Times, March 14,
2005, p. A23.
76 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

blacks, and other races; second, in the future science will tell us what
this difference is; and, third, one can therefore pass as a white without
really being one.
Appiah™s reference to theoretical commitments thus suggests
that the basis of the distinction between being white and passing as
white is a commitment to the idea that there is a fact of the matter as
to whether someone is white or not. One need not know, or even want
to know, what that fact of the matter is, but one assumes that it exists.
To return to the question of the difference between passing as a white
and passing as a garcon de cafe, then, the difference here is that the
identity of a garcon de cafe ˜˜trails™™ no such theoretical commitments.
Being white is more than performing as a white in a way, then, that
being a garcon de cafe is not more than the performance. One is a
garcon de cafe as long as one acts as one.
The comparison of racial identities with identities as geniuses
and anorexics reveals an additional feature of our theoretical commit-
ments. On the one hand, it is hard to see how there could be a differ-
ence between being an anorexic and passing as one. Even if one began
by only passing as an anorexic, sooner or later the effect of not eating
would be enough to make one an anorexic. Similarly if one pretends to
be a genius by secretly working harder than anyone else, the quality of
one™s ideas and progress could turn out to be such as to make one a
genius in the eyes of the world. On the other hand, doctors and
educators can stipulate very precise standards for status as an anorexic
or genius. Doctors can define an anorexic as someone who eats less
than a certain number of calories a day and educators can define a
genius as someone who scores above a certain level on an IQ test.
These stipulative definitions mean that, in a certain sense, one can
pass for an anorexic or a genius in one™s daily life without actually
being one, at least if being one means meeting the stipulated criteria.
Yet, these criteria are useful only for carefully delimited purposes in
medical care and education. Moreover, they reflect just the kind of
professional agreement that stipulations of racial identity lack.
Instead, in the nineteenth century, one court™s definition of being
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 77

black or being white was on another court™s rejection list. Even after
the one-drop rule became widely employed, courts such as the Bennett
court continued to look elsewhere and the rule was of no use in
deciding who was white. Some American Indian tribes have stipulated
ancestral requirements for membership. Yet, these requirements stip-
ulate membership in the tribe, not status as an American Indian.
Instead, American Indians are another racialized group to whose sep-
arate identity we have theoretical commitments. Indeed, the differ-
ence between stipulated criteria for being a genius or an anorexic and
our ideas about racial identities makes the difference between being
white and ˜˜passing as white™™ all the more a merely theoretical com-
mitment. The difference depends both on supposing there is a differ-
ence and on supposing that, even though ˜˜experts™™ do not agree now
on what the difference is, someday they will.
Yet, if the difference between being white and passing as white
rests only on theoretical commitments, we should rethink the differ-
ence between racial identity and identity as a garcon de cafe. Our
commitments are theoretical in the pejorative sense. We are commit-
ted to the idea that there is a difference between being a white and
passing as a white, whereas we are not at all committed to the idea that
there is a difference between being a garcon de cafe and passing as one.
Of course, social constructionists have taught us that our thinking and
behaving as if there were a difference functions simply and efficiently
to create one. Yet, this analysis of the creation of racial identities
leads to a question similar to the one I asked about a de-essentialized
politics of recognition. If our racial identities and identifications differ
from other sorts of identities and identifications only on the basis of
merely theoretical commitments, we might ask whether we should
uphold these commitments and continue to act as if there were a
difference. Indeed, given the horrors and confusions to which our
commitments have given rise, we might ask why we should not
de-commit from them and work against racial identities and identi-
fications. This option is one that Appiah has also considered so I want
to conclude this chapter by considering his proposal.
78 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Appiah asks us to remember that:

We are not simply black or white or yellow or brown, gay or straight
or bisexual, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist or Confucian . . .
we are also brothers and sisters; parents and children, liberals,
conservative, and leftists; teachers and lawyers and auto-makers
and gardeners; fans of the Padres and the Bruins; amateurs of grunge
rock and lovers of Wagner; movie buffs; MTV-holics, mystery
readers; surfers and singers; poets and pet-lovers; students and
teachers; friends and lovers . . . even as we struggle against racism . . .
let us not let our racial identities subject us to new tyrannies.65

Appiah makes a two-pronged plea here. On the one hand, he asks us
to continue to struggle for racial justice and even to do so under the aegis
of a politics of recognition. On the other hand, he asks us not to suppose
that the racial, religious, and national identities we currently possess are
ones that we ought unthinkingly to project into the future. Instead, he
thinks that we ought to work against their tendency to ˜˜go imperial™™66
and to remember, instead, the power of cross-cutting and interlocking
affiliations. The effect of this emphasis, he suggests, would be to move
our racial and national identities in more ˜˜recreational™™67 directions.
It is not entirely clear what Appiah means by ˜˜recreational™™
directions, but he does point to Irish American identity as an example.
Calling an Irish American identity a recreational one is not to deny
that it is the result of various social, historical, and political processes.
Nor is it to deny that this identification once possessed social and
political meaning, or that it was introjected by individuals who there-
fore identified as Irish. Finally, it is not to overlook the possible
psychological importance and meaning that an Irish American iden-
tity can have. For some, the identity is a source of self-esteem and

Appiah and Gutmann, ˜˜Race, Culture, Identity,™™ pp. 103“104. Also see Amartya
Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (New York: W. W. Norton,
2006), esp. chapters 1“5.
66 67
Appiah and Gutmann, ˜˜Race, Culture, Identity,™™ p. 103. Ibid., p. 103.
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 79

value in their lives.68 Yet, Appiah™s point is surely that Americans
with some amount of Irish ancestry have options. They can seek
identification as Irish Americans and they can appropriate and endorse
their Irish American identities. Nevertheless, they can also elect not
to. Furthermore, even if they do insist on recognition as Irish
Americans, the identity no longer has clout as a source of possible
life-plans or possibilities. Although the identity can be individually
meaningful, social practices and institutions simply no longer serve to
construct the Irish American as a socially meaningful type. In reflect-
ing on their Irish heritage, then, Irish Americans can look to a feature
of their history that remains purely incidental in as much as it simply
possesses no influence on what they can or decide to do. Being Irish
American is an entirely personal feature of identity, a feature of her-
itage that one might to refer to in casual conversation, celebrate on
certain holidays, and use as a reference point in naming one™s children.
On most other occasions, it has no purchase.
These considerations may not be the ones Appiah intends to
highlight in citing Irish American identities. Nevertheless, develop-
ments in Irish American identities and attributions serve as good
examples of what we might call the privatization of a public identity.
Indeed, Irish American identities have moved from what the nine-
teenth century understood as racial identities to non-racial, ethnic,
and, indeed, ornamentally ethnic ones. In the 1840s, American Anglo-
Saxons defined the ˜˜race™™ of new Irish immigrants in terms of dark
skin, big hands and feet, broad teeth, and pug noses. The Irish were
˜˜pot-bellied, bow-legged, and abortively featured . . . especially
remarkable for open, projecting mouths, with prominent teeth and
exposed gums, their advancing cheekbones and depressed noses bear-
ing barbarism on the very front.™™69 In addition, they were ignorant and

See David Copp, ˜˜Social Unity and the Identity of Persons,™™ Journal of Political
Philosophy, 10 (4), 2002.
Cited in Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European
Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
1998), p. 46.
80 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

possessed of genetic propensities to violence and other riotous forms
of behavior that emphasized their intrinsic difference from the civil-
ized races. The nineteenth-century Irish themselves acknowledged
and introjected their racial status. In an early form of the politics of
identity, they simply reversed the value of being Irish and demanded
recognition for it. Nevertheless, in the course of American history,
Irish American identities became optional, identities worthy of only
occasional and ceremonial comment.
If an African American identity were to follow the Irish
American trajectory, it would involve two steps: a move from a racial
identity to an ethnic one and a move from African ethnicity as a
socially important identification to African ethnicity as an entirely
personal option. While it might influence the artifacts one chose to
help decorate one™s home or the names one gave one™s children, it
would have no bearing on one™s life-plans, opportunities, public roles,
or public identity. Nevertheless, this second step highlights the differ-
ence between Irish American identities and an African American one.
Arguably, the transition of an Irish American identity from a socially
important racial ascription to an optional ethnic self-identification
itself contributed to reinforcing the non-optional character of a black
racial identity. During the course of the nineteenth century, various
immigrant groups, including the Irish, were integrated and even
assimilated as parts of American society, at least in part, as an element
in the justification of slavery. Because slavery had to be shown to be
legitimate, other so-deemed racial differences had to be distinguished
from the African racial difference. Hence, one strategy for viewing the
Irish immigrants was to understand them as simply a diseased stock
of whites, a stock that over time could be restored to health. ˜˜It
is wonderful,™™ one observer wrote, ˜˜how rapidly the lower class of
Irish . . . do improve in America when they are well fed and comfort-
ably lodged.™™70 The same could not be said for the Africans. They were,

Josiah Nott, Two Lectures on the Connection Between the Biblical and the Physical
History of Man (1849). Cited in Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color, p. 46.
R A C I A L I D E N T I F I C A T I O N A N D I D E N T I T Y 81

in the words of a pro-slavery advocate, ˜˜as absolutely and specifically
unlike the American as when the race first touched the soil and first
breathed the air of the New World.™™71
Differences between Anglo-Saxons and Irish became matters of
health and environment while differences between Anglo-Saxons
and Africans became matters of nature. This development suggests a
disturbing relation between racial identities and Appiah™s recreational
identities. Attribution and self-attribution as an Irish American
can be recreational and largely private because attribution and self-
attribution as a white becomes or remains non-recreational and pub-
lic. In contrast, it is not possible to identify oneself or to be identified
as an African American in a recreational or private way. In fact,
neither identification as an African American nor identification as a
black is recreational. One remains publicly African American because
and insofar as one remains publicly black. The same holds for Asian
and Hispanic identities. One cannot either self-identify or be identified
as Chinese American or Japanese American in a recreational way.
Instead, one remains publicly Asian and, indeed, foreign. Nor can one
identify oneself or be identified as Mexican American or Columbian
American in a recreational way. Rather, one remains publicly Hispanic
or Latino/a. The move in which some racial identities become ethnic
identities and then recreational ethnic identities thus entrenches the
move in which other racial identities are reinforced.
In chapter 3, I want to see if shifting focus can help to rethink
racial identities in the way that Appiah favors. Rather than focusing
on the mechanics of social construction as a means of doing so, how-
ever, I want to turn to the interpretation of meaning.

J. H. Van Evrie, The Negro and Negro Slavery (1863). Cited in Jacobson, Whiteness of
a Different Color, p. 44.
Race and interpretation

Some of our identities are clearly only occasional and, moreover,
recreational since they are defined by occasional and recreational
activities. We are BBC lovers and baseball fans, for example, because
and to the extent that we watch the BBC and baseball games. These
identities are ˜˜constructed™™ to the extent that they depend on events,
activities, and amusements specific to the histories and societies of
which we are a part. We could not be baseball fans unless there were a
game of baseball and we could not be BBC lovers in the USA before the
advent of cable television. The identities also have looping effects, as
we saw in chapter 2. They are not only made possible by the avail-
ability of these activities and amusements in the society of which we
are a part but also loop back to develop the activities and amusements
that make them possible. Someone invents the game of baseball, for
example, and people begin to enjoy playing and watching it.
Professional teams appear and individuals become fans of specific
ones. This team identification feeds back into the public institution
of baseball and changes the place and status it has in the society of
which it is a part. In turn, the public institution of baseball changes
and restructures what it means to be a baseball fan.
The dependence of this sort of occasional identification and
identity on activities that are regarded as entertainments means that
the identifications and identities are optional and their scope is only
partial. We must consciously adopt the activities that contribute to
them and the identity never goes ˜˜imperial,™™ invading all or even most
contexts of identification. Even if one is an inveterate Red Sox fan, for
example, and even if one advises others of one™s preference, talks
constantly about the Red Sox, wears Red Sox paraphernalia, and so
on, one does not receive medical treatment as a Red Sox fan nor is the
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 83

baseball team one roots for a question on the US census. Identities
that we possess other than those as fans take precedence in different
situations. Moreover, one can give up being a Red Sox fan simply
on one™s own initiative and simply by ceasing to ˜˜perform™™ as one.
Even if it is not clear that a Red Sox fan can ever become a Yankees
fan, he or she can stop identifying as or being identified by others as
the former.
We possess other identities and make other sorts of identifica-
tions that seem to be less partial and optional. We are siblings, for
example, if we have a brother or sister and we are not the ones with
options in this matter. As part of the institution of the family, this
identity and identification possesses its own feedback loop in which
the identity strengthens the institution of the family and the institu-
tion strengthens the identity. At the same time, our identities as
siblings remain occasional ones. Few people identify themselves
as siblings in most aspects of their lives; similarly, we identify others
as siblings usually only if they are our own or if we come to know them
through their siblings. Furthermore, if identity as a sibling is not
optional, the psychological place the identity has in our life is
optional. We can choose to take up the burdens and benefits of the
identity or, at least as adults, refuse to have any contact at all with
our brothers or sisters. Our status as Americans is similar. If we are
born and raised in the United States, being an American is initially
beyond our control. Yet, we can decide that we no longer want to be
Americans; we can emigrate to other countries and apply for citizen-
ship elsewhere. Although some of the citizens in our adopted country
may continue to see us as Americans, if we shed or downplay all
of our American characteristics, affiliations, and so on “ if, in other
words, we cease to behave as Americans “ it is also possible that
this identification will fade and that we will come to be identified in
other terms.
Racial identities and identifications appear to be different. On
the one hand, just as in the case of our identities and identifications as
baseball fans or Americans, we cannot be blacks and whites unless the
84 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

identity and identification are available. Just as we cannot be garcons
de cafe in Medieval France, we cannot be blacks or whites until and
unless our society makes use of racial categories. Moreover, race
involves the same sort of looping effect that baseball or American
citizenship does. Certain individuals come to be identified as black
on the basis of a series of actions, institutions, legal decisions, and so
on, and this identification loops back into the way these individuals
come to think of themselves and to react to their environment. The
internal identification then reacts back upon the external one: in order
to survive and flourish Africans create new institutions, religions, and
forms of solidarity that emphasize their identities as blacks and rein-
force their distinction from whites. The religious institutions and
civil rights organizations that blacks establish loop back onto the
society to change both it and the significance of various identifica-
tions. The feedback loop continues.
Nevertheless, our racial identities and identifications go ˜˜impe-
rial™™ in a way that neither our status as baseball fans nor even our
status as Americans or brothers and sisters does. We must opt in to
being baseball fans; we can opt out of being Americans and can have so
little to do with our siblings that any identification of who we are as a
brother or sister will be confined to the most narrow of contexts. We
have none of these options with regard to our racial identities and
identifications. We cannot opt in to being a black, a white, an Asian, or
a Hispanic in the way that we can opt in to being a baseball fan; instead
we are always already ˜˜in.™™ Nor can we opt out of these designations
even to the degree that we can opt out of being Americans. To be sure,
we can move to a country with a different racial typology where we
might not be black, for example. Yet, when ex-Americans return to the
United States to visit, they arguably remain ex-Americans or at the
very least can intelligibly insist that they are. When ex-blacks return,
they become blacks and they cannot intelligibly insist that they are
not. Those of ˜˜mixed™™ heritage may define themselves in many ways.
The 2000 US census allowed individuals to select up to six races and
ethnicities as descriptions of who or what they were and the result was
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 85

fifty-seven possibilities and combinations.1 It is not clear, however,
that these combinations have dislodged our basic racial categories or
restricted the contexts in which people possess them. We self-identify
and others identify us as Irish Americans only in special situations.
The same does not hold of identifications as whites or blacks,
Latinolas, or Asians. We cannot become an ex-white in the same
way that we can become an ex-patriot. If we shed or downplay our
white characteristics and affiliations “ if we cease to act as whites “ we
remain whites trying to pretend that we are not. The same inability to
shed one™s racial identity holds of being black. Indeed, in this case,
shedding or downplaying one™s black characteristics “ ceasing to live
and act as a black “ is seen as a form of inauthenticity or ˜˜passing.™™ The
conditions of racial identities and identifications deviate from the
conditions of other identities and identifications because, in
Appiah™s words, we are theoretically committed to them in a way
that we are not theoretically committed to other identities we
We may not want to erase our racialized identities entirely.
Indeed, in moral “ psychological terms, we may find a great deal of
value in them. That is, it may be important to us that we are Irish
American or African American and we may even find this identity to
be the source of what is best about us. Nevertheless, recognizing the
moral “ psychological value of some identities, including racial ones,
is consistent with worrying about the basis for our theoretical com-
mitments. The worth of an identity is its worth for our private flour-
ishing, not its worth for purposes of public identification. Our racial
commitments are as fraught with difficulties as they are difficult to
dislodge. How might we make a start?

˜˜Census™ Multiracial Option Overturns Traditional Views,™™ Los Angeles Times,
March 5, 2001, p. 1.
K. Anthony Appiah, ˜˜Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections,™™ in
K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color consciousness: The Political
Morality of Race (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 78.
86 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Social constructionist accounts of racial identities do not allow
us to discriminate between public and private identities, or even
between good and bad identities. All identities are similarly construc-
tions and similarly bound up with power. Yet, suppose we focus not on
the causes of racial constructions but, instead, on the structure of
racial understandings. That is, suppose we ask not why or how indi-
viduals become raced but what being a particular race is. In this
chapter, I want to suggest that to identify oneself or someone else as
a black, white, Asian, Latino, or Latina is to understand oneself or the
other person in a certain way. In this regard, our racial identities and
identifications are no different from our identities and identifications
as baseball fans, siblings, and Americans. They are ways of under-
standing individuals within a certain context, from a particular point
of view, and in light of certain relations. In order to clarify this sugges-
tion, I shall start with literature and the arts, where questions of
understanding have their principal home.

Just as we want to know what or who we and others are, we want to
know what particular texts and paintings are, and just as we understand
individuals in certain ways as blacks, whites, Asians, or Latinas, or
Latinos, we understand texts in certain ways: as arguments for theories
of justice, as life-stories, and so on. How do we come to these under-
standings and how do we determine their validity? In what follows, I
want to try to skirt debates over literary theory as much as possible
and simply to describe the process of what we might call ordinary
understanding in our reading of texts and works of art. The description
of this process relies, in part, on the German hermeneutic tradition of
Schleiermacher, Heidegger, and Gadamer.3 Nevertheless, to the extent

See, in particular, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other
Writings , trans. David Bowie (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp.
pp. 24, 27“29; Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward
Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), esp. sections 31, 32; Hans-Georg
Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. edn., trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G.
Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1994), esp., pp. 265“380.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 87

that it does so, it tries not to offer a competing theory to deconstruction,
reception theory, queer theory, or the like but to try to get at the aspects
of reading and understanding central to all of them.
In approaching a text or work of art, we anticipate the meaning
the work has as a whole as an orientation to deciphering its initial parts.
We then use the way we understand the initial parts to reconsider and
possibly revise our anticipation of the meaning of subsequent parts and
the whole, and we do the same with each new part of the text we read.
We suppose that a particular text is a piece of philosophy and we there-
fore approach its first sentences as the specification of a problem or the
first steps in an argument. We suppose that another text is a love story
and so we read its first pages as the setting up of an emotional tension or
personal issue that will later be resolved. Our subsequent reading of the
texts tries to work out these assumptions. Coming to understand the
text is a circular process of projecting and revising in which we try to fit
our readings of part and whole together so that the text emerges for us as
a self-consistent unity of meaning. Of course, this attempt can fail. Our
initial assumptions about the text may make it impossible for us to
understand its beginning parts or our understanding of its beginning
parts may make it impossible to understand its later parts. If so, we can
revise our initial understandings and projections in light of our under-
standing of the later parts and continue attempting to fit the parts of the
text together until we reach an understanding that succeeds in integrat-
ing the parts with the whole.
To be sure, this description of the so-called hermeneutic circle
seems right at the start to involve itself in literary debates.
Deconstructive approaches to texts insist that the attempt to integrate
the text as a self-consistent whole not only can fail, but must fail.
Rather than ˜˜totalizing™™ the text, a close reading illuminates its fis-
sures “ or, in other words, the points in the text in which what is not
said undermines what is said.4 On this view, the procedure described

See Jeffrey T. Nealon, ˜˜The Discipline of Deconstruction,™™ PMLA, 107 (5), 1992,
pp. 1266“1279.
88 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

above is not a neutral description of the process of coming to under-
stand a text. Instead, it is a particular prescription for how we ought to
try to understand a text “ a prescription, moreover, that fails to ques-
tion conventional and traditional assumptions. In contrast, following
Jacques Derrida, deconstructive critics promote readings that try to
challenge the ˜˜binary oppositions™™ a particular text assumes. The first
point of a deconstructive reading is to show that these oppositions
involve hierarchies: speech over writing, serious over non-serious,
philosophy over literature, inside over outside, literal over figurative,
for example.5 The second point is to dismantle the hierarchy and
restructure the oppositions in a new and revealing way.6 Yet, it is
difficult to see how we can avoid totalizing in our understanding
of texts. Deconstruction of oppositions requires that we first recog-
nize them. If we want to show that the ˜˜privileged term™™ in an oppo-
sition depends upon the unprivileged one, or that presence depends
upon absence, we must first understand that presence or the privi-
leged term and the way it is defined by its opposite. Derrida, at least,
seems to conceive of this understanding as a contextual one in which a
term derives its meaning from the whole of which it is a part. He

The word ˜˜deconstruction™™ like all other words acquires its value
only from its inscription in a chain of possible substitutions, in
what is too blithely called a ˜˜context.™™ For me, for what I have tried
and still try to write, the word only has an interest within a certain
context where it replaces and lets itself be determined by such other
words as ˜˜´
ecriture,™™ ˜˜trace,™™ ˜˜supplement,™™ ˜˜hymen,™™ ˜˜pharmakon,™™

See Jonathon Culler et al., ˜˜The Discipline of Deconstruction,™™ PMLA, 8, 1993,
p. 534.
J. Douglas Neale, ˜˜Deconstruction,™™ Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth, The
Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 186“187.
Jacques Derrida, ˜˜Letter to a Japanese Friend,™™ in Robert Bernasconi and David
Woods, eds., Derrida and Difference (Coventry, UK: Parousia, 1985), p. 7.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 89

The circular process of understanding the part in terms of the
whole and the whole in terms of the part, however ˜˜blithely™™ under-
stood, remains necessary to reading even if our primary concern is to
show that the way the meaning the text might be taken to possess is
altered by the meanings it excludes. What is excluded can be as much a
part of our totalized understanding as what is included insofar as it
contributes to the whole in terms of which we understand the parts.
The description of understanding in terms of the hermeneutic
circle raises another question, however: namely, can texts and works
of art be understood in only one way? Deconstruction takes as part of
the holistic content of a text that which it excludes or refuses to
privilege. Does this strategy not suggest that there are many different
ways in which we might try to understand a text or work of art, even if
all of them attempt to integrate parts and whole? If so, how do we
determine which integration best illuminates the text at issue? Take
two views of Jane Austen™s novel, Sense and Sensibility. One reading
of it contrasts Elinor™s virtues of self-restraint to Marianne™s excesses
of emotion. What Sense and Sensibility shows on this reading is that
the communication of hopes, fears, joys, and disappointments that we
contemporary Americans often take to be constitutive of intimate
relationships is, instead, a kind of vice. Real consideration for those
we love demands that we forgo burdening them with the particular
circumstances of our life, especially if they can do little or nothing
about them. But compare this understanding to Eve Sedgwick™s in
˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ which focuses not on the
contrast between Elinor and Marianne but instead on the homoerotic
character of their relation.8 Elinor, in Sedgwick™s view, is obsessed
with Marianne while Marianne is obsessed with herself. Marianne is
masturbatory and Elinor is codependent in a way that undermines the
self-restraint that the first reading attributes to her. ˜˜Elinor™s pupils,
those less tractable sphincters of the soul, won™t close against the

Eve Sedgwick, ˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ in Eve Sedgwick,
Tendencies (Durham, MD: Duke University Press, 1993).
90 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

hapless hemorrhaging of her visual attention flow toward Marianne.™™9
Which reading of the novel is better or correct? One reading takes the
whole of the novel to involve an illustration of a particular virtue and
reads the parts of the novel in these terms, understanding Elinor™s
attraction to Edward Ferrars, for example, as an attraction to someone
similar to her in his restrained propriety. In contrast, Sedgwick™s read-
ing takes the whole to be the specification of a forbidden emotion and
reads the rest of the novel in these terms. Thus, Elinor™s attraction to
Edward Ferrars involves his similarity, not to herself, but to Marianne
in that both suffer from what Sedgwick calls ˜˜mauvaise honte.™™ Are
these readings competitive with one another? Might they both be
Intentionalism in literary theory has always tried to avoid an
affirmative answer to this question by insisting that the context or
whole necessary to understanding a part is the one the author
intended.10 Schleiermacher saw the point of the hermeneutic circle
as that of ensuring a correct apprehension of what an author meant to
say, and E. D. Hirsch argued that the task of understanding the mean-
ing of a literary or artistic work remained that of determining the
meanings that its author or creator was trying to express. Hirsch and
other intentionalists were willing to concede that such efforts often
diminished the work by engaging in a kind of biographical excess.
Nevertheless, they also rejected the suggestion of W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.
and Monroe C. Beardsley™s famous 1946 article, ˜˜The Intentional
Fallacy.™™11 If texts were to be understood in their own terms rather

Sedgwick, ˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ p. 124.
See, for example, E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven, CT, Yale
University Press, 1967, 6th edn., 1975); Stephen Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels,
˜˜Against Theory,™™ in W. J. T. Mitchell, ed., Against Theory: Literary Studies and the
New Pragmatism (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Stephen Knapp
and Walter Benn Michaels, ˜˜Against Theory 2: Hermeneutics and Deconstruction,™™
Critical Inquiry, 14, 1987; Noel Carroll, ˜˜Art, Intention and Conversation,™™ in Gary
Iseminger, ed., Intention and Interpretation (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University
Press, 1992).
In W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington,
KT: University of Kentucky Press, 1954).
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 91

than their biographical context, those terms remained the author™s.
Any particular sequence of words could have many meanings, E. D.
Hirsch pointed out. Hence, attaching a particular or ˜˜determinate™™
meaning to a sequence required that readers identify it with a partic-
ular author™s ˜˜act of will.™™ Otherwise, ˜˜there would be no distinction
between what an author does mean by a word sequence and what he
could mean by it.™™12
Some contemporary intentionalists have pointed to the oddness
of the conception of intentions involved in the original controversy
over Wimsatt and Beardsley™s article.13 Wimsatt, Beardsley, and
Hirsch all refer to intentions as if they were mental events and to
texts and works of art as if they were public events, related to inten-
tions as effects to causes. Following Wittgenstein, however, Noel
Carroll re-positions intentions within a text or work of art.
Intentions are linguistic rather than mental phenomena and, as
such, they are already parts of the sequences of words that Hirsch
wants to define in reference to them. Hence, while Hirsch claims
that ˜˜meaning is an affair of consciousness not of words,™™14 a neo-
Wittgensteinian view insists that the attempt to determine what the
intentions of the author of a text are does not require looking outside
of the text itself. Instead, they are part of its ˜˜purposive structure.™™ As
Carroll puts the point:

Searching for authorial intention is . . . not a matter of . . . looking
for some independent, private, mental episode or cause that is
logically remote from the meaning . . . of the work. The intention is
evident in the work itself, and, insofar as the intention is identified
as the purposive structure of the work, the intention is the focus of
our interest in and attention to the artwork.15

Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, p. 47.
See Carroll, ˜˜Art, Intention and Conversation™™ and Colin Lyas, ˜˜Wittgensteinian
Intentions,™™ in Gary Iseminger, ed., Intention and Interpretation (Philadelphia, PA:
Temple University Press, 1992).
Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, p. 4.
Carroll, ˜˜Art, Intention and Conversation,™™ p. 101.
92 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

Carroll uses this point to argue against Beardsley™s anti-inten-
tionalism. In an example that is supposed to show the irrelevance of an
author™s intention, Beardsley writes that ˜˜if a sculptor tells us that his
statue was intended to be smooth and blue, but our senses tell us it is
rough and pink, we go by our senses.™™16 Yet, in this case, Carroll
claims, we do not dismiss the sculptor™s remarks because we think
that an artist™s intentions are irrelevant to the meaning of a work.
Rather, we dismiss them because we suspect that this particular artist
is being insincere. Carroll thinks that the same holds for the note with
which Andrew Greeley prefaces his novel 1983, Ascent into Hell, a
novel that Carroll calls ˜˜soft-core pornography, spiced with religious
taboos.™™17 In his note, however, Greeley implies that the novel is an
allegory of Passover. Should we not therefore understand it in the way
that Greeley, its author, advises? Carroll rejects this idea but denies
that doing so implies any anti-intentionalism. Instead, ˜˜The inten-
tionalist can reject the ˜˜Passover interpretations of Ascent into Hell in
the face of Greeley™s implied intentions by denying that it is plausible
to accept the authenticity of Greeley™s ostensible intent.™™18
But what is the basis on which we deny the authenticity of the
˜˜ostensible intent?™™ It has to be our understanding of how the parts “
in this case, the novel and the note “ fit together as a coherent whole.
We can understand Greeley™s note as an attempt ˜˜to reassure his
Catholic readership that his book was not irreligious.™™19 If we do so,
however, it is because we are trying to integrate our understanding of
the note with our understanding of the text. If the text is soft-core
pornography, as Carroll thinks, then the note must be an attempt to
placate Greeley™s readers. In contrast, if we understand the text as an
allegory, we might understand Greeley™s intentions in the note as
guiding us to that recognition. The same need to integrate part and
whole holds for the way we understand the sculptor™s intentions.

Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958) p. 20;
cited in Carroll, ˜˜Art, Intention and Conversation,™™ p. 98.
Carroll, ˜˜Art, Intention and Conversation,™™ p. 99.
18 19
Ibid., p. 99. Ibid., p. 99.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 93

Because we understand the statue to be rough and pink, we understand
the sculptor™s expression of an intention to make something smooth
and blue to be either ironic or an attempt to achieve notoriety. In both
cases, the meaning we ascribe to the text or sculpture conditions the
meaning we ascribe to the author™s or artist™s intentions. Despite his
defense of intentionalism, Carroll makes the same point, ˜˜The art-
work is criterial to attributions of intention.™™20 We decide what an
author™s or artist™s intentions are, not by asking him or her, but by
reading or looking at the work itself. Indeed, when we do ask an author
or artist what he or she meant to do, as in the case of Beardsley™s
sculptor, we understand their answer only in terms of our understand-
ing of the work.
So how are we to understand the work? Consider our under-
standing of actions. In acting, we intend to do one thing rather than
another. Yet, what we actually do is rarely a perfect expression of our
intentions. Instead, we often act upon intentions we did not know we
had, or we do more than or something different from what we intended
to do. We are also obliged to react to the actions of others and to modify
our plans to respond to unforeseen circumstances. Indeed, even where
we are able to execute our own plans without modification, they
become part of a sequence of reactions and events over which we can
have no intentional control. We intend to supply water to a village by
pumping water to it from a well. Yet, because, unbeknownst to us,
someone has poisoned the well, we kill the villagers.21 We understand
the beginning events of the Six-Day War as the beginning events of the
Six-Day War even though no one intended them as the beginning
events of the Six-Day War and even though we can understand them
in this way only in conjunction with the subsequent events that
continued and ended the war in six days.22 For these reasons, it is
misleading to read actions as expressions of their actors™ original

Ibid., p. 101.
See G. E. M. Anscombe, Intentions (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1957), p. 39.
See Arthur Danto, Analytical Philosophy of History (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1965).
94 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

intentions. We may have intended to pump water to a village but it is
still possible to describe the action as poisoning its inhabitants. Firing
shots at Fort Sumter can be understood as the start of the Civil War
even though the shooters may have themselves intended only to
proclaim their independence. Thus, the understanding that we and
others have of our actions normally includes accounts that float
free of our or anyone™s intentions because actions become parts of a
history that goes beyond these intentions. How we understand the
action depends upon the subsequent history in terms of which we
understand it.
The same holds of texts and works of art. They enter into an
interpretive history by connecting up with other texts that had not yet
been written when they first appeared as well as with criticisms not
yet made and with actions and events that had not yet occurred. When
we understand them, then, what we understand includes a history
that neither their authors not their original audiences could possess.
Terence Hawkes writes of Shakespeare™s Hamlet, ˜˜At one time, this
must obviously have been an interesting play written by a promising
Elizabethan playwright. However, equally obviously, this is no longer
the case.™™23 Hamlet can no more be simply an interesting play for even
the most unsophisticated high-school student than, for him or her, the
First World War can be The Great War. Just as we understand the
meanings of actions as parts of particular histories, we understand
texts in terms of what Gadamer calls ˜˜effective history.™™24 The mean-
ing Hamlet has for us contains its afterlife. When we read it or see it
performed, we read and see a different text than the one Shakespeare
may have thought he was writing or than his original audience may
have seen. We read and see a play that includes connections and
intersections with texts written after it and ideas that post-date it.
We understand Hamlet in terms of Oedipus Rex, whether or not
Shakespeare meant us to because Freud taught us to; we understand

Terence Hawkes, Meaning by Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 4.
Gadamer, Truth and Method, esp. pp. 300“302.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 95

it in terms of existentialism because writers after the Second World
War illuminated it in this way; we might even understand it in terms
of Disney™s ˜˜The Lion King,™™ as a recent essay ˜˜The Lion King and
Hamlet: A Homecoming for the Exiled Child™™ did. Disney, too, con-
ditions our frame of reference.25
We need not be experts in the work of Freud, Sartre, or Disney for
this work to be a possible part of the text for us. When we read the texts
of our history, we do so from a historical perspective that goes beyond
them. Yet, this perspective is one to which they have also already
contributed. If we can read Hamlet in terms of The Lion King, we can
do so because Hamlet has already influenced the world in which The
Lion King is written and the world for which Hamlet™s story is icono-
graphic. Hamlet is thus not only an object of interpretation for us but
also a framework for understanding other texts, our lives, and our
world. For Hawkes, this framing is the most important aspect of
Hamlet™s legacy, for not only do we understand it from the perspective
of historical experiences that go beyond it, we understand those his-
torical experiences from the perspective it shapes:

As an aspect of the works of ˜˜Shakespeare,™™ the play helps to shape
large categories of thought, particularly those which inform politi-
cal and moral stances, modes and types of relationship, our ideas of
how men and women, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives,
uncles and nephews, sons and daughters ought respectively to
behave and interact. It becomes a means of first formulating and
then validating important power relationships, say between politi-
cians and intellectuals, soldiers and students, the world of action
and that of contemplation. Perhaps its probing of the relation
between art and social life, role-playing on stage and role-playing in
society, appears so powerfully to offer an adequate account of
important aspects of our own experience that it ends by construct-
ing them. In other words, Hamlet crucially helps to determine how

Rosemarie Gavin, ˜˜The Lion King and Hamlet: A Homecoming for the Exiled
Child,™™ The English Journal, 85 (3), pp. 55“57.
96 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

we perceive and respond to the world in which we live. You can
even name a cigar after it.26

If you can even name a cigar after it, you can also write a Disney
movie in its terms and then understand Hamlet through this movie.
The hermeneutic circle involved in understanding the meaning of the
parts of a text in terms of our understanding of the meaning of the
whole and understanding the meaning of the whole in terms of our
understanding of the parts is thus a historical circle. In reading
Hamlet, we bring a whole comprising our historical and textual expe-
rience to bear on it and in reading our historical and textual experience
we bring Hamlet to bear on it. Hawkes limits his implicit reference to
this historical hermeneutical loop to Shakespeare™s work, but we can
extend it to include all the texts that remain part of our interpretive
traditions. We both try to understand these works and understand
through them.
To be sure, in the course of trying to decide which of two read-
ings of Sense and Sensibility to accept we seem to have arrived at a
bizarre conclusion. We have found that we cannot pick between the
two readings by identifying Austen™s intention because we understand
that intention only in terms of our understanding of the text. We have
also found that our understanding of a text is influenced by our par-
ticipation in an on-going history and that our participation in this
on-going history is influenced and oriented by our understanding of
the text. But how, then, do radically new readings of a text emerge?
How is understanding it anything but the reflection of a vicious circle
in which we understand a text in the way the history or tradition of
understanding that text bequeaths to us? How do we arrive at two
different understandings such as the two we looked at of the meaning
of Sense and Sensibility? Moreover, insofar as any understanding of
textual meaning involves the whole of our history, will the under-
standing not participate in whatever power relations that history

Hawkes, Meaning by Shakespeare, p. 4.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 97

involves? If ˜˜Hamlet crucially helps to determine how we perceive
and respond to the world in which we live,™™ how can we offer what we
might call autonomous accounts of meaning or understandings that
do not bring with them all the failures, ideologies, and biases of that
Hamlet-produced world?
In trying to make sense of Sense and Sensibility, Sedgwick
writes that she has ˜˜most before™™ her two books that discuss Emily
Dickinson™s ˜˜heteroerotic and her homoerotic poetics.™™27 She also
says that ˜˜reading the bedroom scenes [in Sense and Sensibility] . . .
I find I have lodged in my mind a bedroom scene from another docu-
ment, a narrative structured as a case history of ˜Onanism and
Nervous Disorders in Two Little Girls™ and dated ˜1881.™™™28 These
self-references suggest that it is misleading to think of the whole or
the context that history offers us for understanding our texts as a
monolithic one. Rather, we should speak of the different wholes that
different historical strands, sequences, and relations offer us.
Sedgwick places Sense and Sensibility in a history that includes stud-
ies of Emily Dickinson™s poetry and nineteenth-century science.
Contrast this placement not only with one that connects the text to
a consideration of virtue but with one that understands Austen™s
works from the perspective of the history of the Islamic Republic of
Iran. Taking issue with Charlotte Bronte™s criticisms of the novels as
narrowly conventional, what strikes Azar Nafisi instead is: ˜˜the indi-
vidual, her happiness, her ordeals and her rights.™™ For Nafisi, Austen™s

Put at the center of our attention . . . not the importance of marriage
but the importance of heart and understanding in marriage; not the
primacy of conventions but the breaking of conventions. These
women . . . are the rebels who say no to the choices made by silly
mothers, incompetent fathers . . . and the rigidly orthodox society.
They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship,

27 28
Sedgwick, ˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ p. 115. Ibid., p. 118.
98 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right
to choose.29

Nafisi™s students provide new takes on the famous opening line
of Pride and Prejudice: ˜˜It is a truth universally acknowledged that a
Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-
old virgin wife™™ and it is ˜˜a truth universally acknowledged that a
Muslim man must be in want of many wives.™™30 The importance of
the meaning that Austen™s work has for Nafisi and her students is thus
that it both reflects an orientation made possible by their world and
provides a way of making sense out of this world. If Hawkes shows
that we understand with Shakespeare, we also understand with
Austen. Moreover, the contrast between Sedgwick™s and Nafisi™s
interpretation indicates that textual understanding as well as our
understanding with texts are pluralistic. Texts are intelligible in
terms of more than one set of historical relations and they shed more
than one light on these relations. Sedgwick understands Sense and
Sensibility from the perspective of one set and Nafisi from another,
but the continuing nature of historical developments and relations
guarantees that the different perspectives we can bring to our under-
standing of and with texts will be infinite. They will always illumi-
nate and be capable of illumination in different terms within different
contexts of interpretation.
The consequence of this pluralism is two-fold. First, the answer
to the initial question provoked by deconstructive readings of texts is
affirmative: there are many perspectives from which we can under-
stand a text or work of art. Second, because understanding is plural-
istic, no dogmatic understanding can escape alternatives forever.
Human beings try to make sense of their world, their history, and
their heritage and they draw on various historical strands and resour-
ces in order to do so. Nafisi and her students make sense of Austen in

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random
House, 2004), p. 307.
Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran, p. 257.
R A C E A N D I N T E R P R E T A T I O N 99

part through the historical actions and events in which they are
participants and they make sense out of the strain of Islam that
governs them in part through Austen. Sedgwick makes sense out of
Austen in terms of queer theory and contributes to queer theory
through her understanding of Austen. As it turns out, then, far from
being limited by history, the engagement of our understanding in the
multiplicity of interpretive lines and sequences that various histories
make available means that we possess many different ways to under-
stand both our texts in terms of our world and our world in terms of
our texts.
This pluralism may seem to conflict not only with Hirsch™s
claim that the meaning of a text is determinate and can therefore be
understood in only one way but also with our own sense that when we
understand a text we understand it ˜˜correctly.™™ Indeed, we might ask
what the point of articulating any understanding of a book is unless we
think it is the right one. The answer here, of course, is that a reading of
a text can be correct without being exclusively so. Sedgwick is quite
uncomplimentary about what she considers to be moralizing under-
standings of Sense and Sensibility. Nevertheless, what she says about
her own reading is only that she wants ˜˜to make available the sense of
an alternative, passionate sexual ecology.™™31 Making an alternative
available is not at all the same as assuming that one™s reading is the
only possible one. Of course, we might insist that although other
readings are possible, our account gets at the text™s most fundamental
or basic meaning. This strategy seems to be the one that Hirsch adopts
in trying to distinguish between the meaning of a text and its signifi-
cance.32 Yet, it is hard to see how we could argue that Hamlet is
fundamentally Freudian and only secondarily existentialist, or that
it is less about Renaissance politics than it is about, say, the unreli-
ability of signs.33 Instead, Hamlet has been and continues to be intel-
ligible from a variety of perspectives. Othello cannot be said to be

Sedgwick, ˜˜Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,™™ p. 126.
See Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation, p. 61.
See Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 65.
100 A F T E R I D E N T I T Y

most fundamentally a play about race and only in a peripheral way a
play about jealousy, nor can King Lear be said to be primarily a story of
filial relations and only secondarily a story of fools. Indeed, King Lear™s
tragedy is precisely that he insists on a solitary and exclusive defini-
tion of filial love. Just as love comes in many forms so, too, does the
understanding of meaning.
But just how many forms does understanding come in? Is no
understanding better or worse than any other? Is one of the points of
King Lear not precisely that however many forms love comes in, it
does not arrive in the sort of speeches that Goneril and Regan offer? In


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