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Societies develop social standards, stereotypes, or labels to categorize people in, whether that is due to race, gender, social status, etc. These classifications can create injustices like racism and sexism, especially for immigrants. Discussing problems from a removed perspective can be challenging, but it is crucial in addressing these social problems. The novel, Americanah, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, creates a platform of dialogue in which she is able to analyze the roots of many of these problems, not only from a Nigerian perspective or an American perspective, but also from a different expressed awareness that transcends many societal stereotypes.
Americanah highlights issues related to these injustices, specifically following the story of Nigerian characters, who faces challenges of racism, identity, gender, and belonging, which plays a significant impact on their actions and sense of self.
Identity is a key theme in the novel, and an example which shows this, is when Ifemelu cuts her hair for a job interview. The significance of identity in connection to themes of race, class, and gender are exemplified through the blogs which Ifemelu writes throughout the course of the novel.
Gender and race are co-related, and act as means of oppression simultaneously. Although diversity should be enforced in different nations, it occasionally generates superior and inferior groups. She advocates the intersectional approach to gender, because it is more practical in the contemporary era.
The following quote exemplifies social inequalities in the workplace that is present within the global perspective of Ifemelu.
To receive phone calls, she wore her most serious pair of trousers, her most muted shade of lipstick, and she spoke sitting upright at her desk, legs crossed, her voice measured and sure.
Yet a part of her always stiffened with apprehension, expecting the person on the other end to realize that she was play-acting this professional, this negotiator of terms, to see that she was, in fact, an unemployed person who wore a rumpled nightshirt all day, to call her ‘Freud!’ and hang up (Adichie, 306).
Adichie is addressing the challenge of belonging and identity through the lens of Ifemelu’s African perspective. The American girl triumphs the Nigerian girl in a workplace setting. Ifemelu struggles to figure out how she should look to appeal to the customers at her workplace. Beauty is oppressive, as she goes outside of her comfort zone to please other people. Readers get a sense that she becomes aware of the difference in cultural beauty norms within America and Nigeria.
Ifemelu also struggles with gender inequality, which is a continuous struggle throughout the novel. Gender is racialized, since Ifemelu knows that she would never act this way in Nigeria, but in America, she has no better instinct. Adichie shows how depending on which country you are in, the cultural norms vary and thus, you must adapt in order to appear as though you belong. Common ideals of being a young woman are different between Nigerians and Americans. Adichie would say that that white privilege plays a role, since the situation would likely change if she were white. Specifically, Ifemelu would not feel as uncomfortable trying to imitate a certain image. This justifies the statement that gender is racialized.
In the contemporary era, women in the business world have to work harder than men to maintain a certain image. The present-day job market is notorious for placing an emphasis on beauty. There is a certain image Ifemelu is trying to match. It is noteworthy that although Ifemelu is portrayed as someone who has a lot of self-respect throughout the book, she still gets trapped under common ideas of what it means to be attractive. She is wise enough to escape from pretending to be someone she is not. Interestingly, although she is not an American, the American vision of what the ideal receptionist looks like is already instilled in her mind.
Labour is racialized because Ifemelu is conscious of the fact that she is cannot maintain a fake American identity. One can argue that the reason she decides to act like an American is because she is desperate for income, which makes her lose self-respect. From a broader perspective, women all over the world may choose to give up their self-respect in order to achieve certain goals. The reason for this, one may argue, is that gender is seen as secondary for women in certain situations. Adichie would argue that females tend to have an unfixed identity or appearance when entering the job market. Her evidence would be the fact that Ifemelu openly admitted that she is fooling herself trying to be a professional young lady, when she knows she would rather wear a t-shirt all day.
Adichie would agree that the expectations of certain jobs make women feel pressured to look a certain way. It highlights the idea that the American beliefs about beauty are superior to Nigerian ideals. She would also say that Ifemelu does not have a lot of social capital, since she felt really uncomfortable acting as if she were a high-class lady. If Ifemelu did not feel like an outsider-within, she would not feel uncomfortable acting like a professional, and she would just follow through with her act.
Ifemelu only observed the reality of situations. She was able to recognize the different influences that drive many stereotypes. By transcending this, Ifemelu was able to reach the core of many issues by allowing repressed thoughts to flow free.
One of the problems that was addressed early and continued to be addressed throughout the novel, was Ifemelu’s finding of her self-identity. Ifemelu was concerned with the generalization of self-identity by the host society. This could be seen in both American and Nigerian society. For example, early on in the novel when Ifemelu went to get her hair done, Aisha pestered her about her hair asking, ‘Why you don’t have relaxer’ prompting Ifemelu to respond, ‘I like my hair the way God made it’ (Adichie, 15.) In America, it was, and still is common for black women to use relaxer in their hair. This makes the hair straighter, like that of a white girl. Ifemelu did not want to be a white girl however, she wanted to be herself. She recognized that there was a societal expectation of her, but she did not let that overcome her. Ifemelu’s hair not only connected her to Africa, but it was an extension of herself. She can let everyone know who she is by keeping her natural hair. Ifemelu realized she did not have to relax her hair to be any more American than anyone else.
This same problem could also be seen in Nigeria. Although these two societies hold differences, they both set expectations and generalize how people should act and be. Ifemelu recognized this social Nigerian standard in her Aunty Uju’s relationship with The General. Uju, like many other Nigerian women, was interested in money and power. The General had plenty of both. Uju used The General as a tool for her empowerment.
He gave her everything she wanted, including a big house, money, jewelry, and whatever else she asked for. In Nigeria, it is expected that the rich remain in power. The General lived up to this expectation by making Uju ask him for everything she needed. This put her in a submissive position and gave the General control over her. When Ifemelu confronted her Aunt Uju about her situation, Uju insisted that she was going to ‘change’ her lover. Even though Uju made some progress, overall this relationship only contributed to Nigeria’s perceptions about relationships. Powerful and rich men get what they want, when they want it. They are often seen as superiors due to their wealth. This could be seen when The General was supposed to spend the holiday with Uju (instead of his wife) but he cancelled last minute. Instead of being mad at The General, she turns her frustrations toward Ifemelu who spoke up against him; Aunty Uju charged at her ‘the slap landed on the side of her face’ (Adichie 98.) Uju acted powerless in this situation, and Ifemelu recognized it. Aunty Uju simply acted as a servant to The General. Ifemelu attempted to have a real conversation with her Aunt, but she was in denial. Nigerian society had persuaded Uju that there was little she could do – and she believed it.
This shows how perceptions can dictate the way people act, according to their respective societies. There are certain expectations put in place by that society which extends its bias into its people. Real conversations can be made much more difficult if these expectations are not addressed, and in many cases overlooked. Ifemelu was able to transcend many of these expectations using the power of her blog as a third diasporic space where problems could be analyzed and talked about openly. People could discuss their predisposed biases and surpass them to address the core of the issues at hand.
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