By Ellen McGirt
March 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.


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