Potash Hill

Anti-Essentialism in Black Thought

By Andrew Smith Domzal ’18

Existentialist thought is useful when discussing race, because it discards any essential qualities that a person might have and focuses on lived experience. There is nothing essential about being a black person: black people are all unique and distinct. That being said, because of the historical conditions that we are born into and that shape us—because there have been social structures that judge black people in certain ways and the dominant culture holds essentialized views of black people—there is a shared experience of being black in the world.

In Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “We make up selves from a tool kit of options made available by our culture and society…. We do make choices, but we don’t determine the options among which we choose.”

We exist in a society that has a specific history, which determines our options. Black people are born into a world where being black has certain connotations affecting their being-in-the-world. They are seen as, and given an essence as, other. This is existentially insulting, and breeds resentment by subsuming any freedom to choose the self. Recently—among biologists, social activists, and progressives—many have accepted that race is a social construct rather than a fact of biology. However, realizing that race is a social construct does not remove any of its power in the world, nor does it lessen its effect on the black person’s life.

Even positive scripts about black essentialism and normativity have the potential to be problematic. In the case of the Black Power movement—turning the old script of self-hatred into a new script in which one asks to be respected as a black—Appiah writes, “Someone who takes autonomy seriously will want to ask whether we have not replaced one kind of tyranny with another. If I had to choose between Uncle Tom and Black Power, I would, of course, choose the latter. But I would like not to have to choose. I would like other options.”

In order to truly liberate black existence we must understand blackness as a shared way of existing and not as a requirement of specific action. Blackness should be as diverse as the human spectrum in terms of actions, interests, dress, and so forth. In the existentialist perspective, discarding essences while still understanding the power of social constructs to determine life can tell one much about the black experience.

This essay is excerpted and adapted from one section of Andrew’s Plan, which is titled “‘I am fully what I am’: Philosophy, literature, and the lived experience of race.” Andrew is now living in Leuven, Belgium, and is enrolled in a master’s program in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven.