Intersectionality in "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

How Race, Gender, and Migration intersect

Term Paper, 2020

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Framework
2.1. Intersectionality
2.2. Gender Roles in Nigeria

3. Intersectionality of Gender and Race while Migrating
3.1. Ifemelu Migrating
3.2. Obinze Migrating

4. Conclusion

5. WorkCited


Americanah is a novel written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in 2013 that won the National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction in 2013. The narrative centers the experience of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who migrated to the USA, and her childhood sweetheart Obinze, a Nigerian man who migrated to the UK, during their adolescences and adult life. Each of their identities is altered by the experiences they face in the Western world.

In my term paper, I will analyze the processes of migration through the lens of Intersectionality. I want to show that it is not sufficient to analyze the obstacles they face based merely on race or nationality. Each of them faces different obstacles due to the Intersectionality of factors like race, gender, class, and political views. In my paper, I will focus on the Intersectionality of race and gender as Ifemelu and Obinze migrate away from and back to Nigeria. I will start my analysis by explaining the term Intersectionality. Then, I will elaborate on the stereotypical gender roles in Nigeria to overview the expectations regarding their gender Ifemelu and Obinze grew up with and eventually have to change once they move to the western world. In my main part, I will first analyze Ifemelu's migration story in terms of her gender and race. In this analysis, I will focus on the topics perception of beauty, mainly regarding hair, romantic relationships, and her experiences with finding a job in the USA. Secondly, I will analyze Obinze's migration story as a Black man by considering his relationship with women and their roles in society and his experiences withjobs in the UK. Lastly, I will compare their experiences with migration based on their different genders.

Theoretical Framework


Intersectionality is a theoretical framework that understands that the entanglement of different types of marginalization creates multiple levels of injustice since social justice problems often interlock (cf. Crenshaw, The urge of Intersectionality). The theory argues that some people are disadvantaged due to two or more qualities prone to oppression like race, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, class, abilities, body type, and religion. Those different aspects of identity cannot be seen separately but as overlapping each other, often creating new problems and forms of oppression (cf. Roth). The term Intersectionality was originally coined by the African American law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 paper Demarginalizing the

Intersection of Race and Sex:A Black Feminist Critique ofAntidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics, in which Crenshaw analyses the disadvantages of being both female and Black. According to Crenshaw, looking only at one source of oppression "erases Black women in the conceptualization, identification, and remediation of race and sex discrimination by limiting inquiry to the experiences of otherwise-privileged members of the group" (140). When talking about gender discrimination, the discussion focuses on wealthy white women. Women that are even when marginalized due to gender, still privileged otherwise. The same applies to race discrimination, where to focus mainly lies on Black men who are marginalized because of their skin color but privileged when talking about gender.

Crenshaw brought up the example of police violence against Black women in her 2016 Ted Talk called The urgency of intersectionality. She played a game with the audience, which resulted in the majority of the audience recognizing the names of Black men killed by the police in the US, but almost no one recognized the name of the Black women who died due to police brutality. This shows that when society talks about a Black issue like police brutality, men are almost always in focus, while hardly anyone talks about Black women. The fact that otherwise privileged members of a targeted group are always in focus "creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon" (Crenshaw, Demarginalizing 140). Crenshaw argues that women of color are often excluded from feminist and anti­racism discussions and theories because their experiences differ from the privileged ones in these discussions due to their Intersectionality. Crenshaw's demands that Black women's experiences have to be taken into consideration from the eye of Intersectionality in theories rather than, e.g., including Black women's experience with sexism only in a feminist theory because, as mentioned before, the sources of oppression are entangled. They cannot be seen separate "because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism" (140). An example of why these different marginalization sources have to be viewed as one was given by Crenshaw in her Ted Talk. She talks about Emma DeGraffenreid, an African American woman who raised a claim of gender and race discrimination against a local car factory. Emma applied for ajob in that factory but was not hired. She believed the reason was her being a Black woman. A lawyer dismissed Emma's suit, arguing that African

Americans, as well as women, were hired in that company. What was not acknowledged was that the African Americans working for the company were all men. Furthermore, the women working for the company were all white. The court only allowed her to sue the company in one factor, racism or sexism. Her double discrimination was not acknowledged (cp. Crenshaw, The urgency of intersectionality). Her situation did not stir from her being Black only or from being female only. Her issue resulted from the combination of both, which shows that there is a need to acknowledge the Intersectionality of different aspects of one's identity. Two years after her first publication, Crenshaw wrote her second \y<\\^. Mapping theMargins, adding:

My objective there was to illustrate that many of the experiences Black women face are not subsumed within the traditional boundaries of race or gender discrimination as these boundaries are currently understood, and that the intersection of racism and sexism factors into Black women's lives in ways that cannot be captured wholly by looking at the race or gender dimensions of those experiences separately. (1244)

Gender Roles in Nigeria

Like in many other African societies, Nigerians are closely connected to traditions and religious values, with a difference between the north and the south of Nigeria since the north of Nigeria is Muslim and the south is Christian. In the following passages I will detail the gender roles in the south of Nigeria since Americanah plays in Lagos, where Christian values are practiced (cf. Adichie, Interview with Terry Gross).

Like in many other countries, women and men have a similar amount of political and economic power, but the social dynamics are not equal. The man is regarded as the head of the family while "[Women] are marginalized, undervalued and unrecognized. They are subordinated to the male folk and considered inferior" (Nwosue 1241).

In her book We Should AH Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about how men are viewed as more important than women in Nigeria (cp. 20).

According to many Nigerians, being a feminist, so believing in equal rights for men and women, is "unafrican" (10). Men are granted privileges that women do not have ,e.g., that women are not allowed to enter a club or a bar without a man, but if they enter a hotel alone, they are often assumed to be sex workers (cp. 19-20).

Women's primary goal should be to be married early, while males are supposed to stay in school (cp. Nwosue 1241). Adichie says that "[Women are] expected to aspire to marriage, [they are] expected to make [their] life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important." (Adichie, WSABF 298-299). Women should behave in a way that makes them look like wife material or homely (cp. 34), which means to obey specific rules set for young women and not to threaten or intimidate men's masculinity in any way (cp. Nwosue 1242), like Adichie said:

We say to girls "You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you're not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him. (Adichie, WSABF 27-28)

This often leads Nigerian women to tune down their intelligence and acquire a low paid job so that they will not intimidate men as they are supposed to earn more money. Many women do not work at all. The responsibilities of having children and taking care of the house often take away the woman's opportunity of working. The gender gap in salary is up to 39%, leading women to be twice as likely to live in poverty (cp. Enfield).

Men, on the other hand, have to be hard and fearless (cp. Adichie, WSABF 26). When talking about the role of men in Nigerian society, Adichie said:

We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage. We teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigerian- speak, a hard man. (26)

They are expected to pay the bill to prove their masculinity as soon as they are children and start taking out girls for ice cream (cp. 26). In Nigeria, every money that is tipped or handed out by women is assumed to come from her husband because it is not the person who earns the most money or is able to afford the bill who pays, its always the man (cp. 17). In We should all be Feminists, Adichie also talks about the ethnicity Igbo, which the protagonists of Americanah belong to. Adichie says that the Igbo society privileges men to this day and gives the example of how although she was always most interested in family history and their ancestors, only her brothers were allowed to attend family meetings because only male members of the family are allowed at family meetings were big decisions are made (cp. 46)

The core of Nigerian gender roles does not differ a lot from other countries. Men are superior to women. Men have to earn money, while women should stay home and take care of the household. Through time, the West got more open to different gender roles and more accepting when people do not conform them. Nigeria did that a little as well, especially in big cities like Lagos, and through the formal education system in Nigeria, women gained more power and acknowledgment (cp. Falola, Toyin O). But Nigeria did not evolve as quickly and as much as the West did. Even though the West is also still far away from gender equality, some situations described by Adichie ,e.g., not being able to enter a bar alone as a woman, are difficult to imagine in western countries.


Excerpt out of 20 pages


Intersectionality in "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
How Race, Gender, and Migration intersect
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Intersectionality, Race, Gender, Nigeria, USA, England, Adichie, Americanah, feminism, migration
Quote paper
Lina Gildenstern (Author), 2020, Intersectionality in "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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