mobile-bannertablet-bannerdesktop-banner
Commentary

The Many Stories of Trans Women

Mar 16, 2017

Beloved writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie got herself in more than a bit of trouble recently, after she made some public remarks that called into question her understanding of the lives of trans women.

"If you've lived in the world as a man, with the privileges that the world accords to men, and then sort of switched gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman," she said in an interview with Britain’s Channel 4.

Later in a follow-up post to Facebook, she attempted to clarify her thoughts. “I think the impulse to say that trans women are women just like women born female are women comes from a need to make trans issues mainstream,” a noble but disingenuous impulse. “The intent is a good one but the strategy feels untrue. Diversity does not have to mean division.”

Then she doubled down. “A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.”

Here Adichie makes the same mistake that she warned the rest of us about in her extraordinary TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story. If we’re not careful, she cautioned, the impressions we have of “the other” define how we think about them for the rest our lives. And that has dangerous implications.

I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.

Morgan Page, a Montreal-based artist, writer, and activist explains why Adichie’s single story about trans women profoundly misses the mark. Page was visibly non-gender conforming as a child, bullied and harassed for her femininity. “It's difficult to reconcile the concept of male privilege with my experience, because the violence I was subjected to came as a direct result of not being considered male,” she writes. Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox also weighed in, though without addressing Adichie directly. “My gender was constantly policed. I was told I acted like a girl and was bullied and shamed for that. My femininity did not make me feel privileged” she tweeted. “The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man.”

This is new stuff for so many people. Terms like binary, intersectional, even privilege take time to absorb and understand. While Adichie inadvertently prompted an important conversation that may have angered fans, I have faith that she will continue to think, grow and share on this topic.

But the idea that a "single story" isn't enough to explain the world is easier to grasp. How many stories do we need before we truly understand what life is like for someone else? For novelists, executives, policy-makers and other humans, the number must always be at least one more.

On Point

Sikh-Americans brace themselves for another round of anti-Islamic violence

There are anywhere from 500-700,000 Sikh-Americans living in the U.S.; as an immigrant group, they’ve fared pretty well socially and economically. But since the attacks on 9/11, they’ve been increasingly subject to suspicion, discrimination, and violence, even though they are not typically Middle Eastern - nor are they Muslim. Sikhism, an independent faith centered around unity and public service, is the fifth largest religion in the world, yet little is known about them, except the turbans that the men wear. “Sometimes I feel like we suffer more violence,” one man told The Establishment, “because we are so easily identifiable.”

The Establishment

Black women in venture capital prepare to fund companies that serve a wider world

The market is tremendous: “multi-ethnic” consumers in the U.S. have a combined buying power of $3.4 trillion, a number that’s only expected to increase. Smart VCs are aiming to find products and services that can delight some portion of that market. But the pressure is intense. "When a female or minority startup leader breaks through and achieves traction and funding, too often the media conversation centers on the fact of their being a woman or a minority rather than their ideas and what they are building," says one angel investor. It’s respectability politics with a price tag. “The unwritten rule for these founders that do make it into the startup ecosystem is that there is no room for public failure, or they risk access to additional funding, or worse—thwart opportunities for those coming behind them,” says Fast Company.

FastCoExist

Segregated schools: How did we get here?

Writer Kelly Bare does us a service with this story of the people and programs who are trying to disrupt the seemingly intractable issue of school segregation. It’s a tough read. “The water we swim in is racism and segregation,” says Sarah Camiscoli, founder and director of IntegrateNYC4Me, a three-year-old youth-led organization. She also looks at the conditions students of color are often living in, most of which have their roots in systemic segregation. "Imagine a classroom where 50, 60, 70 percent of your students are facing some degree of crisis,” says Sandra Soto, principal of Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School.

Complex

On knowing and not knowing

Intellectual humility, or the profound understanding of the limits of one’s own knowledge, makes you a better person argues writer Cindy Lamothe. Even Google’s VP in charge of hiring claims to look for it in a candidate. Experts say it’s “a state of openness to new ideas, a willingness to be receptive to new sources of evidence, and it comes with significant benefits: People with intellectual humility are both better learners and better able to engage in civil discourse.” To achieve it, one needs to overcome a fixed mindset, that there is a clear right and wrong to every situation. People with fixed mindsets tend to cling stubbornly to their ideas, and harbor feelings of inferiority if challenged. What can help? Listening to the stories of others. Huh.

New York Magazine

The Woke Leader

A handy guide to cultural misappropriation

Simon Fraser University in Vancouver has published a thoughtful resource that can help people distinguish between borrowing themes for creative inspiration or tribute – which is good, and creating work that disrespects, or does unintentional emotional and economic harm to a group of people. These are not always easy aesthetic distinctions, but there are often legal ones. For example, the Navajo Nation owns 86 trademark registrations that prevent designers from appropriating their imagery.

Simon Fraser University

It’s harder to get out of India than you think

Deepti Kapoor begins this hilarious first-person account of the travel limitations placed on her by her government – specifically, how hard it is to get visas for her passport – with this question: How many Indian backpackers have you met? Turns out, not being able to travel freely has some pretty unfunny implications, worth considering now more than ever.

Catapult

The Red Road Project

Photographer Carlotta Cardana and writer Danielle SeeWalker have driven more than 15,000 miles across the U.S, telling the story of Native American people and their identities today in a collection of photographs and blog posts. The collection offers a poignant counterpoint to the dismal narrative of addiction and despair that tends to be the only story that gets told about indigenous American life.

Red Road Project

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions