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  • "Racial Disorder Syndrome":Observations on Racism in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah (2013)
  • Jana Fedtke (bio)

Situating Adichie's Work

In her blog post, Ifemelu—the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 novel, Americanah—writes: "In America, racism exists but racists are all gone […] the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not […] maybe it's time to just scrap the word 'racist.' Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories of sufferers: mild, medium, and acute."1 While the novel was published in 2013, its topics have remained timely. In fact, they may have acquired renewed significance in light of George Floyd's death in May 2020, among many others, and the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few years. Racial differences have also been exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and beyond. According to the CDC, "The COVID-19 pandemic has brought social and racial injustice and inequity to the forefront of public health. It has highlighted that health equity is still not a reality as COVID-19 has unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups."2 Adichie's novel addresses racism and its structural inequalities to showcase the pervasiveness of racist attitudes in the United States of the early 21st century and elsewhere. Americanah shows that we are far from living in a post-racial world.

Often hailed as a representative of Afropolitan literature,3 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's work typically explores timely issues of, for example, neo/colonialism, gender, and politics in her novel, Purple Hibiscus,4 her short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck,5 and her short stories, "The Arrangements"6 and "Zikora,"7 to name but a few. Adichie has also reflected on literary concerns and feminist perspectives in her TED talk, "The Dangers of a Single Story,"8 and her essay, We Should All Be Feminists.9 Americanah's transnational setting spans Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom in a post-9/11 world. The protagonist, Ifemelu, encounters a world full of racial prejudice during her time in the [End Page 59] U.S., which she examines in her anonymous blog titled, "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." Among other issues, she focuses on hair, pan-Africanism, and gender in her meditations and explorations that take on a political overtone. Americanah is thus an inquiry into our understanding of home, diasporic and transnational experiences, ethical responsibilities, racial stereotyping, gender issues, and class consciousness. Various scholars have explored issues of transcultural identities and Afropolitanism in Americanah.10 Questions of "race" are an equally prominent topic in the novel, especially when read through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as explained by scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and Jean Stefancic.11

"The perfect metaphor for race in America right there? Hair …"

Adichie has talked about her own experience with "race" after coming to the U.S. from Nigeria: "race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black […] When I came to the United States […] I already knew that to be 'black' was not a good thing in America, and so I didn't want to be 'black.'"12 At the same time, the author is aware of her status as an outsider: "My experience of blackness is different from African Americans, and for me it's still a learning process, because there are things that I can't inhabit. Now I know racial subtleties, now I get it. But I don't have the history, and it's different."13 While the narrative may overlap with Adichie's personal life, it is not necessarily autobiographical writing. Ifemelu is a distinct character who becomes a semi-public persona14 due to her blog on her observations of "race" in the U.S. In its reflections on everyday life in the U.S., the blog showcases the racism people encounter "while black."15 The protagonist functions as an observer who watches from a certain distance, yet is keenly aware of...


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pp. 59-64
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