Guest Column

The language of identity politics

2017-03-26 06:34
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Joonji Mdyogolo

Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been called transphobic over comments she made in a recent interview, where she said the experiences of transgender women, who are born male, are different from those of women born female.

The backlash from the female transgender community, who accused her of not seeing them as “real women”, inspired a Facebook response from her, in which she carefully clarified her meaning and defended her stance.

What has been interesting about her response to the criticism is not her rebuttal – she said this week she had nothing to apologise for – but her claims that she does not get the language of identity politics.

The image of Adichie lost in language sits incongruent to my vision of her as a literary legend.

Always poised, considered and intellectual, in everything from her public speeches to her take-down of racists and misogynists, I had to wonder if she was being disingenuous.

The furore elicited by her comments makes for interesting reading into the messiness of identity politics.

Although crucial, they can in many cases create echo chambers. As Adichie claimed: “‘Cis’ is not a part of my vocabulary – it just isn’t.”

And, “Speaking of language, even the word ‘intersectionality’ comes from a certain kind of academic discourse that sometimes I don’t know what it means,” she went on to say.

Adichie accused “the American left” of exercising language orthodoxy, which was limiting: “To insist that you have to speak in a certain way and use certain expressions, otherwise we cannot have a conversation, can close up debate.

"And if we can’t have conversations, we can’t have progress.”

I have experienced this often in my work with young trainee journalists.

All of them black, they typically come from three backgrounds: students from favoured tertiary institutions such as the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and Cape Town (UCT); others from colleges; and those with a matric certificate.

During story pitching sessions, I have watched Wits and UCT students, imbibed in the vocabulary of woke Twitter, lob the rest with statements choked with terms such as “intersectionality”, “gender binary” and “cis”.

Armed with this, and Model C accents, the effect has been that the rest retreat while the woke ones, often just one or two in the group, continue on loudly.

To be fair, the dynamics of our education system – in terms of who speaks “better English” and therefore deserves to be taken seriously – are also at play here.

Some of these woke statements are hard to unpack. One of the many reasons for this is that they sit so firmly within one’s sphere of experience – I, or a friend, experienced it, hence it is.

It is ironic to watch how those speaking as the marginalised quickly take over discourse.

It is this slippery power dynamic of identity politics that I find interesting.

Back to the Adichie drama. Suddenly, a black African female is identified as the aggressor.

Because identity politics tends to focus mainly on the stereotypical marginalised figure – black, female, gay – it does not accommodate subtle power shifts often enough.

But everyone peddles in identity politics. Ultraright Afrikaner nationalism is an expression of identity, as is the xenophobic violence wrought by South Africa’s working class on immigrants.

We also fail to properly critique the stories of those who hold traditional power, and we need to talk about white identity, too.

The American left did not see the Donald Trump presidency coming; their focus on just the marginalised blinded them to the extent of white fear.

Under current discussions on identity politics, white aggressors sail through unchecked.

We saw this in the video incident at Spur, in The Glen Shopping Centre in Johannesburg, which went viral.

It showed a white man threatening a black woman, Lebohang Mabuya, with violence as a room full of spectators mostly stood by, leaving her to protect herself and the children in her care alone.

In the midst of this menacing display of white male masculinity, almost everyone, including management, retreated.

This is because we are not accustomed to unpacking South African white male identity.

Neither do we talk about white female experience enough, examining that history as we do that of others. So, the scary, threatening man walked out unchallenged.

I can understand Adichie’s vexation, what with all the definitions that accompany gender and race discussions.

But tiresome and clichéd as I often find them, it’s important that we hear and interrogate all who seek to be heard – those fighting for their survival and even those who perceive change as a threat to their preservation.

Follow me on Twitter @joonji

Read more on:    chimamanda ngozi adichie  |  gender equality


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