Trans Women are Their Stories To Tell: My Facebook Post about Chimamanda Adichie

Written By sj Miller

In response to Chimamanda Adichie’s remarks about trans women being a type of woman, I made a decision and posted a sensationalist newspaper article (that was limited in scope) and made a uni-dimensional comment that was far too casual and brimming with ignorance about trans women and their lived experience. For a population that experiences more gendered violence and structural harm than any other group on earth, my comment lacked deference and made light of a very serious issue. I admit that I spoke over, and on behalf of, trans women– which was not my right. By minimizing Adichie’s comments, I both dismissed her use of violent and destructive language and granted its security to be fastened into the very structures from where it sprang, thus empowering its reproduction to discriminate and fuel structural violence against trans women’s bodies. I majorly over-stepped. My post was brought into focus by a trans woman of color who I deeply respect. In truth, I am grateful to have her lived experience to call out my privilege and bring it to my attention. Though, that is part of the problem right there: She should not have to do that. It is not her job: It is my work. It is our work. To my friend, I am sorry. We all need to be educated, and part of that process is, I hope, that a trans education can be transformative for all of us.

On March 10, 2017, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said she “finds it difficult to equate the experience of trans-women with that of women” (see http://www.okayafrica.com/in-brief/chimamanda-adichie-trans-women/). By framing trans/women’s identities as separate and distinct, she reduces gender not only to a biological reification, she also signals that trans women are a “type” of woman, not a “woman,” by “classical” views. When we say something is a “type” of something, it indicates there is a mothership-identity and everything else is compared to, or must dock on it, to refuel and gain power. In other words, it has no credibility unless it draws from the default. Her status as an award-winning and respected author and speaker bears considerable weight and impresses on her audiences as truth.  An irony inherent in her status is that what she claims not to do in her now famous Ted Talk (which by the way, as of this writing has 11,888,475 views), The Danger of a Single Story,” (see: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story), and in which she admonishes the viewer to never reduce or collapse the human experience into one narrative or to see people in a group the same because it dilutes realities and creates fictitious stories, is the very issue she has now produced and created an anxiety around.

As a trans person, not identified in a binary, but as (a)gender, and as someone who passes as male, I can occupy spaces of male privilege. I was not brought into a world where that was the case; it was something I began to benefit from when I began to look more male. I recognized that I was bestowed a set of privileges that I could never have even conceived of–let alone wanted to– but now being read as male, certain presumptions about what I want to hear or have said to me, and decisions about how I will respond, are decided even before I speak. Such thinking is preposterous and speaks to more systemic issues about the socialization and culturalizing of men and their masculinities.

While I do not want to benefit from male privilege, it is a defaulted reality. I can abscond from relationships and attempt to divest from structures that reinforce and sustain binary gendered privileges, and I can live a life that embodies and is committed to eschewing such privileges, but the bottom line is my white skin color (though I am Semitic), and how I am read as male (sometimes heterosexual), not only primes me to, but positions me–of my choosing- to benefit from (only naming identities from which I can benefit) and have access to, a heterosexual, patriarchal, Eurocentric, white, able-istic, classed, and gendered system, which has architectured power for some while minoritizing others. It is a system that grants power, masked as state-sanctioned logic, thus falsifying security, and sustained by neo-iterations of change or reform. Such neo forms of segregation belie various forms of subordination. These logics continue to open different doors for some to access certain privileges, while generating lukewarm standards for others. When we participate in this system and accept these logics as truths, we continue to be re-socialized in such ways that maintain our arrogance and makes us think it is ok speak over and for people, when we have no business doing so. It is from within this space, that I hurt some trans women, and want to right those wrongs.

I recognize that no amount of writing can proxy for a system from which I will continue to benefit, but I know that standing for, up and always in consult with a trans woman’s experience is what can queue support for formation of incremental movement towards a trans women’s justice.

I cannot speak about this topic without reflecting on its implications for youth. So much of the work we need to take up to educate both ourselves and others about must start in pre-K on through the grade levels. When an identity is erased, discomfort and/or prejudice do not have to be visibly faced. Unfortunately, schools are beneficiaries of these logics, and can reinforce and reproduce the systemic erasure of non-cisgender identities through beliefs, policies and practices. This trickled-down logic then secures violence that locks our trans students out of accessing certain forms of recognitions they are entitled to and diminishes their access to social, emotional, and economic capital that could lead them to making informed and practiced choices. Rather than empowering cisgender students to be in support of, and understand how critical it is to stand with and for their trans peers, everyone is left with diminished capacities because of the messages and practices embodied by them, and have fostered less-than desirable choices in, and for, their lives.

Returning to my friend who brought my Facebook comment to attention, I want you to know that I am committed to closely working with others on shifting the conditions that have structured the schooling system that positions trans bodies as vulnerable. I stand committed to understanding how bodies are commodified  as a pathway to dive deeper into interrogating the beliefs, practices, and policies that have created “gender-typical” glass ceilings. While we do see some changes happening in schools about beliefs, practices and policies inclusive of, and mindful to, the affirmation and recognition of trans bodies in schools, cosmetic changes do little to help establish more fair and equitable schooling environments. Our work must look at root causes, ways to rehabilitate and then change the exclusionary political, economic, and affective practices and the subsequent conditions that have created injustice in the first place.  To truly decarcerate gender identity framing in schools, this work requires various levels of commitment from various stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, administrators, staff and school personnel ((anyone who has contact with youth)), parents, communities, teacher education programs ((deans, professors, pre-service students)), researchers, and policy makers who orbit and dock in schools.

I do not speak on behalf of, nor do I claim to know the trans woman’s experience. It is their story to share, and theirs alone. I will not keep from asking questions, staying in the lifelong of the work, and I hope it invites others to do the same.

Postcript:

There is much more to be said about Adichie’s remarks. For deeper dives into understanding the implications of what she said, please consider viewing/and or reading:

Sincerely,

sj