The third wave’s tokenization of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is anything but intersectional

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“How could she say such a thing?!” Behind every response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent remarks about transwomen was the message that people were not only outraged with the Nigerian novelist and feminist, but disappointed in her as well. In the Los Angeles Times, Michael Schaub wrote that she “angered” the transgender community. Paper Magazine explained that “People aren’t reacting well” to her comments. Raquel Willis said she “gaslighted” transgender people only to “strip them of their womanhood” at The Root. Unapologetic Feminism characterized Adichie’s comments as revealing her “lack of sophistication” as a thinker. (It couldn’t possibly be that she had a valid, albeit different, opinion about womanhood — she had to be confused or stupid.)

Most outlets who decried Adichie’s comments were dishonest in their representation of the conflict, almost exclusively reproducing the opinions of people who disagreed with her. By excluding the notable support and solidarity she received from numerous men and women, Adichie’s opinion was presented as an aberration (therefore more condemnable) and more isolated than it is.

And what could a renowned feminist writer have said to cause such (apparent) indignation? In an interview with Channel 4 News, Adichie was asked:

“Does it matter how you arrived at being a woman? …If you’re a transwoman who grew up identifying as a man, who grew up enjoying the privileges of being a man, does that take away from becoming a woman?”

She replied:

“I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experiences. It’s not about how we wear our hair or whether we have a vagina or a penis. It’s about the way the world treats us, and I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. What I am saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”

The intensity of the backlash led Adichie to issue a longer response which granted her critics far more empathy and thoughtfulness than she herself was awarded by them. She explained that to acknowledge male privilege “is not to say that transwomen did not undergo difficulties as boys. But they did not undergo those particular difficulties specific to being born female, and this matters because those experiences shape how adult women born female interact with the world.” At the Women of the World festival, she elaborated, saying that to conflate the experiences of transwomen with women’s experiences was “dishonest”:

“I don’t believe that we should insist on saying that the person who is born female and has experienced life as a woman has the same experiences of somebody who has transitioned as an adult. I don’t think it’s the same thing. I just don’t think it has to be the same thing in order for us to be supportive.”

Adichie’s clarifications did not abate critics who would only be satisfied with a full retraction and obedient adoption of the kind of modern newspeak that demands we accept transwomen as literal women.

The uproar over Adichie’s comments represents two distinct issues: 1) The belief that only transwomen should be the arbiters of what womanhood is, and 2) The practice of elevating certain women as icons, only to virulently pull them down once they express an opinion those who tokenized her disapprove of.

As for the first argument, some people argue that transwomen cannot have male privilege because they don’t identify as men. At Everyday Feminism, trans writer Kai Cheng Thom argues, “We cannot receive male privilege — because male privilege is by definition something that only men and masculine-identified people can experience.” But this assumes that for a structural force (such as systemic privilege) to affect you, you must identify with it. By that logic, women and girls must identify with our oppression in order for it to affect us. (This argument also begs the question: what are trans people transitioning from or to?)

Transgender actress Laverne Cox made a similar argument, tweeting:

“I was talking to my twin brother today about whether he believes I had male privilege growing up. I was a very feminine child though I was assigned male at birth. Femininity did not make me feel privileged.”

But privilege doesn’t ask anyone if they want it, so it doesn’t t matter whether you agree with it or “believe” in it. Privilege perpetuates itself by remaining in the background, invisible to those who have it. This means that being able to not notice your own privilege is in itself a sign of privilege. To say, “I didn’t feel privileged,” despite being part of a privileged class of people, speaks to its omnipresent power.

And how do we challenge systemic oppression if we deny it exists? As writer and scholar Claire Heuchan points out:

“If trans womanhood is synonymous with womanhood, the hallmarks of women’s oppression cease to recognizable as women’s experiences. If we cannot acknowledge the privileges those recognized and treated as male hold over their female counterparts, we cannot acknowledge the existence of patriarchy.”

We live in a world where millions of girls are aborted before they are even born simply because their ultrasound showed a vulva instead of a penis. Rita Banerji, director of the 50 Million Missing campaign, is right that the “mass extermination of women” is a human rights crisis. This is a world where drugs and treatments for serious health issues, like heart attacks, are designed with male physiology in mind, leading to faulty diagnosis and even death for women. Indeed, there has been a systemic undervaluing of women in the medical field when it comes to the way heart disease affects female biology, resulting in more risk and death for women. Women are also more likely to be injured in car accidents because crash test dummies have long been designed based on men’s bodies, not women’s (this is only just beginning to be addressed now, and “male” dummies are still the norm). We have tried pretending male and female bodies are the same, and it is women and girls who pay the price.

As Sarah Ditum argues, women cannot remain neutral on this issue because the battlefield is our bodies: “There’s no way to avoid picking a side when you yourself are the disputed territory.” Suggesting women should not discuss or acknowledge differences between females and transwomen  in order to avoid being labeled “controversial” (or worse) is just another way patriarchy demands submissiveness and silence from women in exchange for a false sense of security.

In a world where being born with a vagina carries distinct material oppressions, the idea that these dynamics depend on a person’s inner feelings is callous and insulting to women and girls as it assumes that, by identifying as something else, we can avoid oppression.

Cox says that “intersectionality complicates male and cis privilege,” but shouldn’t it also complicate the male privilege of transwomen? If intersectionality is to be applied to all axes of both privilege and oppression (as I believe it should), why should trans identities be exempted?

Willis, a writer and trans activist, is among those who believes Adichie simply shouldn’t speak about transwomen at all, tweeting:

“Chimamanda being asked about trans women is like Lena Dunham being asked about Black women. It doesn’t work. We can speak for ourselves”

But Adichie was asked a question about womanhood, as a woman — why shouldn’t she have say?

In this statement, Willis implies that transwomen should not only get to define womanhood for themselves but also for females. But if transwomen are the only ones allowed to talk about womanhood, what can women talk about? Whose narratives are women allowed to tell?

“Liberation is always in part a storytelling process,” Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in The Guardian. “A free person tells her own story.” In other words, women’s ability to speak about their own lives, bodies, and experiences is deeply political.

“A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place. Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.

Who is heard and who is not defines the status quo. Those who embody it, often at the cost of extraordinary silences with themselves, move to the centre; those who embody what is not heard, or what violates those who rise on silence, are cast out.”

Women’s opinions are constantly policed because opinions are part of the public sphere and, under a patriarchal system, women are to remain in the private sphere. (The notion that someone should “come and fix” Ngozi Adichie’s politics speaks to this policing.)

Why was the backlash against Adichie so swift? Why portray her opinions as beyond the pale and “phobic” when they are anything but? Because she had been placed on a pedestal by progressives and, in voicing an unwelcome opinion, deviated from third wave groupthink. Worse yet, she had expressed views shared by second wave, radical feminists.

When Adichie became a household name in the West, she was a young woman of colour from Nigeria who used her voice to galvanize the urgency of diverse voices and perspectives. A worthy cause, for sure, but one that has been manipulated to foment divisions within the women’s movement worldwide.

Third wave feminism in the U.S. contends that, until its inception, feminism wholly ignored the diversity of women’s lives and experiences. This is bullshit. As a Dominican woman who has studied the history of the women’s movement, in my own country as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean, I find this idea predictably short-sighted and U.S.-centric. The women’s rights movement has existed for over a century, and extends across countries and time periods. It is not accurate to assume that until the term “intersectional feminism” came along in the U.S., the women’s movement cared only about the needs and concerns of white, Western, upper-class women.

But even if we were to look only at the history of the women’s movement in the U.S., we’d learn that the first wave began as the result of a fire that consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, killing over 100 working class, immigrant women. The fire led women to understand the peril and powerlessness of their lives without political rights and solidarity, as an oppressed class, which was pivotal to the suffragette movement. Similarly, feminism and the labour movement have collaborated (and dealt with conflict) for over a century and, within this struggle, feminists have often been the ones to push for more inclusion. Some of the most renowned feminist scholars and thinkers nowadays, like bell hooks and Angela Davis, became central to the movement during the second wave, precisely because they centered and criticized race relations within the movement. By erasing the contributions of women of colour from the feminist movement prior to the advent of the third wave, we are doing exactly what third wavers claim to criticize: ignoring the contributions of working class women and women of colour.

The point of drawing a line between what third wavers call “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism” is to both tarnish the accomplishments of the movement throughout history and to increase divisions, hostility, and infighting among feminists today. Young feminists, afraid of being seen as “problematic,” are taught by the third wave to reject and denounce their foremothers without even reading or understanding their work. Within this, the term “white feminism” became a catch-all term for misogynist attacks that have long been leveled against feminists, only this time masked as social justice.

Intersectionality is a theory developed in 1989 by black feminist scholar and lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw in her essay, “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of anti-discrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics” to address the way being both black and female affect women in the U.S. legal system. Crenshaw defined “white feminism” as “the creation of a consciousness that was distinct from and in opposition to that of white men” and “the failure to embrace the complexities of compoundedness.”

Intersectionality is a powerful tool of analysis but it has been turned into a ubiquitous term commonly used in ways that have little to do with the original intention of the concept. Jess Martin explains, “Millennials often use the term to denounce anyone who explores topics or holds political views they don’t like, particularly any critique of queer theory’s definition of gender as a chosen and individual identity, sexualization, objectification, and/or the sex industry.”

Contemporary feminism in the U.S. seems to believe it needs witches and idols in order to differentiate itself from former waves and become mainstream. The witches — who are smeared, lied about and no-platformed in an effort to silence them — are movement women who identify with the second wave and radical feminist ideas. The idols are women like Adichie, who possess the identities (she is a young, woman of colour from outside the U.S.) that third wave discourse demands at the moment, in order to present itself as more progressive and legitimate than the ongoing grassroots feminist movement. In a moment when identity politics matters more than material reality, this set of identities was seen by progressives as an opportunity to tokenize Adichie.

Alas, in a manner familiar to anyone who has been tokenized based on their identity, the second this bright, powerful, thoughtful woman conveyed an idea that was unpopular, she was draggedpositioned as just another privileged woman who doesn’t know what she is talking about and needs to be “educated.” She was labelled a “TERF” and a “white feminist” herself; her views were presented as not just wrong, but also dangerous.

This, at the very least, proves that “white feminism” was never meant to be an analysis of race or class. It was always intended to smear and divide women into the categories of Woke Feminist/Un-Woke Feminist. Like the term “cis,” as Rebecca Reilly-Cooper argues, it is a linguistic tool meant “to ensure female people have no way to describe ourselves that doesn’t cast us as oppressors.”

Luckily, there is someone who already taught us how to navigate backlash as a result of controversial opinions: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie herself. I don’t know if the intense bullying she has been subjected to recently will force Adichie to recant her heresy — I hope not… But if she needs some comfort, she can revisit her own speech at the 2015 Girls Write Now awards ceremony:

“I think that what our society teaches young girls, and I think it’s also something that’s quite difficult for even older women — self-professed feminists — to shrug off, is that idea that likability is an essential part of you, of the space you occupy in the world, that you’re supposed to twist yourself into shapes to make yourself likable, that you’re supposed to hold back sometimes, pull back, don’t quite say, don’t be too pushy, because you have to be likable.

And I say that’s bullshit.

So what I want to say to young girls is forget about likability. If you start off thinking about being likable you are not going to tell your story honestly, because you are going to be so concerned with not offending… And that’s going to ruin your story, so forget about likability. And also the world is such a wonderful, diverse, and multifaceted place that there’s somebody who’s going to like you; you don’t need to twist yourself into shapes.”

Adichie is not here to be anyone’s token Woke Idol. She doesn’t exist to ensure other people’s comfort. She is not a blank space for others to project their ideas on to. She is here to speak her truth, even if some don’t want to hear it.

In a moment when U.S.-centered third wave feminism resembles groupthink more than a political movement, Adichie’s position (and her decision to stand by it amidst furor) is a rare display of bravery.

Through watching Adichie withstand this firestorm, more women will learn how to resist.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.