Everyone has a right to say whatever they want but not everyone should have the right to assert authority on every issue… It is praiseworthy that Ms. Adichie called out racism and its defence but it limits the conversation when we shut down other people based exclusively on the colour of their skin.
It’s incontrovertible that Chimamanda Adichie is one of Nigeria’s finest literary exports. Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award, she has distinguished herself as an excellent writer of novels and short stories. I remember rushing into the bookstore as a first-year student of University of Ibadan to buy her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus. The beautifully-written book lived up to the reviews and hype from friends and scholars alike. The Guardian described her as “a fresh new voice out of Africa.” As a Nigerian, I owned and still own the pride that comes with this association.
Her literary success has earned Ms. Adichie fame and acclaim around the world, evidenced by Beyonce sampling her speech in a hit song and Time magazine naming her one of the Most Influential Persons in the world.
But there is an extracurricular projection, perhaps borne out of assumed responsibility, that often comes with celebrity status. Society puts lot of weight on the stance of a famous person, regardless of how far afield it is from their received purview. This is innocuous but it sometimes has untoward consequences. Ms. Adichie, in particular, has certainly earned quite a reputation in fields outside writing. As an advocate for gender equality, her speeches and texts on feminism have influenced thinking in a world that still contends with the perils of male chauvinism and sexism. The behaviour and comments of Donald Trump, winner of the recent American presidential election brought this conversation to the fore and Ms. Adichie put on her feminist cap with renewed zeal. I applaud this but become a little wary when this mutates into a cult of personality.
The ill of celebrity activism is that they sometimes arrogate expertise and opinion in multiplex fields. Many times, they do so with the banality of catchphrases and wit, regardless of how technical the subject matter may be. This freewheeling persuasion is often unchallenged by loyal fans and teeming supporters.
If you have an eye for viral news, you probably saw the recent exchange between Ms. Adichie and Mr. Emmett Tyrrell, editor-in-chief of The American Spectator in a BBC talk show. I mostly sided with Chimamanda’s take on the subject of racial undertones in American politics until she made a sweeping comment in the form of a retort. It’s one of those punchlines a lead character would deliver in prose: “If you are a white man, you do not get to define what racism is.”
Context matters. And it would be remiss to decouple this statement from the lead-up. Mr. Tyrrell had been arguing that the endorsement Donald Trump received form KKK does not make him racist. I think he is wrong. Mr. Trump led a divisive campaign, one based on pandering to latent resentment over minorities. Mr. Trump was equivocal about denouncing David Duke. Hence, Mr. Tyrrell was wrong but so was that particular comment by Ms. Adichie. (In the exchange that immediately followed, she appeared to take back this statement but most commentators and fans seem to have conveniently latched onto it regardless.) Racism has mostly been about white people discriminating against other races but it is not the preserve of one race – at least, not by definition.
My friend, Matthew, who currently lives in Lebanon, narrated to me how he is sometimes treated differently – and not in a good way – from locals. Would it be fair to deploy Ms. Adichie’s quip to this friend?
This sense of exclusivity permeates other subjects regarding power relations. The African living in poverty thinks the well-trained development economist should not opine on matters relating to poverty because he grew up in Norway and/or is white. Teju Cole referenced this particular notion in a widely-read article for The Atlantic titled “White-Savior Industrial Complex.” He made a similar assertion as Ms. Adichie but asterisks it thusly: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” Mr. Tyrrell showed egregious disregard for the equivalent of this due diligence on the subject of racism. But not all white men are so ignorant or cavalier. Like Ms. Adichie, I have the benefit of an American education and through graduate school I interacted with caucasians who have taken keen interest in Africa and African studies. Many of them have lived and worked in remote parts of the continent, places which I had never been to. Many speak local dialects and languages which I am incapable of. They understand the peoples and the cultures and to deny them the benefit of commentary on matters peculiar to these places because I am originally African and they’re not would be unfair.
By extension, not all white people are novices to racism. I write this as black man who has lived in America and continental Europe. There are white supremacists everywhere but so are white academics, policymakers, clerics and ordinary people who have taken time to understand what it means to be discriminated against. They may not have experienced it but this ‘minority’ can appreciate the nuances of the subject matter. Furthermore, if victimhood is criterion for commentary, then solidarity by non-victims would be proscribed. Imagine how this would limit the conversation necessary to heal racial conflicts.
In the wake of the American election, I had conversations with white friends who displayed thorough understanding of the matter of racial discrimination. My friend, Matthew, who currently lives in Lebanon, narrated to me how he is sometimes treated differently – and not in a good way – from locals. Would it be fair to deploy Ms. Adichie’s quip to this friend?
Ms. Adichie herself is wont to air her opinions on matters in which she has no track record of expertise. For instance, writing for the New York Times recently, she criticised the Nigerian government’s fixed exchange rate regime, a policy that preceded the Buhari administration. However, the argument to float the naira is not fool-proof either and the particular economic context of the country has to be extensively analysed. Would floating the naira necessarily improve Nigeria’s balance of payment? Would it hurt or help capital inputs for manufacturing jobs? Would GDP growth that comes with sound economic management translate into reduced poverty? These are complex issues that require data, experience and the back-and-forth of economic debates, but that hasn’t stopped Ms. Adichie from dishing out a blanket opinion.
Everyone has a right to say whatever they want but not everyone should have the right to assert authority on every issue. However, when a person has made an effort in the form of an education, research, on-the-ground experience to understand a subject, no one should preclude them from contributing. It is praiseworthy that Ms. Adichie called out racism and its defence but it limits the conversation when we shut down other people based exclusively on the colour of their skin.
Folorunso David is a freelance writer and can be reached via twitter on @funsodavid