clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s cancel culture screed is a dangerous distraction

We’re having the wrong conversation.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie attends Paris Fashion Week 2020.
Other prominent writers have accused Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of transphobia.
Francois Durand/Getty Images for Dior
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

One of the worst aspects of any cancel culture debate is the tendency to obscure, deny, and dismiss as invalid any actual harm caused by whatever sparked the debate. Frequently, this cycle is tied to transphobia: Prominent public figures who’ve been criticized for making transphobic statements have frequently mounted angry backlashes against “cancel culture” as a way of denigrating their critics.

The latest person to fall into this pattern is the well-known feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Earlier this week, Adichie published a lengthy and eloquent takedown of cancel culture on her personal website. In the essay, which has an estimated reading time of 16 minutes, she personally discusses two former students of hers, people who she feels have personally attacked and maligned her as a transphobe.

Though Adichie does not name either of the two former students, one of them appears to be Nigerian writer and queer activist OluTimehin Adegbeye. The other appears to be writer (and Vox Book Club selected author) Akwaeke Emezi, who is nonbinary. Both have spent the past several years criticizing a series of Adichie’s public statements that have seemed to increasingly embrace transphobic ideology and language — a framing Adichie claims is false.

Since 2017, Adichie has drawn criticism from trans activists for seeming to embrace rhetoric championed by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), who argue that trans women are not women — and for dismissing her critics when called out. Adichie doesn’t really confront this history in her essay. Instead, she characterizes the two former students as manipulative, and accuses them of using progressive social justice rhetoric to mask motivations that are, respectively, “calculating and insincere,” and “seeking attention and publicity to benefit themselves.”

It’s not precisely clear what prompted Adichie’s essay, though many observers have questioned her motives in choosing to publish it during Pride Month. That timing, along with the letter’s tone, has made Adichie’s post come off as a direct attack against the individual students the essay refers to, even if she does not name them.

Notably, the essay glosses over and decontextualizes criticisms the two former students have made against her, in order to claim that their statements were both personal and “violent.” For example, without directly quoting anyone, Adichie writes that one of the students in question “asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me” — an apparent reference to a January Twitter thread in which Emezi wrote: “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & [J.K.] Rowling seek to perpetuate. I, however, will be in my garden with butterflies, trying to figure out how to befriend the neighborhood crows.”

Adichie devotes the final third of her essay to condemning a polarized social media climate, essentially lashing out against cancel culture, which she describes as “obscene.” She writes:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion. ... People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. ...

I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us.

Across social media, this finale to Adichie’s essay has been greeted by many with praise and glee. Though others have expressed reservations because of her attitude toward cancel culture and her minimization of her own words, much of the reception has indeed been positive. The public loves a good takedown, and hers is one of the most savage we’ve had in a while.

It’s also the most pernicious.

In a rush to praise the most quotable parts of Adichie’s cutting essay, many on the left have joined notorious transphobes, TERFs, and their allies, including signatories of the infamous 2020 Harper’s open letter against the concept of cancel culture.

As with that letter, which was signed by several figures who had publicly expressed transphobic views, transphobia has inevitably attached to the conversation around Adichie’s essay. On Twitter, those who say they are boycotting Adichie in response to learning of her transphobia are being harassed. Adegbeye has locked her Twitter account; Emezi’s has been flooded with detractors.

Worst of all, a conversation that should have been about transgender identity has been reframed. Now it’s about how “difference of opinion doesn’t mean hatred” and how social media “amplifies pathological and anti-social tendencies.” Adichie’s essay minimizes and obscures her original actions and speech, and fans of the essay have joined her in that effort. They’re helping to further discredit Adegbeye and Emezi and the message they’ve been trying to amplify.

We’re having the wrong conversation — not the one about cancel culture, but the one about whether one of the most famous feminists in the world is actually transphobic, and what it means for trans women if she is.

Looking at the history of Adichie’s run-ins with the trans community, it’s clear that Adichie, not her critics, placed herself in this position, and that like many people who’ve faced similar callouts by vulnerable communities, she’s now calling out “cancel culture” as a tool of misdirection.

Adichie’s public clashes with trans women and their allies date back to 2017

Adichie shot onto the global stage in 2006 with the publication of her acclaimed novel Half a Yellow Sun. Since then, she’s been a prominent author and an even more prominent feminist. In 2014, her viral TED talk (which was later published as a book) We Should All Be Feminists drew raves and wound up sampled in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” Suffice to say, she’s not just a feminist — she’s a prominent feminist voice and, for many people, a crucial entry point to the entire concept of feminism.

In 2017, Adichie sat for an interview where she explained feminism for Britain’s Channel 4 News. In it, she responded to the question, “If you’re a trans woman who grew up as a man ... does that take away from becoming a woman — are you any less of a real woman?” (For the purposes of this argument, let’s set aside the issue with asking this question of a cisgender woman who has no idea what the experience of being a trans woman is like.)

Adichie answered:

When people talk about, “Are trans women women?” my feeling is trans women are trans women. But I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords a man, and then sort of change — switch 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 and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.

I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.

Adichie’s point that trans women have very different experiences than cisgender women is well-made and very important. Trans women experience higher rates of sexual assault and domestic violence, homelessness, suicide, and suicide attempts than cisgender women, and they’re more likely to be re-victimized when they seek support. Further, Adichie’s insistence that gender is tied to sociology, not biology, is a crucial distinction in the debate over trans rights — one backed by science.

But Adichie’s response also felt alarmingly aligned with the rhetoric of TERFism. People who buy into TERFism explicitly paint trans women as manipulative straight cisgender men, sexual predators just using a fake identity as “trans women” to get close to cisgender women in order to assault them. Millions of people subscribe to strains of this dangerous belief, including prominent public figures like Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.

Adichie’s statements shared a number of commonalities with TERFism, starting with the idea that trans women “change — switch gender,” inaccurate phrasing which seems to discount gender dysphoria and the feeling of gender-centered disconnect between one’s brain and one’s body that many trans people experience throughout their lives.

Her depiction of trans women as being born with substantial amounts of male privilege also hewed uncomfortably close to the TERF argument that trans women don’t lose male privilege if they transition. As the transgender actress Laverne Cox has said, “the binary narrative, which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege, erases a lot of experiences.”

Most especially, Adichie’s refusal to say the oft-uttered words, “trans women are women,” and instead insist that “trans women are trans women” is a phrase that can easily stand in for a denial of trans identity. As Emily Crockett explained for Vox in 2017, “when trans advocates and allies say that ‘trans women are women, they’re not actually trying to say that transgender women are the same as cisgender women (women who aren’t transgender). They’re trying to say that these differences shouldn’t disqualify trans women from the broader category of ‘womanhood.’”

Adichie’s original comments in the interview regarding her wariness about “conflating women’s issues” with “trans women’s issues” made it difficult to tell whether she believes trans women do belong to that broader category of womanhood. Consequently, when trans activists heard Adichie use phrases as loaded as these, they were immediately on alert. Adichie later responded in a Facebook post in which she apologized and called her critics “valid” but also doubled down on much of her rhetoric about male privilege and inherent differences between cisgender women and trans women.

If Adichie had stopped speaking about this issue, the moment might have retained its ambiguity and lack of clarity — though it’s worth noting that, a year later, she seemed to dismiss the entire debate as “trans noise.”

In 2020, Adichie spoke out again, this time in defense of a transphobic manifesto published by J.K. Rowling, and her new comments framed her earlier ones in a much different light.

Rowling’s piece is rife with overt expressions of harmful TERF ideology, depicting trans teens as being merely influenced by Tumblr culture rather than experiencing actual dysphoria, and tying gender to biology despite clear scientific consensus to the contrary. Instead of acknowledging the 50 percent of trans people who experience sexual abuse or assault, Rowling uses her own status as a survivor of domestic violence to explain why she’s so afraid that trans women might be a threat to cisgender women, loudly expressing fear of what might happen “when you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he’s a woman.”

From start to finish, it is textbook transphobia, published by a woman with incredible cultural influence.

In November 2020 — during Transgender Awareness Week — the Guardian published an interview with Adichie in which she articulated her dislike of cancel culture. Then, out of nowhere, she offered a defense of Rowling’s “perfectly reasonable” piece, calling her “a woman who is progressive, who clearly stands for and believes in diversity,” and decrying the social media outrage against her as “cruel and sad.”

To date, the reaction to Rowling’s manifesto remains one of the clearest examples of a pattern that Adichie’s essay now upholds. From the moment Rowling published her manifesto, much of the conversation around it centered on how left-wing zealots wanted to “cancel” a beloved children’s author — with the result being that the cancel culture backlash frequently obscured the harm at the center of a transphobic argument.

Condemning cancel culture has become a reliable way to obscure transphobia. That has real, harmful consequences for trans people.

The public support of Rowling’s contemporaries — figures like Adichie and the 58 British public figures who defended Rowling in an open letter last fall — furthers the narrative that anyone who’s upset is just an angry social justice warrior. Meanwhile, trans and nonbinary people like me are left smarting from the damaging impact of her words, which empower other public figures to promote a toxic, deeply regressive argument that denies trans women their humanity.

The idea that Adichie, with all her understanding of the struggles that trans people face, could read Rowling’s words and frame them as part of a “progressive worldview” is maybe the gaslight of all gaslights. I cannot see it as anything but a full embrace of TERFism.

I also find it impossible to interpret her new essay as anything but another iteration of a pattern in which railing against cancel culture becomes a tool to dismiss legitimate arguments about the hateful thing you said and did.

This conversation should be about trans identity. It should be about how awful it is for trans and nonbinary people to see beloved figures like Rowling and Adichie promoting an ideology that insists we’re not really the gender we say we are, that we’re liars and sexual predators, that we’re chasing a social media fad and performing wokeness for leftist clout, that we’re making it all up. It should be about figuring out why women with so much education and so much initial empathy wind up adopting a belief system so dedicated to othering people who are already vulnerable and at-risk.

It should be about how political debates about trans identity negatively impact the mental health of 94 percent of trans teens. It should be about the damage that is done when respected public figures like Adichie and Rowling use their massive influence to air transphobic views under the guise of “perfectly reasonable” debate about whether trans women are women.

It should not be about what a sick burn Adichie delivered.

It is not difficult to write a takedown of cancel culture, or to explain why it’s so painful to be denied a good-faith conversation with people you have a personal relationship with. (Though according to the essay, Adichie apparently disliked and distrusted her two former students from the outset.)

It takes much more courage to grapple with the reason they denied you that interaction. That’s what Adichie should be doing now, instead of extending the pain she caused others to many more of her trans readers.

Adichie’s essay is a distraction. She should not, now, get to own the conversation about the harmful impact of her words and actions.