It is so hard to simultaneously admire someone and acknowledge their failings. Whether it be a racist grandmother or a beloved public figure, finding out that a person with whom you share blood or a deep connection to their work is prejudiced or holds offensive opinions can be deeply unsettling. I am thinking of this after reading comments Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made in an interview this past week about trans women, where she stated that trans women are not women and cannot be included in the feminist movement. She has been a favorite author of mine, and her work has been deeply meaningful to me and so many others. In the days following this story, I have been contemplating the ways we navigate legacy and the balance between reverence for good work and critique of ignorance or subjugation.
We face this dilemma every day, from the first day we begin to learn about history in elementary school. Regardless of what country we are educated in, we learn about key “heroes,” who are guaranteed to have had checkered pasts with minorities. Many of them, especially in United States history, take on mythical status, while their roles as slaveholders and their decisions to deny personhood and voting rights to over half the country’s residents are overlooked. That is the strategy of choice for many educators for several reasons. It is difficult to explain that dynamic to a child, when one doesn’t fully understand it. Teachers face the ire of parents and reprimands from administrators if they share facts that contradict the accepted devotion to these historical figures.
While these are real concerns, the glossing over that occurs in primary education has serious lifelong effects on students. I say this because I am seeing it in myself. When children grow up in a society where it is acceptable to choose the most appealing facts or historical narrative, they begin to do so automatically in their minds. I have found myself rationalizing others’ actions, whether they be local or in the news because I want to maintain a view that has become comfortable, even if it is unrealistic. We so often construct the truth we want to see, and I believe that impulse is created in children when the adults in their lives model that practice.
We also fabricate understanding of ourselves, which I think is what leads to comments like the ones Ngozi Adichie made last week. I have found myself prioritizing some oppression I face over others’ and had to reassess my worldview in a more intersectional context. Each and every person faces different and interacting systems of privilege and oppression, which we understand in ourselves but have difficulty seeing in others. It seems that Ngozi Adichie’s very valid experiences with racism and sexism have made her a passionate feminist, but her failure to properly examine trans women’s varied struggles has convinced her not to attempt solidarity.
By no means do I expect that I or anyone else will be able to sense and evaluate other people’s experiences and understand them independently. The way we can approach that goal is through interacting with people who have different combinations of identity and exchanging our views. So many times the only thing that is needed to break down hatred or prejudice is to simply meet its object. Once it is impossible to deny that the unknown is human and complex, there is a chance for change. One person is not a nebulous threat or an untainted hero, they are a construct of their background, surroundings, and socialization. I try to take every opportunity to interact this way, and after thinking about Ngozi Adichie’s disappointing comments, I plan to spend more time reflecting on the basis for opinions of those I admire, those I disparage, and of myself. If we all do, I think we’d we’d be better equipped to make meaningful change.
For a more detailed description of Ngozi Adichie’s comments, take a look at this article: The Independent