On Friday, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went on Channel 4 News to discuss her new book, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. During the interview, Adichie made one of her most controversial remarks to date.
So when people talk about, you know, “Are trans women women?” my feeling is trans women are trans women.
I think the whole problem of gender in the world is about our experience. 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 the world accords to men, and then sort of changed, switched 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 in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.
And so I think there has to be — and this is not, of course, to say, I’m saying this with a certainty that transgender should be allowed to be. But I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women, because I don’t think that’s true.
When asked if being a trans woman makes one any less of a woman, Adichie asserted her belief that there is a critical difference between trans women and women. She also defined a trans woman as a someone who was born a male, grew up benefiting from male privilege, and “switched” to a woman. Over the weekend, these comments have sparked an uproar throughout the online community, ranging from a chorus of snaps from like-minded individuals to exclamations of disappointment, disillusionment, and even nausea. Among the latter voices is Nigerian-American feminist writer and non-binary trans person Jarune Uwujaren.
In their recent article for Unapologetic Feminism, entitled “Why Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Comments on Trans Women are Wrong and Dangerous”, Jarune argues that Adichie’s comments were problematic and uncharacteristically ignorant. They write not only from the standpoint of a non-binary trans person, who did not find themselves in Adichie’s comments at all, but also as a Nigerian-American who felt deeply affirmed and inspired by Americanah. For those who have or are still forming their opinions on Adichie’s words, we encourage you to read and ruminate over Jarune’s significant contribution to this dialogue.
Here is an excerpt:
“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says she finds it difficult to equate the experience of trans-women with that of women.”
When I say seeing that sentence as I was finishing my evening scroll through Facebook made my stomach fold in on itself, I’m being more literal than metaphorical. The video that sentence captioned—one in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie goes on to say “the whole problem of gender in our world is about our experiences” while characterizing trans women’s experiences as living in the world as men before “switching” genders—was disappointing. Watch here for context.
I’m a Nigerian-American writer and feminist who has looked up to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ever since Americanah made me feel more seen and at home than any other book I’ve read on being Black in America. I’m also a nonbinary trans person (a group of people Adichie ignored entirely in the video) who is constantly watching the way the world treats trans people, especially Black trans women.
Adichie saying that trans women once experienced male privilege before “changing” genders and implying that this disqualifies them from being women without an adjective erases their experiences of womanhood at all stages of their lives. It further ignores the very real violence they face (Chyna Gibson’s name still fresh on our lips, images of Dandara dos Santos’s brutal murder splashed across social media, at least seven trans women of color murdered in the US since 2017 began) and leaves nonbinary trans people and trans men out of the conversation entirely. It also speaks to the hypocrisy of trans-exclusionary feminism—Adichie has shut down a white man trying to define racism with a swiftness and called out “the danger of a single story,” yet here she is telling a single (inaccurate) story about trans women as a cisgender feminist who appears to have little knowledge of trans experiences.
But more disappointing than Adichie’s words were the number of other cis people I saw coming out of the woodwork to agree with her, defend her, or tell trans people they didn’t hear what they just heard. Maybe these cis allies, like Adichie, think believing “transgender people should be allowed to be” is benevolent enough to constitute acceptance and progressiveness, and so they don’t see the harm in calling trans women privileged for being misgendered as men in a society that seeks to destroy them for being the women that they are. Or maybe they’ve quietly held the belief that trans people’s experiences of gender are less valid than those of their cisgender counterparts but have stayed mum on the matter, not wanting to seem insensitive now that more trans people are speaking for themselves and their own experiences. Maybe they find Adichie’s words refreshing—finally, they think, here is a prominent feminist saying what they’ve been quietly believing, who gives voice to their assumptions about what it’s like to be trans in a world that fails to recognize the existence of trans people.
To those people, I say this: your viewpoint is old and tired as hell. Trans exclusionary feminism is not new or interesting or nuanced or enlightened just because the normally on point Adichie failed to recognize that it is not her place to tell trans women who they are or how they live in the world. The feminist movements of our time have been historically weighed down by gender essentialism, cissexism, transphobia, and a belief that trans people are not who they say they are but who they are violently pressured to be.
Go here to read the full essay.