Reading Chimamanda Adichie TodayOn Racism and transphobia in feminism

Aqdas Aftab is the 2017 Global Feminism Writing Fellow at Bitch Media 

Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions last week was a complicated experience for me. I began it after being disappointed by Adichie’s transphobic comments in her interview with Channel 4, and finished it right after encountering her empty “clarifications” on social media, which repeated her version of trans-exclusive womanhood. During this time, I also came across an article published by TED, with this absurd subtitle: “Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes a confession: sexism bothers her more than racism.” The paraphrase, as she noted in a response on Facebook, was an absolute distortion of her words. The combination of events made it so that I did not know where to direct my anger: at TED distorting Adichie’s words in what can only be understood as a racist strategy, or at her own transphobia as she espoused a violent rhetoric about gender essentialism.  

But amidst my disappointment with her transphobia, and annoyance with TED for its misuse of her language, what I missed as I read through her new nonfiction book were her moving, nuanced, contradictory fictional narratives. I missed the quiet observations of Kambili, the young narrator of Purple Hibiscus who grows up under the shadow of an abusive father, straddling her experiences of violence with her love for him. I missed the multiple threads effortlessly holding together a historical fictional narrative of the Biafran war in Half of a Yellow Sun. I missed the fieriness of Ifemelu, her spirited character from Americanah whose personal voice interwoven with her blog posts allow for a witty blend of poignancy and humor. And perhaps it was this yearning for the layered nuance of her fictional worlds mixed with the disappointment at her comments combined with anger at her misappropriation by TED that made for an unpleasant experience with Dear Ijeawele.

Adichie’s newest book is a manifesto on feminist mothering addressed to a friend and delivered in a conversational voice. It affirms the value of mothers’ whole personhood, while pushing them to dismantle gender roles and reject patriarchal expectations of women. After Adichie’s Channel 4 interview went viral, nonbinary author Jarune Uwujaren pointed out that while Adichie has so eloquently delineated the “danger of a single story,” she fails her own ideal by telling a single story of trans women (which, as Uwujaren points out, is also an inaccurate one). Since I read Uwujaren’s piece and Adichie’s book side by side, I had to wonder how Adichie’s responses to trans folks failed her own feminist politics in Dear Ijeawele.

As I read her chapter on teaching young girls to question language, her own terribly cisnormative language kept buzzing in my mind. In her “clarification” on Facebook, she distinguished “women born female” from “women born male” to outline how ciswomen differed from trans women, implying that trans women somehow had “male privilege” while growing up, even after many trans women of color like Laverne Cox addressed the fallacy of this belief. In her clarification, Adichie also argued that the word “cis” isn’t part of her vocabulary, but seemed not to consider that her own privileged position regarding gender may be the very reason she doesn’t use such words.  

As I read her words about what she calls “Feminism Lite,” and the need to challenge status-quo language of “allowing” women to do or be things, I realized that her own claims about trans women reproduce this language. By claiming that trans women are a part of feminism but are nevertheless different from cis women because of their “male” socialization, isn’t Adichie herself simply “allowing” trans women into feminism without actually listening to them, without centering them in her feminism?

But as I continued to read, I also realized that Dear Ijeawele is written for the empowerment of a specific racial and cultural community. Adichie’s politics emphasize the power of local resistance, and the manifesto is written for a Black African audience because she believes that a feminist upbringing entails challenging a whitewashed colonial education, celebrating African culture and the Black diaspora. The critic of racism who emerges in different forms throughout Americanah and The Thing Around Your Neck is still present in Dear Ijeawele.

This week, activist Raquel Willis outlined everything that was wrong with Adichie’s understanding of trans women. Yet she wrote about Adichie generously, noting  “I am not interested in throwing out my sister. There’s a particular swiftness that plagues black women who are public figures that doesn’t chase white women in similar situations. If you want to stand on a pedestal and denounce Adichie, you must be doing the same to white women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer who are praised while consistently feeding into anti-blackness.”

As Willis points out, criticism of Adichie also needs to be cognizant of her position as a Black Nigerian woman, especially considering how women of color have been erased and dehumanized by white feminism. There is no doubt that Adichie’s comments were transphobic; but as non-Black folks critique her transphobia, let’s be mindful of the historical racist narratives that malign communities of color. Too often, communities of color get condemned for being more homophobic or transphobic than white people; too often, racism involves demonizing people of color by depicting them as one-dimensional non-liberal objects; and too often, transphobia in post-colonial nations gets discussed without an understanding of how it is a product of colonialism.

Adichie’s transphobia is neither new, nor limited to her viewpoint; in fact, it sounds so familiar because of the large legacy of trans-exclusionary feminism in the West. I am not only talking about academic TERFs like Mary Daley and Janice Raymond who came out of a Radical Feminist tradition, but also contemporary trans-exclusionary Liberal Feminists and trans-exclusionary Pop Feminists (so, TELFs or TEPFs).  I am talking about all the white women like Gloria Steinem who continue to be imagined as feminist heroes despite their transphobic histories. I am talking about news presenters like Cathy Newman, who asked Adichie about trans women in the most transphobic way possible. I am talking about all the feminists who constantly examine patriarchal oppression only through the lens of the gender binary, forgetting how it affects trans and non-binary folks.

When I read Purple Hibiscus many years ago and fell in love with Adichie’s storytelling, I had not imagined that I would end up being so disappointed with her trans politics. Adichie’s position within feminism has certainly shifted recently; as her TED talks circulated widely and Beyoncé borrowed her words for “Flawless,” Adichie gained a kind of accessibility that won her many hearts—many of which are now dispirited. But as we reconcile our love for her literary works with her harmful trans politics, let’s stay cognizant of the transphobic, as well as racist and colonial history of western feminism. As we advocate for the importance of elevating trans women, let’s not forget all the intersecting contradictory histories of racialized and gendered violence. And let’s allow these fraught histories to complicate our readings of our favorite books, to suspend our monumentalization of feminist figures, and to disrupt the binaries that limit our evolving feminism.


by Aqdas Aftab
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Aqdas Aftab is the 2017 Global Feminism Writing Fellow at Bitch Media. Aqdas was born in Lahore, and grew up in Islamabad, two cities where they first learned different—and at times conflicting—forms of feminisms from their mother, grandmothers, aunts, and teachers. They came to the United States to study literature at Smith College, where they continued to be around many conflicting feminisms, ranging from liberal white feminism to women-of-color feminism with ideologies inspired by Audre Lorde. After participating in feminist groups in Pakistan and PoC spaces in the United States, Aqdas’ gender politics became strongly intersectional.

Aqdas is currently a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Maryland, where they are working on representations of non-normative bodies in postcolonial fiction. When they are not reading or writing, Aqdas can be found biking, listening to old ghazals, and cooking experimentally.

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