How Racism and Cultural Differences are Intertwined in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Book Americanah
Ifemelu is a young woman from Nigeria. Ifemelu has light skin, and during her time in Nigeria she doesn’t think of herself as black, rather just another person, which we all know is very different than in America. In America race is normally the first thing someone uses to draw accusations about you. While in Nigeria there is still somewhat of a racial hierarchy, being that those with lighter skin are more attractive, its nothing quite like Ifemelu will encounter in America. While in America Ifemelu really comes to know what race is and is forced to adapt to Americas racial complexities.
The novel starts out in chapter one with showing the struggles Ifemelu experiences in everyday life being a Nigerian woman. As a Nigerian woman Ifemelu has to get her hair properly done, but while living in New jersey she has to travel to another area to have this done. This shows that life in America is more targeted for the stereotypical white American, not African Americans, or Africans This creates a general tone of the racial inequalities for the rest of the novel. While on the train she is beside a man who is having another conversation and says, “Nobody wants black babies in this country, even the black families don’t want them” (Adichie 8). The hair salon is a place Ifemelu finds many African women work, and she sees that they’re struggling citizens and that America wasn’t the paradise they originally thought it would be. Ifemelu also becomes aware that African women in the United States “relax” their hair, resulting in their hair looking more like a white woman’s hair. Ifemelu decides to keep her hair natural and embrace her African beauty.
In chapter twelve Ginika is waiting to pick Ifemelu up from the bus, and Ifemelu notices how thin Ginika looks and how she has straightened blonde hair. “Ginika was much thinner, half her old size ad her head looked bigger, balanced on a long neck that brought to mind a vague exotic animal.” (Adichie 92). Ifemelu is shocked at how “Americanized” Ginika has become, yet she still used outdated Nigerian slang in attempt to prove she hasn’t changed. Ginika continues on telling Ifemelu stories of cultural differences such as how she’s supposed to say “biracial” instead of “half-caste” like she’s used to. It’s also said mental illness is another large problem that American Society has. Due to Ifemelu’s newness to America she doesn’t fully understand. Ifemelu feels as she’s in a weird place being black yet not African American, but she’s still considered African American by the whites; she doesn’t fit in in any category.
Ginika also makes the comment that “Obinze should hurry up and come to America before someone snatches up Ifemelu, as she’s as “thin” in the way American boys like”. (Adichie 93). This goes to show how the Africans were trying too hard to change themselves to fit the American lifestyle. Ifemelu discovers that race is rather a foreign concept to her and she doesn’t understand the issues race causes in America. While race is such a large problem, many people are afraid to discuss it, like in the scene at the clothing store. The woman at the store didn’t distinguish the saleswomen by white or black. Lastly while searching for an apartment Ifemelu eventually moved in with three white American girls who own a dog. Ifemelu mentions shed prefer if the dog lived outside but its owner Elena keeps it inside. Elena notices Ifemelu hasn’t pet the dog and asks if its due to her cultural background. While these remarks are miniscule and innocent right now, they will later escalate. While living with the girls she finds a lot of their behavior and actions different and sometimes amusing.
While Ifemelu is registering for classes, Christina, a white girl sat down with her. Christina begins talking to Ifemelu very slowly, Ifemelu thought she had a speech impediment at first but then realized she was only speaking like that because Ifemelu had an accent and Christina thought she didn’t speak English. Ifemelu was embarrassed and this event led her to start working on her American accent, feeling that she had to change herself to better fit in. This shows the oppressive power of white America. With Ifemelu eager to learn about culture in America Obinze suggest that Ifemelu read American books and suggest James Baldwin, who is a famous African American writer who wrote extensively about racism. Ifemelu formed a love with these books and it ultimately helped her better understand race and religion in the United States.
Ifemelu begins talking more like an American, and starts to better fit in. While in a film class they watch the Roots, and great debate breaks out over if the N word should have been bleeped out and if it should be used by black people. There is never a clear-cut answer give and the teacher immediately tries to change the subject, further showing that some people want to ignore race problems all together. Mwombeki who is from Tanzania, offers a welcome talk and offers advice to feel less alone In America, being from a different place. He says they should make friends with African Americas to keep perspective. He suggests going to the African Student Association, to form their own little community and have a space where people can relate to you and create a sense of a safe place.
Racism is also seen in chapter twenty, as the chapter starts out with Ifemelu getting into a taxi with an Ethiopian taxi driver, he informs Ifemelu that she doesn’t look African at all by stating “Where are you from? Nigeria? You don’t look African at all, your blouse is too tight” (Adichie 153). This shows how many immigrants see American as a sinful and corrupting place. Later in the chapter Ifemelu’s hair begins to fall out as a result of the relaxing chemicals, and as a result she’s forced to cut her hair very short. Immediately following the hair cut Ifemelu looks in the mirror, thinking how awful she looked. She knew that this short haircut wasn’t going to help her fit in, in America, and she was going to be judged because of it. Ifemelu takes a couple days off of work due to her insecurity about her hair, and when she returns her coworkers reactions solidify her insecurity.
One of her coworkers asks “Does it mean anything? Like something political?”(Adichie 156), while another asks if she’s a lesbian. Then Ifemelu finds out that Curt has been cheating on her, once she sees who the woman is, she begins to feel even more poorly about herself. The woman looked like she had such confidence and beautiful flowing hair and comparing herself to the woman she felt inferior and insecure, reinforcing the idea of a black female’s hair as a political symbol. Then Ifemelu comes across a website HappilyKinkyNappy.com with consists of an entire online community of black women embracing their natural hair. Ifemelu begins ordering online products and starts to feel better about herself. This incident shows how deeply ingrained racist aesthetic ideas about beauty are in America. Ifemelu comes to realize that black women are made to feel inferior according to Americas beauty standards, so for them self-love is a radical act against racism.
Much like her relationship with Curt Ifemelu feels the cultural differences and finds many misunderstandings with Blaine as well. Ifemelu then meets Paula who is Blaine’s ex, who is very nice to Ifemelu. Ifemelu observes that Paula better fits in and she begins to feel like an outsider once again. Paula compliments Ifemelu’s blog the proceeds to read out loud a post called “friendly tips for the American Non-Black”. The posts consists of telling white people to stop bringing up their own suffering or discrimination, because everyone has suffered but not suffered for just being black in America. Ifemelu suggest that who talking about racism white people should stop bringing up their own suffering and just listen. Ifemelu points out that white people try to compare their own suffering but in reality, it just drowns out the voices of black people and further alienates them.
President Obama, the first black president, is elected. Ifemelu is constantly nervous he will be killed or that something negative will happen to him. Ifemelu then finds tons of internet comments that are racist about Obama. She becomes increasingly sensitive about the hateful things said to Obama, as they show the abundance of spiteful racism in America still. Obamas success as President shows that there is a possibility of more progress in America concerning race.
In conclusion racism and cultural differences are prevalent themes throughout this novel. Ifemelu experiences a great deal of racism or discrimination due to her not only being black but African as well. While much of what she experiences is blatant racism, many African Americans have adapted to this lifestyle, so cultural shock also played into this.
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Ifemelu is a young woman from Nigeria. Ifemelu has light skin, and during her time in Nigeria she doesn’t think of herself as black, rather just another person, which we […]