Not-so Independent Black Women
“‘Intersectionality’ sounds like one of those clunky words you hear (and immediately dismiss) in discussions about race — until you figure out you need it.”
We are given many different variations of a person once we begin cross-examining the different characteristics our society views which we then proceed to judge what is outside the norm. In the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, Ifemelu, the protagonist, is a black woman — both her race and gender put her at a disadvantage, and therefore, makes it more difficult to succeed in America.
Ifemelu is a prime example of the ways in which racism in America suppresses individuals. Ifemelu’s intersectionality make her an ideal candidate to be discriminated against. She is not only a woman, an immigrant, and black, but she also has a low-economic status. The categorizations Ifemelu is boxed into makes it very difficult for her to gain employment along with being unable to receive a work visa.
Consequently, Ifemelu becomes so desperate that she resorts to trading her body for monetary gains. To begin with, a white tennis coach offered to pay Ifemelu so that she could help him “relax”. When she enters his house, “the power balance was tilted in his favor, had been tilted in his favor since she walked into his house” (189, Adichie). When Ifemelu let him touch her, it reminded her of what she had been experiencing since arriving to America. The power structure between whites and blacks, males and females, along with poor and rich shows itself not only within the household where the tennis coach uses his power to sexually harass Ifemelu, but also, the scene reflects a broader power struggle in society. He was in power “since she walked into his house.” Afterwards she states, “she felt like a small ball, adrift and alone” (190, Adichie). This encounter and the remembrance of not who she was, but of how others have identified her by, made her feel insignificant and in despair.
Stuart Hall explains how people develop their cultural identities in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”. He explains how people develop their cultural identities “‘what we really are,’ or rather-since history has intervened- ‘what we have become.’” As soon as Ifemelu came to America, she began to question who she genuinely was as a person considering the significant cultural differences between African culture and American culture. Ifemelu’s relevant experience of immigrating to America gives her more of the sense of “who she has become” and ultimately, it’s someone she is ashamed to be.
Before her sexual encounter with the tennis coach, Ifemelu had sex with Obinze, her boyfriend in Lagos, and it was clear she had no guilt for being a woman who enjoyed having sex. While she was with the tennis coach, she states “…yet she felt her body rousing to a sickening wetness.” Majority of women who are used for sex, whether by sex or prostitution, cannot but help feel dehumanized as an inanimate object being used. Thereafter, Ifemelu does not want to speak to Obinze, because she cannot stand to face the fact she has cheated on someone who has loved her for more than sex, and significantly, with a man who paid her simply to give him access to her body.
Ifemelu went to America deluded — thinking it was a place where dreams come true, only to realize reality of her disempowerment due to the color of her skin, her gender and economic status, and where she migrated from. Ifemelu’s intersectionality was going make it very difficult for her dreams to come true.