Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on What It Means to be an American

Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Americanah, is a fictional novel about a Nigerian girl who immigrates to America. Loosely based on her own experience, it explores many topics, especially the meaning of race in America. One of the first topics Adichie discussed during her interview was the idea of American tribalism. This seemed unusual at first, but as she listed different American tribes it became abundantly clear to me. The first tribes are those formed by different class distinctions. Class has been key to the identity of America since the country developed enough to recognize it. Rich, poor, slave, slave-owner, worker, leader. All of these are ways in which we distinguish ourselves. Another tribe is the tribe of our ideology, according to Adichie. Liberals and conservatives are hugely separated. It is rather rare to be close friends with someone who shares none of the same beliefs or values as we do, because that would require stepping out of our tribes. There is also the regional tribe. This includes both the specific area where you are from and, in a broader sense, whether you are from the North or the South. In the North, southerners are generally considered uneducated, and the South also has bad impressions of the North. Since the tensions leading up to the Civil War, the North and the South have been mostly contradictory politically. Finally, there are racial tribes.

Adichie talked about when she first came to America. She never used to notice race. In Nigeria, she said, they only noticed a white person long enough to see if they were rich and then they lost interest. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t see race, but she didn’t see it in the way Americans do. She talked about one instance in which a fellow student commented on how Jewish-looking the teacher was. She didn’t understand what they meant. How can one look Jewish? But gradually, as she went to college in America, she learned how to see race. This was a huge point. We never think about what a huge emphasis we place on race in America, but it is significant. Of course it is learned. It’s not instinctual to identify people based on race, it’s learned. As Adichie pointed out, there is a distinct hierarchy among racial “tribes.”

Adichie said she had a white friend who hated to use the word black, so she used the word beautiful instead. She would go on about her beautiful friend and her beautiful teacher. This seemed like it shouldn’t be an issue, at first, but Adichie soon realized that, while her friend had good intentions, all she was doing was using another label. Labels are dangerous because you never know the effect they may have on the perception of the people who fall under them. Yes, “beautiful” is a nice word, but using it as a synonym for “black” just separates “beautiful” people from “normal” people.

Chiamanda Adichie also talked about women in America. She said, in Nigeria, the emphasis is very much on women getting married and having children rather than their careers, and it is not so different in America. She said she used to talk to relatives about the books she had published and they would say things like “That’s wonderful. When are you getting married?” Since then, she has gotten married, but she does not let that define her.

As a country, I think we love to imagine we have come so far since the days when the white men ran our country, and yes, this is true. We have a black president! We have never had a woman president, and although we now have a black president, the emphasis is on NOW, because there are 43 white men lined up behind him. Women are still paid less than men. Race is still a primary factor in the perception of people, and stereotypes are still abundantly abused.

These issues have been around since there were differences on the continent. From the first European men and women who came to settle and called the Native Americans savage, to the addition of slaves to our country and their terrible treatment, to the civil war over slavery, to the unfair treatment of immigrants in factories, our country has suffered due to our tribes and our stubbornness against accepting others.

According to Adichie, we can’t make these changes unless we learn to acknowledge our differences and are willing to be uncomfortable. She made a reference to her hair. In Nigeria, she said it is considered unprofessional to allow your hair to grow naturally rather than braiding it. In America, too, it is more acceptable to have hair up than in dreadlocks or falling naturally. Adichie chose to embrace her difference and stopped straightening and braiding her hair. She didn’t give in to the homogenized idea of beauty, and in this way, she acknowledged her difference even if it made her a little uncomfortable.

Race has been an issue in America for as long as there have been different races, and the only way to solve it is to accept our differences, even if it means being uncomfortable.

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