Intrinsic Versus Earned Worth in African Conception of Personhood

  • Elvis ImafidonEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


Every human being ought to have some form of intrinsic value that she has in herself as well as earned or extrinsic value that she earns for herself. Although not free from contention, the possibility of a human being having certain intrinsic values is essential for the very idea of personhood. It is the reason why it would be wrong not to take a baby as a person simply because she is at that moment unable to earn some value for herself. In this chapter, I interrogate how the idea of personhood dominant in African cultures separates one category of persons from another category. In the first category of human beings, persons are intrinsically valued as persons due to their possession of certain ontological and normative qualities. In the second category, a few other persons are not intrinsically valued as persons due to their lack of certain required ontological and normative qualities needed to belong to the first category of human beings. But in this second category, such persons have the opportunity to earn the value of personhood given to those in the first category. Put differently, the other has the potential of becoming the one if he works tirelessly toward it through individual and group efforts. I explore three specific examples of the second category of persons who have worked to earn some form of worth that the African society in which they live presents as extrinsic to them: persons with albinism, black people, and black women. In this case, a consistent individual lifestyle of rising above expectations and group rights advocacy are essential. I conclude that the African conception of personhood is flawed in its failure to recognize the intrinsic worth and value of all human beings regardless of their ontological and normative status and because it also fails in appreciating the importance of difference in the unfolding of reality.


Personhood Intrinsic worth Earned self-worth Rights advocacy Melanin-privileged Africans White privileged persons Black women 


The worth and value of a human being is highly contested. This contention is vividly seen, for instance, in the debate on the conception and, by implication, the value of human life in the history of ideas. This protracted debate has resulted in various perspectives such as the biological, naturalistic, entelechy, vitalist, mechanistic, romantic, cultural, and religious conceptions or accounts of human life. Each of these conceptions of human life lays claim to what the nature of life is and directly or indirectly provides the basis on which we can say that X has life and Y does not and a more farfetched basis on which we can say X is a human being or a person and Y is not or, at the very least, not fully a human being or a person. More specifically, conceptions of personhood within a context, which are largely intertwined with the conceptions of human life, are primarily responsible for determining, for instance, what sort of rights and privileges we can enjoy and who should enjoy them, whether infanticide/embryocide is morally justified, whether genocide of a particular race should be allowed or prevented, and so on. The personhood question is thus a very important question. E. M. Adams therefore says, for instance, concerning human rights, that “no adequate ground for human rights can be found without a full-fledged… understanding of what it is to be a human being” (Adams 1982: 191).

I pursue similar lines of thought in this chapter: there can be no adequate understanding of the rights and privileges that an African person enjoys without first of all understanding who within the African framework of thought may be referred to as a person or a human being and the intrinsic worth society attributes to such a being. So, I begin by exploring an African account of personhood, highlighting the intrinsic worth and privileges that result from possessing the characteristics of a person. It is important to state from the onset that my use of the term “African” in the pages of this chapter is in no way meant to pursue an unrealistic universalist account of thoughts and belief systems within the multicultural, dynamic, and richly diverse African place nor is it meant to downplay on such diversity. Rather, my justification for using the term stems, I believe, from a well-known fact of the semblances in the rich cultural heritages of African people’s heritages that make it possible to talk, for instance, of an African philosophy, African politics, African history, and the like. I find such semblances as well in African broad understanding of personhood as consisting, for instance, of onto-social characteristics, where specific details of such characteristics often vary from culture to culture. Bearing this in mind, I then proceed to examine why certain human beings may not be seen as complete persons within an African context and why such human beings would need to earn their worth through a deliberate fight for their rights and values, for their personhood. I explore this tension between persons with intrinsic worth and persons with earned worth by focusing on three areas where such tension is obvious: between melanin-privileged Africans and Africans with albinism, between African men and African women, and between whites and blacks in contemporary African (and non-African) societies. I conclude that the flaws and limitations of the African understanding of personhood, which limits intrinsic worth to a certain group of people, make it a constant struggle for those not fitting into that group to earn their worth and lead meaningful lives.

Personhood, Intrinsic Worth, and Resulting Rights

In an African thought system, what characteristics must a human being possess to be called a person? In African philosophical literature and from living in an African community, what becomes obvious is that a person in an African place has a duo feature. This has rightly be termed the metaphysical and communitarian conceptions of the African person, the ontological and social conception of the African person, or the descriptive or normative conception of the African person (see, e.g., Gyekye 1992; Wiredu 1992; Menkiti 1984; Dzobo 1992; Imafidon 2012). (One major source of reference to these conceptions of person in African cultures is Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I.) Both conceptions are interwoven, and one cannot be conceived as isolated from the other.

As I have discussed elsewhere (Imafidon 2012), the metaphysical, ontological, or descriptive aspect of the conception of person in African thought consists first of recognizing a human being as being born to African parents and possessing dark-skinned body and also of a description of the constituent parts – physical and nonphysical – of such a human being and their functions or purpose in the scheme of things. (The analysis of the ontological and normative conceptions of person in African cultures that I provide here is a revised excerpt of what I had earlier discussed in a section of the paper titled, The Concept of Person in an African Culture and Its Implication for Social Order (2012).) The biological origin of an African person matters a lot in attributing personhood to her within an African community, and the color of the skin matters too. Although the exact shade of darkness varies, an African person ought to be dark-skinned and must be given birth to by African parents. Hence, a person with an African father and non-African mother or vice versa may be teased within an African community as not fully an African person. In Nigerian communities, for instance, such persons are commonly referred to as “half-caste” sending the message that they are not fully African and not fully non-African; they are casted and caught somewhere in between raising questions of identity that is a subject matter for discourse I wish to deliberately avoid at this point.

Also, although there is no consensual view as to the exact constituents of the person in African cultures due to the slight differences in the views embedded in different African communities, there exist strong semblances in these varied perspectives of the descriptive conception of person. In fact, scholars theorizing about the ontological constituents of a person in an African culture are bound to provide theories that may appear different, but on closer look are not so different. These facts become clear in the examination of the perspectives of different African cultures or a single African culture by different scholars. Kwasi Wiredu, for example, develops a pentachotomistic perspective of the ontological conception of a person in the Akan culture. In his view, an Akan person consists of okra, the life principle and source of human dignity and destiny, sunsum (the personality or charisma principle), and mogya (the blood or kinship principle). Others are nipadua (the physical body) and the ntoro [that which is responsible for the cast of personality (the semen)] which is inherited from one’s father and is taken as the basis of membership of a patrilineal group (Onah 2002: 75). Apparently, the ideas of the mogya and ntoro, as developed by Wiredu, refer to some genetic aspects of the human being. Kwame Gyekye, another reputed Akan philosopher, develops a somewhat unified dualist view of the Akan concept of a person as simply consisting of the okra (which he interprets as soul) and nipadua (body) (Gyekye 1984: 200–208). Wiredu is, however, quick to warn against the translation of okra to the English “soul” which is a purely immaterial substance because the okra, to him, is a quasi-material substance (Onah 2002: 74). This is because the Akan believe that highly developed medicine men with medicinally heightened perception are capable of seeing the okra. In addition, there is the belief among the Akans that specific okra has specific kinds of food to which they are allergic, and the consumption of such by an individual may result in physical illness. Perhaps, Kwame Appiah, a famous Akan philosopher, provides a clearer summary of the Akan ontological concept of a person in his tripartite analysis of such in the Asante tradition when he says:

… a person consists of a body (nipadua) made from the blood of the mother (the mogya); an individual spirit, the sunsum, which is the main bearer of ones personality; and a third entity, the okra. The sunsum derives from the father at conception. The okra, a sort of life force that departs from the body only at the person’s last breath; is sometimes as with the Greeks and the Hebrews, identified with breath; and is often said to be sent to a person at birth, as the bearer of ones nkrabea, or destiny, from Nyame. The sunsum, unlike the okra, may leave the body during life and does so, for example, in sleep, dreams being thought to be the perceptions of a person’s sunsum on its nightly peregrinations…. (Appiah 2004: 28)

Among the Yoruba people, there is much consensus among scholars of the Yoruba tradition that there is a tripartite conception of person in the ontological level of conception. The three elements are ara (body), emi (vital principle), and ori (destiny). The Yoruba believe that it is ori that rules, controls, and guides the life and activities of the person. The ori as the essence of a person derives from Olodumare (Supreme Being). And because this ori derives from Olodumare, the person is bound to Olodumare, and without Him, the person cannot have her being or existence (Oyeshile 2006a: 157). The ara is a collective term for all the material components of a person most important for the Yoruba. The ara thus include parts of the physical body as Opolo (the brain), Okan (the heart), and Ifun (the intestine) (Oladipo 1992: 15–16). Both Opolo and Okan are regarded by the Yoruba as having some connections with human conscious activities – such as thinking and feeling. According to Oladipo (1992: 16):

Opolo is regarded by them as having connections with sanity and intelligence. Thus, when a person is insane, they say “Opolo re ko pe” (his brain is not complete or not in order)… Okan, (physical heart), which, apart from being closely connected with blood, is also regarded as the seat of emotion and psychic energy. A person who is courageous is said to “have a heart” (oni okan).

Oladipo also explains that Ifun, on the other hand, is regarded as the source of strength and resourcefulness. Thus, when a person is described as ko n’ ifun nino (“he has no intestine”), it means that she is not strong; she has no resilience (1992).

Emi is the element that provides the animating force or energy without which a person cannot be said to have life or consciousness. It is, according to Bolaji Idowu (1962), closely associated with the breath and the whole mechanism of breathing which are its most impressive manifestations. Generally speaking, it is regarded by the Yoruba as the basis of human existence. It is the entity which gives life to a person; its presence or absence in a person makes the difference between life and death. It is conceived as that divine element in man which links him directly to God. According to the Yoruba worldview, it is Olodumare (the Supreme Being) who breathes it into the bodies formed by Orisonla (the primordial divinity) to make them living human beings. Hence, in the event of death, it returns to Olodumare, who has among many attributes that of being the owner of life, to give an account of a person’s activities on earth and to continue to live. Emi, then, for the Yoruba, is immortal (Oladipo 1992). Emi can be seen to be similar in certain respects to okra of the Akans. They are both, for instance, regarded as the undying part of man which is given directly by the creator before man is born into the world. Also, like the okra, emi can advise a man on what to do and what not to do. However, they are not identical. For instance, the Akans see the okra as the carrier of human destiny, indeed, in the words of Gyekye, “the embodiment and transmitter of the individuals destiny.” But the Yoruba see it in another entity, Ori, the embodiment of human destiny (Oladipo 1992: 19). Ori (appropriately called inner head) is in the words of Segun Gbadegesin “… the bearer of a person’s destiny as well as the determinant of personality” (2004: 53; see also Adeofe 2004: 69–83). The Ibos of Nigeria also have a similar tripartite ontological conception of a person as consisting of the aru (physical body), chi (destiny, which can change depending on a number of factors such as hard work and spiritual fortification), and inmuo (spirit, which is immortal and ensures the individual’s continuing self-identity (Ozumba 2004)).

What is obvious from these ontological or descriptive conceptions of a person in the Akan, Yoruba, and Ibo thought systems is that Africans share a fairly similar understanding of the ontology of a person as consisting of a physical body, a vital force, and destiny. Hence the individual is made up of material, quasi-material, and immaterial aspects all forming a unified whole to account for the individual’s predispositions and experiences. However, as noted earlier, in an African culture, the concept of a person goes beyond the ontological conception of the person to include a normative conception of a person.

Normatively, personhood is not something one is born with. It has to be acquired through internalization of, or at least commitment to, social norms. From this perspective, a person is not just any human being, but one who has attained the status of a responsible member of the society (Onah 2002: 78). The normative conception of a person consists of the way a person is understood in a given community in terms of his social relations to other persons and beings and his social roles (Sogolo 1993). In this normative level of conceptualizing the person, African traditional thought systems conceive the person as a communal being (Dzobo 1992). John S. Mbiti (1969: 108–109) puts it this way in his famous lines:

Only in terms of other people does the individual become conscious of his own being, his own duties, his privileges and responsibilities towards himself and towards other people. When he suffers, he does not suffer alone but with the corporate group; when he rejoice, he rejoices not alone but with his kinsmen, his neighbours and relatives whether dead or alive… The individual can only say: “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. This is the cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man.

To be a person in this sense according to Kwasi Wiredu is to be an adult who works hard, thinks judiciously, and is capable to support a conjugal household as well as fulfill a range of obligation to his extended group of kinfolk and to the civic community at large (Onah 2002: 78). A person, in this sense, would therefore exclude infants, persons with mental disabilities, and persons with physical disabilities. In an African traditional thought therefore a person in the normative sense has three levels of existence: first, as an individual; second, as a member of a group; and third as a member of a community. This is because persons within the society are constantly interacting with one another in these levels (Ndubuisi 2004). The African society is therefore communal in nature because the persons are believed to continually be in a social relation with others (both living and dead) and cannot be conceived as existing outside such social interaction.

But it is important to avoid an exaggerated (radical) normative communalistic theory of a person as advocated by scholars such as Ifeanyi A. Menkiti (1984) because although the African person is a communal being, she is only partly so, for she has her own individualistic values. According to Kwame Gyekye:

Besides being a communitarian by nature, the human person is, also by nature, other things as well. By other things, I have in mind such essential attributes like rationality, having a capacity for virtue and for evaluating and making moral judgements and, hence, being capable of choice. It is not the community that creates these attributes; it discovers and nurtures them. (Oyeshile 2006b: 114–115)

Expressing this room for individualistic tendencies and potentialities, Benezet Bujo also says succinctly that:

…the individual may not blindly follow the group. Life in community demands alertness and the maintenance of one’s own individuality. In other words, the discernment of spirits must be preserved even in the context of friendship and community. (2003: 118–119)

The communitarian, normative conception of the person, according to Gyekye (1992: 104), has some implications. It implies (i) that the human person does not voluntarily choose to enter into human community, that is, the community life is not optional for any individual person; (ii) that the human person is at once a cultural being; (iii) that the human person cannot –perhaps, must not – live in isolation from other persons; (iv) that the human person is naturally oriented toward other persons and must have relationship with them; (v) that social relationships are not contingent but necessary; and (vi) that, following from (iv) and (v), the person is constituted, but only partly, by social relationships in which he necessarily finds himself. African societies, therefore, place a great deal of emphasis on communal values. The communal structures of African societies have created a sense of community that characterizes social relations among individual members of the society. Therefore, normatively speaking, one cannot be a person without a community. This implies that a person has obligations toward the community. It is in fulfilling such obligations that she remains a person in the normative sense. This also implies that personhood in the normative sense can be more or less, not the same at all times; it can be acquired and lost in time. One who acts irresponsibly or has become mentally insane would be a nonperson logically since she deliberately or non-deliberately unable to fulfill her social obligations and duties expected of all persons in the society.

Despite the distinction drawn above between the descriptive and the normative conceptions of persons in African cultures, there is no separation of one from the other. It is usually the context or particular situation in an African place that determines which of the perspectives receive more emphasis at a given time. But both conceptions are essential to understand who a person is in African cultures. To underscore this point, we could think of a foreigner who resides in an African place. She may live a community-accepted life and may be doing well in the normative sense of being a person within the community in which she lives, but it would still be difficult for her to be accepted as an African person or as part of the community of persons, and she may never be able to enjoy all the rights that persons within such a community enjoy because she is not yet seen as a person in the ontological sense. Thus, being born into an African community, to African parents, and possessing dark skin gives a person some intrinsic worth, worth that naturally belongs to her simply for being recognized as an African person. And this worth of an African person quickly translates into the enjoyment of certain rights.

Possessing the ontological and normative features of a person, which makes a human being a complete person in an African society, endows such a person with rights. In other words, although persons in an African place as so called due to the continuous responsibilities and obligations they must fulfill particularly in the normative sense, they also enjoy benefits in forms of rights from being identified and accepted as persons. The most significant of such rights enjoyed by persons for being recognized as persons in African cultures, which forms the basis for the enjoyment of other rights, is social assimilation and acceptance. By social assimilation and acceptance, I mean that an individual human being is accepted by, and assimilated and incorporated into, an African community or society as a person on the sole basis that she possesses the ontological and normative features that the African society expects of a person. This acceptance into the community of an individual is an essential right that paves the way for the individual to enjoy other rights and privileges in the community in which he lives. Some of the rights enjoyed by persons accepted by the African community as persons include but are surely not limited to rights to political participation, right to life and security, right to inheritance, right to own property, right to basic social amenities, right to benefit from religious rituals, and right to a proper burial when physically dead.

Admittedly, persons accepted as persons in an African community may not be conscious of the fact that they enjoy certain rights and benefits simply because they are accepted as persons. In fact, this may never occur to them. They are born into the community and simply live their everyday life enjoying these rights without realizing that they do enjoy such rights because of the intrinsic worth that results from their being persons. Those who easily become conscious of this fact that being given or denied personhood in an African community determines the forms of rights and benefits one enjoys are those who have been denied such rights on the basis that they are not fully persons within such a community. Such persons may need to earn their worth since it is not intrinsic to their being.

Earning Self-Worth and Pursuing Rights

A human being in an African community lacking some features of personhood expected of her in the community would therefore be denied the intrinsic worth of a person who has the required features for being a person. In African cultures, persons with different forms of disability; a foreigner; a terminally, contagiously, mentally, or visibly ill person; and an immoral person who fails to live by the ethos and ethical standards of the community would make the list of persons whose worth will be called into question in African communities. Such persons will be seen as have lesser or no worth compared to African persons with intrinsic worth living within such communities. A person with albinism or a person with angular kyphosis, for instance, would not be regarded as persons understood in the ontological and normative senses discussed above. Rather, they would be seen ontologically as a queer human other, providing varying theorizations as to the nature and features of such othering. In the words of Elvis Imafidon (2018: 39), persons with albinism in many African cultures:

… may in all respects visibly appear to be human, except, of course, for the lack of pigmentation. But they are, in fact, excluded from the human category of beings. Rather, persons with albinism are viewed as queer, unusual beings. Their unusual nature stems not only from their visible physical difference but also from the ideas about the nature of their being presented and represented down the ages in the worldviews of African traditional societies.

He adds that:

One important distinction between human beings considered as normal and those considered as queer, with particular reference to persons with albinism, is the presence and absence of the spirit element of the human being that lives on in the spiritual realm of existence after physical death. It is evident from African traditions that while human beings possess not just vital force, but also spirit, which makes them capable of becoming an ancestor, a manipular spirit, or a deified divinity, persons with albinism, as queer beings, may have vital force but do not have spirit. It is therefore not possible, for instance, to talk of a person with albinism as becoming an ancestor after death. A person with albinism is therefore less of a being than a human being. Such a person is also not viewed in the same way a human being is viewed as possessing certain essential ontological qualities such as coming into being with a destiny chosen before the Supreme Being. Rather, the coming into being of a person with albinism is viewed as an outcome of a curse placed on the child bearer, the husband of the child bearer or the family at large due to some wrong doing, from a higher force (such as an ancestor or divinity) due to some wrong doing. Hence, a family that gives birth to a person with albinism is seen as unfavored by some higher forces and faces ridicule within the community. For this reason, persons with albinism are conceived as a human other, something different from the approved and accepted notion of a human being. (2018: 39–40).

Viewing persons with albinism as ontologically lesser persons in this way in African communities could have dire consequences for such persons as it has indeed. Many persons with albinism have been discriminated against, harmed physically and psychologically, and killed and their body parts commodified based on such an understanding of their being as less than human. This is true for other persons living with other forms of disabilities.

Similarly, the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda masterminded by members of the Hutu majority government who felt that the Tutsis were nonpersons from their perspective and the recurrent xenophobic attack against African foreigners in South Africa may best be understood from the conceptions of personhood inherent in the communities in which such inhuman acts and violence were and are still being perpetuated. In the same vein, people in an African community would not consider as persons in a normative sense those who do not live by the ethos and ethics of the community. Matters as serious as alternative lifestyles and matters as insignificant as modes of dressing could make the difference on whether a community accepts or rejects someone as a person. In all of such cases of the othering of persons in African communities, what becomes clear is that the intrinsic worth of a person seen as an essential part of all persons who fulfill the ontological and normative criteria of personhood would not be attributed to the persons that have been othered for failing to fulfill the requirements of personhood. Such othered persons as the person with albinism and the foreigner have two options: they either accept the status of lesser or no person conferred on them by society, or they make the society recognize their worth as persons by earning them and fighting for their rights.

To accept the personhood status conferred on a human being by society is to live within the social box even when such becomes detrimental and inimical to one’s well-being. It means fitting into the social system and the systemic structures and accepting that one is different from others even in a manner that inferiorizes. To earn self-worth on the other hand means to take what was not initially given, to say to the society: “I am more of a person than you think I am or you say I am.” It is a forceful, deliberate, and active exercise engaged in both through words, action, and inaction to prove that one is worth more and much more valuable than the social group in which one dwells and considers such a person to be. Earned self-worth is also what one compels the society to accept about one’s personhood through an overriding of the status quo on the nature of one’s personhood in a given society.

Earned self-worth must be pursued from two different levels: individual level and group level. At the individual level, a person who has been represented as a lesser person in a community of selves rises above such representation through a deliberate and consistent lifestyle that shows she can overcome and rise above social constraints and become what society clearly holds she cannot become. It is a triumph over social expectations. Such persons become reference points that many in the society refer to when they wish to counter the claim that so and so category of persons are lesser persons that others in the community. At the group level, a group of persons sharing a common social (mis)representation of their personhood deliberately act to negate social representations through advocacy and the pursuance of rights, rights meant to bridge the already existing gap between allegedly complete persons and lesser persons in the ontological and normative senses. In what follows, I highlight how these levels of earning self-worth play out in three specific cases: persons with albinism, black people, and black women.

Melanin-Privileged Africans Versus Africans with Albinism

By melanin-privileged Africans, I mean Africans born with melanin that makes them enjoy privileges that Africans born without melanin are unable to enjoy. Being born a black African or an African with melanin (without any forms of disability) confers on a person the intrinsic worth that makes her to be at once accepted by the community, part of the privilege that a person with melanin enjoys the socially given idea that one is superior to others without melanin. In this way, the socially normalized color of the skin, which the person had no control over during birth, becomes a criterion for exacting superiority over others who were born without melanin, and these, of course, are persons with albinism. A melanin-privileged would therefore feel superior to and assume to have authority over the life, well-being, and existence of persons with albinism in an African place. The truism of this is pretty obvious in African communities. The awful, derogatory names used by Africans for persons with albinism, the manner in which they are (mal)treated, discriminated against, and the way in which their being is generally perceived by persons with melanin in African societies, show clearly that black Africans do feel strongly that not only have control and authority over persons with albinism who are at their mercy, but they ought to enjoy more rights and privileges above whatever rights and privileges persons with albinism could ever enjoy. Black Africans thus have some form of intrinsic worth that persons with albinism lack.

Flowing from our understanding of how self-worth denied as not being intrinsic to a person can be earned through the individual and group levels, persons with albinism as individuals and as groups have thus engaged in the struggle of earning their self-worth and continue to do so even more vigorously. A number of individuals with albinism have risen above the social representations of the nature of their being and, by implication, the social expectations of them and have achieved great heights in their respective communities. In this way, they have debunked the devaluation of their worth, self-esteem, and personhood. Also, there are now many human rights, advocacy, and research groups of persons with albinism and other interested parties that have the consensual goal of fighting for and proving the dignity, worth, and integrity of persons with albinism. In other words, these groups pursue and earn the worth and value of the personhood of persons with albinism that the African society denied them. Hence we have in many African countries a national advocacy group for the well-being of persons with albinism such as The Albino Foundation (TAF), Nigeria, the Albinism Society of Kenya, Association of Persons with Albinism in Malawi, Albinism Society of South Africa, and the Tanzania Albinism Society. Also international and world organizations have also played key roles either in establishing bodies or supporting already established bodies in the advocacy for the rights and worth of persons with albinism. For example, the United Nations has set up the office of the United Nations Expert for the Enjoyment of Human Rights by Persons with Albinism currently headed by a distinguished human rights lawyer with albinism, Ms. Ikponwosa Ero. Thus, while melanin-privileged Africans do not have to fight for social assimilation and acceptance, persons with albinism have to earn such through consistent efforts of rights advocacy.

White Privileged Persons Versus Black Persons

White privileged persons are persons mostly of Western/occidental origin who because of their being visibly white or Caucasian enjoy certain privileges or gain certain access which they have not earned or would normally not earn. Peggy McIntosh aptly defines white privilege as “invisible package of unearned assets” (1995: 23). She adds that it is akin to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.” Whiteness or being white thus becomes as it has been for quite a long time, one of, if not, the most profitable forms of being a human being. Barbara Flagg explains this fact about whiteness when she says:

Whiteness is, variously, a metaphor for power, a proxy for racially distributed material benefits, a synonym for “white supremacy,” an epistemological stance defined by power, a position of invisibility or ignorance, and a set of beliefs about racial “Others” and oneself that can be rejected through “treason” to a racial category. (Wildman 2005: 246)

An important assumption underlying white privilege as a deeply rooted ideology in Western thought is that whiteness is better than blackness. This assumption is so deeply rooted and entrenched as a universal pseudo truth that many black persons accept it without knowing it. The superiority of whiteness has been so inbuilt into the black personality that it is accepted without questioning and the few who question become suspects. The processes of internalization of white supremacy and the resulting privileges have been gradual but effective. They include Western scholarship dating back to the beginning of the Western history of thought but even more prominent since the so-called Enlightenment period in the works of Western scholars such as Kant, Hume, Hegel, and Voltaire, slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Any attempt to discuss these literature, their disgust for anything black and their praise for anything white, is always difficult due to the anger and high emotions it raises. This makes it difficult for one to stay objective and logical in one’s analyses. It has been a history of racism, oppression, and marginalization of non-white races. But the consequences of the deeply entrenched ideology of whiteness are obvious today. Many African leaders still prefer whites to construct their roads, provide electricity, and provide other infrastructure and amenities even when there are many qualified black people to do it in African societies. It’s almost ingrained in African political leadership that the whites do it better, and it’s a pity that many Africans would read this sentence and whisper “but it’s true.” While African persons work so hard to get visas to the white folks’ land, whites often have the privilege of coming to African countries without needing a visa. In South Africa, while many black non-South Africans suffer xenophobia in their sister land, many white non-South Africans enjoy xenophilia. The list to such clear favoring of whites over blacks is long. Some whites have argued that they did not know they enjoy such privileges over other races; they did not, in fact, ask for it, the same way a black African would say she did not know she was a melanin-privileged African over persons with albinism and she did not ask for such privilege as well. Some have boldly come out after realizing that they do, to confront this monster of humanity in various ways (see Mclntosh 1995). But whatever the case may be, what remains clear is that whites enjoy privileges that blacks don’t simply because they are white, because there is the widely heard assumption that whites are better than blacks. Consequently, blacks have to fight for their rights, and this they have been doing even more since the twentieth century.

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries saw a wave of revolutionary publications exposing the harm of white privileges over blacks and also fighting for the rights of black people. They include, to mention a few, David K. Leonard and Scott Straus’s Africa’s Stalled Development: International Causes and Cures (2003); William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden (2006); Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness (1999); George B. N. Ayittey’s Africa in Chaos: A Comparative History (1999) and Africa Unchained: The Blueprint for Africa’s Future (2006); Basil Davidson’s The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State (1993) and Africa in History (1995); Roland Oliver’s The African Experience (1991); Vincent B. Khapoya’s The African Experience: An Introduction (2009); David Birmingham’s The Decolonization of Africa (1996); J. Obi Oguejiofor’s Philosophy and the African Predicament (2001); Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1963) and Black Skin, White Masks (1967); Edward M. Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1994); Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1968); Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958); and the confiscated work of Albert Memmi since its first publication in 1957 entitled The Colonizer and the Colonized. These centuries also saw the agitations for the rights of black peoples through many black rights movements championed by activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, and a host of others. Afrocentrism was born for the same purpose: championing the right of black people. The bottom line of these agitations was to show that a black person was no lesser of a person than a white person and should enjoy the same rights and privileges that whites enjoy. Blacks have thus fought very hard and continue to do so to earn their personhood and to show that both white and blacks deserve the same treatment as persons. The black struggle for rights will continue as long as there are still whites and even blacks who see persons of the black race as lesser persons or no persons in comparison to white persons.

African Men Versus African Women

Let me begin this section by stating unambiguously that the attempt here to distinguish between African men and African women is in no way a distinction between persons and nonpersons as may be perceived in the instances of distinctions made in the last two sections. Following from the African theory of personhood, all African persons, male or female, that fulfill the ontological and normative conditions for personhood are indeed persons. Hence, the distinction I attempt to draw in this section may best be captured with the slogan: all persons are persons, but some are more personae than others. In African traditions, although men and women are seen as persons, the man is seen as privileged to have a form of personae that the woman lacks. The African man is, for instance, seen as ontologically privileged with strength and vigor and qualities for leadership and headship, things that the African woman ontologically or naturally lacks. This gender stereotyping of the personhood in both sexes is obvious even in modern Africa. It would explain why we have fewer women in African politics and business than men and fewer women who struggle and strive to establish and sustain themselves in a densely masculine political and economic space in Africa.

Hence, many African communities are patriarchal communities where familial and social systems are controlled by men. As I explain elsewhere:

The African man, in his familial and social relations, exercises headship. He acts as head over his family and he takes leading roles in the community. In familial relations, he exercises authority over his wife (or wives) and children. This headship, however, comes with its responsibilities. He provides food, shelter and other necessities for his family. A man unable to do so brings disgrace and shame to himself and his household and inevitably loses the respect of both family and community members. (Imafidon 2013: 25)

The privileges to lead and head that African men enjoy make them independent persons in whom women and children depend on. In other words:

… men enjoy independent living while women are dependent on the men who lead. This is the reason a woman in African traditions is conventionally regarded as a “housewife”, that is, one who rather than working (conventionally seen as a manly duty) stays at home to manage the home. Even when she works or trades, the income from her work is used to assist the husband in sustaining the household. At no time does she become the head. (Imafidon 2013: 26)

As a reactionary measure, a number of African women today both at individual and group levels fight for their rights to have equal opportunities with African men in terms of taking the lead in social, economic, and political sectors and much less of the familial unit. We recall, for instance, the role the Nigerian novelist and writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has played in this regard. Her works such as Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and We Should All Be Feminists (2014) have been central to the agitations for the liberation of African and African-American women from African patriarchal systems. At the group level, there have been many feminist movements and organizations in the last four or so decades championing for the rights of women, rights they feel men enjoy and women are denied. The development of the controversial Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists by the African Feminist Forum (2006) is a case in point. What is clear from these attempts by individual women and women-focused organization is that African women are rising up to struggle for rights and privileges that were culturally and socially reserved for men such as being independent and taking the lead. And a number of African women has achieved this and are setting the pace in various spheres of life.


The flaws and limitations in the African conceptions of personhood that can be deduced from our discourse thus far are to be found in its inability to envisage differences from its somewhat rigid criteria of personhood. It is almost like a round peg hole of personhood, and any sort of person that does not fit well into the hole due to being square-like, for instance, lacks personhood. On a positive note, the rigid account of personhood discussed above showcases the human spirit of resilience and struggle for a healthy individuality displayed by those considered different by human society. It shows the worth and value that a person could earn through a consistent struggle for what rightfully is a person’s: autonomy, dignity, integrity, and respect. Thus, whether society gives it to us or we fight for it ourselves, our worth as human persons should never be denied but should always be affirmed.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyAmbrose Alli UniversityEkpomaNigeria

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