The Power of The White Ideal
In Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, navigating the American establishment as an African immigrant is a constant struggle for Ifemelu and others like her. Ifemelu soon starts to experience that the power in America is held not by the few, but by the collective mass of white Americans, who by virtue of being seen as the norm get to dictate the dominant culture. The mechanism in which white Americans power is exercised is not through dramatic moments but through everyday interactions. White America exacts crippling pressure on Africans to conform to a European standard of beauty as well as a disregard for understanding individual immigrants stories– instead applying a generalized idea of the African immigrant as a whole to everyone. Ifemelu and others face an immense pressure in their everyday lives to conform to the message of a non-ethnic, white outwards presentation. Many immigrants give in and change themselves to be acceptable to the white standard, but Ifemelu goes through multiple personal battles to not sterilize herself– keeping essential features of her as a person intact.
One way in which the non-ethnic, white ideal is enforced is through the inadvertent policing of foreign, in particular African, accents by ordinary white Americans. One of Ifemelu’s first sobering interactions on an American campus comes while attempting to register for classes. The student directing her, Cristina Tomas, speaks so condescendingly towards her that Ifemelu thinks she has an illness. It’s not until Ifemelu’s second exchange with her that she comes to the realization that, “Christina Tomas was speaking like that because of her, her foreign accent, and she felt for a moment like a small child, lazy-limbed and drooling (163). When Ifemelu tells her she speaks English, Tomas replies: “I bet you do. I just don’t know how well” (163). Through infantilizing Ifemelu based purely on her foreign accent, Tomas is indirectly communicating that any accent she deems “foreign” –that is, not white– is less educated and inferior. Humiliated, Ifemelu “shrinks like a dried leaf” (164). Even though her voice had been a source of confidence for Ifemelu ever since she “led debate society in secondary school” (164) and had thought of American accents as “inchoate” (164), Ifemelu is humiliated by Christina Tomas’s judgment of her accent. Unthinkingly, Tomas is able to assert her power over Ifemelu through the security that comes from considering yourself the norm– as a nondescript white girl she doesn’t think twice about the effects of her words. The pressure to conform to the accent of the rank-and-file white American is readily acknowledged by Ifemelu’s peers in the African Students Association. After Ifemelu firsts joins the ASA, her fellow member Mwombeki gives a spiel about how to adapt to life in America as an immigrant from Africa. Included in his speech is the statement that, “Very soon you will start to adopt an American accent, because you don’t want customer service people on the phone to keep asking you ‘What? What?’” (172). It is recognized by these young immigrants that a phase in their adjustment to America includes reaching the point where they’re so exhausted by being the “other” that they’d rather acquiesce to the anonymous voice over the phone than keep an important marker of their home culture. Not only will Africans assume an American accent, but as Mwombeki states, they will also “… start to admire Africans who have perfect American accents…” (172). The sway of the white culture in America is so much so that not only do foreigners feel the compulsion to make their accents more palatable to the average American, but doing so convincingly is seen as praiseworthy. Ifemelu herself buys into the mindset that sounding like a white American is not only easier but preferable to her natural accent. She only realizes the problematic nature of her and her fellow African students’ attitude when a young telemarketer tells her she “sounds totally American” (215) upon learning that Ifemelu grew up in Nigeria. Ifemelu wonders, “Why was it a compliment, an accomplishment, to sound American? She had won; Cristina Tomas, pallid-face Cristina Tomas under whose gaze she had shrunk like a small, defeated animal, would speak to her normally now” (215). Ifemelu is wrestling with the idea that her accent being deemed “American” should equate to a “win” because Christina Tomas, the original judge of her accent, would now not speak down to her. But, as Ifemelu notes, it isn’t a true victory because to attain it she had had to take on “a pitch of voice and a way of being that was not hers” (216). Ifemelu almost plays right into one of the key mechanisms of the power structure in America that disguises assimilation (in this case, one’s accent) as a positive. In reality, when Ifemelu and her peers give up their accents they give up part of themselves– one step in the process of making their identities as “pallid” as Cristina Tomas’, a representation of bland, conformist white America.
Another way in which a white image is imposed as the ideal is through the discouragement of natural hair in the workplace, so much so that black women not only submit themselves to painful procedures in the hair salon, but deride natural hair themselves. When Aunty Uju gets the letter in the mail notifying her that she is now a licensed medical professional, after her initial happiness, she immediately expresses to Ifemelu her intention to relax her hair because “they will think you are unprofessional” (146). Ifemelu is mystified, asking, “So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” (146) But later, when Ruth, the career counselor, tells her to straighten her hair before an interview a less naive Ifemelu doesn’t bat an eye and gets her hair relaxed in a salon. When the hairdresser irons the ends, Ifemelu experiences a piercing sense of loss from “the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died…” (251). The hairdresser, downplaying Ifemelu’s physical burns, excitedly says, Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!” (251) Ifemelu is sacrificing the vibrancy and soul of her hair, an essential aspect of many African women’s identity, for a lifeless “white-girl swing”– just because of the unwritten rule that states that natural hair is unprofessional. Just as Ifemelu’s once-dynamic natural hair is restrained into falling rigidly down her back, so too does the stringent European beauty standard limit the freedom of expression of women with ethnic hair. The notion of white hair being attractive and business-like is not only forced on Ifemelu and other African women, but is internalized and enforced by these women– the ones who are being repressed. After being told by white society that it was undesirable, Ifemelu is one of a number of women who have been empowered by going natural with their hair, learning to love her hair through the supportive, affirming members of sites like HappilyKinkynappy.com. But Ifemelu and her fellow proud wearers of natural hair in America face both subtle and overt judgments of their choice from members of their communities. When Ifemelu brings Curt, her white boyfriend, with her to visit Aunty Uju, Uju remarks to her niece, “he really likes you…even with your hair like that” (269). When Ifemelu points out that Uju would probably be “admiring my hair now” if “every magazine you opened and every film you watched had beautiful women with hair like jute” (269), Uju replies, “I am just saying what is true” (269). Aunty Uju is inadvertently aiding the enforcement of the harmful belief in the superiority of European hair– she truly believes that Ifemelu’s natural hair makes her less desirable. Aunty Uju is not merely commenting on the social standing of natural hair, she genuinely believes in its inherent ugliness, saying: “there is something scruffy and untidy about natural hair” (269). Women like the hairdresser and Aunty Uju have absorbed the sometimes implicit, but frequently explicit attitude of white culture that black hair is not only physically unattractive, but representative of unsavory character traits. The existence of the ideal of European hair, coupled with its imposition not only by white people, but by the very population which it is oppressing, combines to create a culture of self-repression that even captures Ifemelu.
The influence afforded to the white people around Ifemelu by the collective thinking that they are average allows them to generalize about Ifemelu’s personal story (as well as other African immigrants,) causing Ifemelu to feel emotionally abused. Overwhelmed from yet another failure to secure a job that she was more than qualified for and faced with being late with her rent yet again, Ifemelu’s frustration comes to a head when she tells off her roommate Elena for allowing her dog to eat her bacon. Elena responds with a smirk on her face, “you better not kill my dog with voodoo” (187). Ifemelu, feeling “acid in her veins,” almost hits Elena before retreating to her room, curling up on her bed, and contemplating what she had almost done. She realizes that she had not wanted to slap her roommate because of the lost bacon “but because she was at war with the world, and woke up each day feeling bruised, imagining a horde of faceless people who were all against her” (187). Elena’s thoughtless use of an offensive stereotype is the last straw for Ifemelu who has been experiencing the pokes of many small microaggressions since landing in the United States–leaving her “bruised.” The constant barrage of white people in Ifemelu’s life asking her and her fellow members of the African Students Association, “How bad is AIDS in your country” and telling her, “it’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa” (170)– essentially assuming that is her story– leaves Ifemelu feeling as if she’s not valued. One day, before the bacon incident, a “credit card preapproval, with her name correctly spelled and elegantly italicized” comes in the mail; Ifemelu feels “a little less invisible, a little more present. Somebody knew her” (162). Ifemelu feels so unnoticed and lonely from the white Americans lack of interest in her life that just for her name to be acknowledged means something to her. People like Elena who don’t even try to get to know Ifemelu and just lump her into their preconceived and ignorant notions of an African immigrant are exercising power obtained merely from being not the “other.” Ifemelu feels as if she is not being seen as an individual, that the “horde of faceless people who were all against her” are looking inward to their own preconceived notions and reflecting outwards their ill will.
The power of the ordinary white American is shown through the understated enforcement of the American accent and the degradement of the African accent. Ifemelu is mortified when Cristina Tomas judges her based on her accent, and despite disliking American accents, adopts one. Ifemelu is not alone– her peers in the African Students Association say that they themselves get so tired repeating themselves that they take on fake American accents. But the sway of the prevailing idea of the superiority of the American accent is so much so that students look up to people with flawless fake accents. Ifemelu reclaims some of the power she has given up by faking an accent when she reverts back to her Nigerian accent– by speaking in her own voice she is recovering a piece of herself that she had lost by conforming to the authority of white mainstream society. Just as Ifemelu loses part of her identity when she changes her accent so to does she cede part of herself when she relaxes her hair. The iron relaxing her hair burns away a living part of herself–all in service of reaching the American beauty standard of European hair. And just as Africans admire a well executed American accent, they themselves value the white ideal for appearance, and enforce it themselves as seen through Aunty Uju’s surprise that Curt would find Ifemelu’s natural hair attractive. By going natural, Ifemelu again regains the power she relinquishes when she relaxed her hair. The inconsiderate stereotyping of Ifemelu’s life by her white peers makes her feel as if she isn’t viewed as her own person leading to her depressed and volatile emotional state. The sense of security gained attained through feeling absolutely normal allows the white masses to attempt to bend to their will African immigrants, leaving people like Ifemelu battling to keep intact vital parts of their identities.
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