The Mobile Differences
I find that the best explanations are the ones that make no sense. The more different you are you fall down a circular spectrum that places you right to where you are fighting against. This contradictory concept most vividly applies to race. The differences between people in a race that are internal end up being overlooked by a single external similarity. This idea about differences creating a sense of oneness in terms of race was pioneered by Stuart Hall, and exemplified in Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this post think about how not only do these works show how differences that internal still make this concept of a “race” that only looks at the external, but that differences in the external of a person should unite us into a “oneness” as a society.
“We have fried chicken in common? Do you realize how loaded fried chicken is as a metaphor here?”
Diaspora underscores Hall’s concept of, differences somehow “uniting” a cultural group, in Adichie’s novel. Instead of understanding cultural groups evolve just as migration patterns do, society is stuck in the past for defining groups. Not only does society stay in the past when looking at labeling a culture Hall also argues how this label applies to defining the internal of a person as well. Why is it such an integral part of society to internalize the external? Why is it so important for us to identify the inside of a gift wrapped box?
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”
In Americanah the main character Ifemelu experiences her journey feeling lost in a world that revolves around unfair labels. What stuck me most significantly about differences in black identity wasn’t that differences existed among a racial group, but that black identity is always labeled as an outsider by looking at a culture as static. Ifemelu doesn’t reach solace when she returns to Nigeria, as she realizes that the place she was from rapidly changed in a few years. She no longer feels connected to the culture. The Nigerians blame it on America having changed her. The novel shows that identity can be absorbed when in a new culture, but alienation from a group can come just from time. This had a profound impact on me as I realized how Hall’s evidence of differences creating a sense of oneness were true, because society always makes us look back to the external appearance and internalize a past to define a group that has rapidly changed, and not realize the differences that are present. Ifemelu is seen to Americans as African American and not a unique Nigerian or even Igbo culture, as they merely associate the external and apply it to an internal past. However, why is it so important to know that culture isn’t static, and to not make the external the only definition of a person?
It’s important to see that we as a society apply these external to internal labels, not ourselves. We need to see that society should collect all the different external features and apply them to a collective human identity. By viewing the world as a collection of wrongly labeled differences that changes overtime, you can see the absurdity of thinking that external features can define a cultural group that only has a temporary definition. The tolerance that comes from understanding is infinitely valuable not only to an individual, but to a society. Adichie makes a plethora of arguments, but for me the argument of how she can never put a label on herself to define who she is, and the fact that the culture she thinks she is changes without her is essential to understanding and fighting the social racism that exists.