We need to be woke to the ter­mi­nol­ogy that ac­com­pa­nies dis­cus­sions on race and gen­der, writes

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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.


AL­TER EGO Madam Gigi, AKA Somizi Mh­longo

Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie

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