The Intolerant Left

A conversation with the writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jeffrey Goldberg about self-righteousness among progressives, the appeal of Donald Trump, and the entitlement that comes with being white in America

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appears onstage for a CityLab Paris discussion.
The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says "people are frightened of saying what they think," and it's a "bad thing for society." (Melanie Leigh Wilbur / AtlanticLIVE)

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has firsthand experience with the swift and intense outrage that can flow toward an individual in the age of democratized publishing. Say something potentially objectionable these days, and you will hear about it from every direction. Adichie’s characterization of cisgender women and transgender women as being fundamentally different ignited a firestorm of controversy last spring—and though she later clarified what she meant, she never really backed down.

“I think people are frightened of saying what they think, and I think that’s a bad thing for society,” she told The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg in Paris recently. “The problems in the left interest me more because I just think that there’s an increase in—‘intolerance’ is maybe putting it simply—but there’s a feeling that you’re supposed to conform.”

The left, Adichie says, is no longer actually liberal. “There’s language you’re supposed to use,” she said. “There’s an orthodoxy you’re supposed to conform to, and if you don’t, you become a bad, evil person, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or what you stand for.”

Adichie thinks deeply about identity in her work. As an author who has divided her time between the U.S. and Nigeria for most of her career, she often weaves a transatlantic perspective into her writing, most notably in 2013’s Americanah. In her conversation with Goldberg and Coates, Adichie described the complexities of race that are brought into sharper relief whenever she comes to the States: When she’s in Nigeria, she’s not “black” in the way she is in America, where the color of her skin immediately changes how she is seen and treated. “There’s a particular kind of asshole-ry that white people reserve for black people,” she says. “You can tell. You can always tell. It’s a very subtle thing.”

Still, she says, “there is, for me, as a black woman, as an African woman, a sense of possibility in America that I don’t feel when I’m in Europe.” Perhaps that’s why Adichie says she’s surprised at what she perceives as deference among Americans to the power that Donald Trump wields as president. Coates, for his part, isn’t shocked: “For black folks born and raised in America, the deference to power is very, very familiar.” It’s part of why he feels more American when he’s in Paris than he does in the United States, he says.

An edited transcript of their conversation, which was recorded in Paris for the first episode of The Atlantic’s new podcast, The Atlantic Interview, is below.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let’s start with something that just happened at the airport. You said you kind of had a bad experience coming into Paris.

Chimamanda Adichie: So I present my Nigerian passport, which is all I have. I have an American green card, but a Nigerian passport. And the man, the immigration man—in that sort of haughty thin-faced French way—looks at the visa and says to me, “This is for Spain. Why are you here?” And I said, “Well because I’ve been to Spain and it’s a Schengen visa. I can use it for France.” And he says, “Where is your return ticket?” He doesn't ask me why I’m here. So I give him the return ticket. And at this point people are watching us, because other people had spent a minute [getting through] and at this point I had been there for 10. So in total I was there for 30 minutes, standing there, and he would ignore me and turn around and mumble something to his colleague and then turn back to me and I’d be like, “Is something wrong? Can you tell me what's wrong?” And he would completely ignore me and then make that really annoying Gallic gesture, sort of the shruggy thing. But really for me it was a power play. What he was saying is, You’re not welcome here. And he didn’t have a reason for saying that because I had everything. I had a valid visa. I had everything I needed to have as a person coming from a country that doesn’t have resources, which means that we are seen as people who will stay on in countries like this. But I also remember thinking, I have an American green card. Why the hell do I want to stay on in France?

Goldberg: Are you ever tempted to say, “I won a MacArthur Genius prize.” Do you ever want to play the “don’t-you-know-who-I-am” card? I mean, it’s obnoxious in its own sense. But you are a woman of achievement and, I’m just curious, is that ever tempting to you?

Adichie: No, I think maybe part of my pique and my rage, maybe it comes from my sense of privilege, which is: Oh, nobody treats me like this. I just feel that I don’t have to be somebody to be treated with dignity, right? Because I’m thinking, Why can’t you just be polite? Why can’t you just answer my question? Why can’t you do your damned job? But there’s a long history of people coming from Africa, who in Europe are treated like this. So I don’t think I’m unusual.

Goldberg: Can you compare and contrast the African experience? I hate to use the broad term African but let’s say the West African experience in Europe versus the United States.

Adichie: Ooh, how much time do we have? Okay. I think I can talk about the U.S. with more authority. I guess because I like America. I know America has many problems. But there is, for me as a black woman, as an African woman, a sense of possibility in America that I don’t feel when I’m in Europe, particularly in continental Europe. I like the U.K. No, I like London. The rest of the U.K. ...

Goldberg: You could do without.

Adichie: It’s interesting. But, you know.

Goldberg: But in the U.K. do you ever feel the burden of colonial history on you?

Adichie: In America, I feel black with all of the rubbish that comes with it. So I became black in America.

Goldberg: Right.

Adichie: In Nigeria, I wasn’t black. I didn’t think of myself as black. When I go back home now, when I go back to Nigeria now, I get off the plane in Lagos and I just don’t think of race. I get on the plane and arrive in Atlanta, and immediately I’m aware of race. I mean you just know, and it’s that interesting thing where race becomes a possible reason for things in a way that—

Goldberg: —like in Charles de Gaulle Airport just now.

Adichie: Exactly. So if somebody is an asshole in Nigeria, and many people are, I think that [they’re] having a bad day. They’re assholes. They don’t like me. Right. If it happens in the U.S., all of those things, and I’m thinking also they’re racist.

Goldberg: But that’s interesting, and I had this conversation with I think Ta-Nehisi and maybe some other people where … there is an assumption if you’re a minority, if you’re a person of color, and something goes wrong in an interaction with a person who is white, there’s an assumption or a fear or suspicion that it’s race-based. And the truth of the matter is that white people are often assholes to white people. And it’s interesting especially in a racially fraught moment like we’re in, in America, where everybody goes right to the single-point explanation for things.

Adichie: You know what though? Yes, white people are assholes to other white people. But I think there’s something to be said for a particular kind of asshole-ry. There’s a particular kind of asshole-ry that white people reserve for black people. I do think though that I. Because often when a black person says, “This is racist”—I think in America this happens quite a bit—you’re told, “Oh, oh surely it wasn’t racist.” And I’m just thinking, well if a black person who has inherited this—I’m going to be dramatic and say trauma but really I think so. You know, they don’t want it to be racist. When things happen to me in the U.S., when I suspect that it’s racist and—it doesn’t have to be something massive. It can just be when somebody doesn’t extend dignity and courtesy to you, and you can tell that they would be different with a white person. You can tell. And there are times when the white person has been nasty and I’ve known it wasn’t race. I mean, I have dealt with grumpy old white men who I just sense are the same with everybody. But you can tell. You can always tell. It’s a very subtle thing. … When I came to the U.S, I didn’t really know because it’s not something that you know. It’s not something that comes with dark skin. It’s something that comes with living in a country that’s racist.

So, having lived in the U.S. for a while, I started to understand the subtleties. I started to know when it was race. I didn’t when I first got there. But I guess my point is, I don’t think that black people are quick to rush to race as a reason because I don’t think black people want it to be race. You know what I mean? I feel like I don’t want racist things to happen. So when I point out that they happen, it’s not because I enjoy it. I would rather they weren’t happening. Actually, we just like people to have a bad day and be nasty to me in a way that they would be to anybody else. But you can tell. You can tell when it’s race.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: I think she’s quite correct on that. And I think this whole notion is like an extra level that comes with it. Like somebody might just be a general asshole. But there is an extra level of condescension or something that is with it. I think also the bigger thing is, she’s correct in that I’d rather it not be [racism]. Like, I’d much much rather it would not be. I will say—and I want to be clear about this as an African American, not as a black Parisian, not as a black French person, not as somebody coming from Martinique, not as somebody coming from Senegal or Algeria—as an African American: One of the things I do get here is when people are assholes, I know they’re assholes. They don’t like Americans and I know that, and that’s okay, fine.

Goldberg: Does that make you feel like an American?

Coates: Yes.

Goldberg: More here in Paris than in America? Do you feel more American?

Coates: Yes. Yes. Except when Obama got elected.

Adichie: I want to talk about women because I like women, in particular. I mean, men are okay, but women are my thing. So I was taken aback to learn that 53 percent of white women had voted for Trump. And the reason I was surprised was I just assumed that the majority of women would not vote for a person who … it’s not just the person who boasts about assaulting women but a person who clearly doesn’t really think of women as equals. And I realized that they voted for him because white women are also white. White women are women, but they’re also white. And I think it’s the whiteness. I think that a lot of Trump’s campaigning was coded. It was coded language about race. It was that whole idea of “make America great again.” And the very strong anti-immigration positions, the sort of caricatures of Mexicans. And I think a lot of that had to do with whiteness and, in a strange sort of way, I understand why white women would find that appealing.

Goldberg: What do you understand?

Adichie: I think as humans, change is something that worries us. And I think that when people imagine—it doesn’t necessarily even have to be true—that some sort of catastrophic change is coming. And I think for them it was that this black man had been president and suddenly there were black people in positions of power. You know, the attorney general was a black man and I think that there are people for whom that was very upsetting. Even people who voted for Obama and I think that for many of them that, suddenly they’re like, Wait, hold on. And I can sort of imagine a white person saying, They’re taking over now, there are too many black people in these positions of power, and I can see how they would see that as threatening to their sense of what America is supposed to be. That kind of thing.

There’s a kind of entitlement that comes with whiteness in America. I think that white people … I mean, so, when they’re talking about this being a question of economics. Never mind that people who have money voted for Trump, but even that. I keep thinking, why don’t we talk about the minority working class? We talk about, in the U.S., the working class as though it’s somehow uniformly white. And the black people I know who are working class in the U.S.—because I asked them all, all seven of them—and none of them voted for Trump. And they have economic problems; they, too, feel left out. And so I think for me the question then becomes: Why? Why didn’t they vote for Trump? Because Trump was selling this magical idea of, you know, bring back the coal mines, everything’s going to be perfect, and they didn’t vote for him. And I think that makes a very strong case for whiteness being part of Trump’s whole schtick.

Goldberg: You surprised by the events of the last year?

Adichie: I have been. I think that it’s much worse than I imagined it would be and it’s just made me realize how incredibly fragile democracy is. There are things I used to think would never happen in America. When you’re from a place like Nigeria, it’s very common for people to say … you know, we spend all our time criticizing our government and then somebody will be like, “Go to America. They will never do that.” Right. That will never happen in America. And I’ve just realized it can.

Goldberg: You have an interesting experience of growing up under constantly changing military dictatorships. How bad do you think it could get?

Adichie: Oh, I think it can get very bad.

Goldberg: Even in America?

Adichie: Yes, but it’s already bad. I mean, did anybody ever think that this would be a country where people would go to airports and pretty much be arrested? There’s so much going on in the U.S. that feels very banana republic-y to me. And I think it can get worse. … I used to think Americans wouldn’t bow to power in the way they have done. I’ve been taken aback by how journalism has covered Trump, how people argue about should we say he lied. Yes, he lied. But I think the power of the presidency has really … I didn’t realize how much in awe Americans were.

Goldberg: You didn’t think deference was an American habit.

Adichie: Yes. Deference to a certain kind of political power. I didn’t think so. No.

Goldberg: So, going back through the campaign, when did you say to yourself, “That reminds me of something that I saw once in Nigeria”? Was there anything specific that sort of triggered a specific memory?

Adichie: I think my first shock was the travel ban and the uncertainty that people had. … So there was a woman who came from Nigeria with a valid visa and she was turned away, and suddenly my brother-in-law, who is a U.S. citizen and a physician in Connecticut, he wanted to go back to Nigeria for two weeks and my sister said to him, “Don’t go. Don’t go because you don’t know, they might not let you back in. Don’t go.” And he made me think of … there’s a certain uncertainty about living in a military dictatorship where I remember when I was maybe 8 or 9, and there was talk about a coup going to happen and my father was supposed to go to Europe and so my mother said to him, “Don’t go to Lagos. Don’t go because we don’t know what’s going to happen.” And I just kind of felt watching TV and the coverage of the travel ban, I just thought, “I can’t believe this is America.” It felt sadly familiar.

Coates: That’s the difference in the African and the African American experience. I can’t believe this isn’t happening in America is not an African American sense. It’s a black sense if you’re coming from Africa and America’s this distant thing, much like probably a lot of the things I would say here in France. A black French person would look at me like, “Well what did you think you were coming into?” So it’s just interesting to hear. For black folks born and raised in America, the deference to power is very, very familiar. Our ancestral heartland in the south. I mean, what became democratic in the 1960s within the living memory of a lot of people. It’s just different.

Adichie: No, I completely get that. I know that. I’ve often thought about how at the time when black Americans had to sort of step aside on the sidewalk so a white person could walk past, a black African was—you know, if you did well you could get a scholarship to go to Cambridge or Oxford. When black Americans weren’t allowed just basic human dignity in America because they were black, in Africa, particularly sort of the privileged classes, they were in charge of their own destinies. I do think that things go down generations and I know that my worldview would be very different had I been American-born. …  My grandfather who actually was nearly sold into slavery. No, my great-grandfather. There’s a story in my family about how he was rejected because he had this wound on his leg which was—thank God for the wound—but had that happened maybe I would be, I don’t know, a Brazilian or an African American. I think my entire view of America would be different. Very different.

Goldberg: One of the many interesting things about you is your intolerance or impatience for jargon and groupthink and you periodically get into a kind of useful trouble by speaking your mind. It’s fair to say that you’re associated with a liberal worldview, but you seem to be a little bit frustrated lately in sort of this—I don’t know what you would call it—Darwinian process of winnowing out people who sound heterodoxical. Is that fair?

Adichie: The problems in the left interest me more because I just think that there’s an increase in—“intolerance” is maybe putting it simply—but there’s a feeling that you’re supposed to conform. It is no longer in my opinion actually liberal. There’s language you’re supposed to use. There’s an orthodoxy you’re supposed to conform to, and if you don’t, you become a bad, evil person, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or what you stand for. You just become evil and you’re demonized, and it makes me uncomfortable because I think it’s problematic in so many ways. I think people are frightened of saying what they think, and I think that’s a bad thing for society.

Goldberg: They’re frightened to say what they think. But sometimes the group the thing is directed against has legitimate reasons to be offended.

Adichie: I’m a person who believes very strongly in ideas of inclusion and hearing everybody’s story and that sort of thing. And so we do need to hear. I am also ... I think it’s too easy again to say that the answer to bad speech is more speech, but in general I think so. Part of the problem, I think, with censoring is that sometimes there’s that ever-so-slight assumption that that thing might be true.

Goldberg: And where do you think it’s coming from?

Adichie: My sense is that the American left 50 years ago wasn’t like this. People still believed what they did about inclusion. Today there’s an increase in self-righteousness, and there’s also a sense in which you have to speak for everyone. So if you write about a white woman, for many parts of the left it’s valid criticism to say you ignored Mexicans and Bangladeshis. And I’m just thinking, No. People have to be allowed to tell the story. I don’t necessarily want a white woman telling the Nigerian woman story. And so maybe it’s coming from knowing that the left is not, in fact, as inclusive as it thinks it is. And so because of that, I think that the people allowed on the stage are too few—the grand stage of who gets to decide—

Goldberg: —acceptable speech. The boundaries of acceptable speech.

Adichie: Yes. And because of that maybe the answer is to shut things down. But I don’t want to. I think that a lot of it is well-meaning. I think that what these young people on college campuses are trying to get at is an acknowledgment of that power. So it’s not the same thing as a Puerto Rican writing about somebody from the Dominican Republic because they’re both kind of on the same level of powerlessness. And I also think that when you’re—I think I know a lot more about whiteness than white people know about blackness.

Goldberg: And according to even these rigorous rules of who gets to say what for a member of a, relatively speaking, “powerless” community, to try to inhabit the life of a member of the majority community would be quite interesting anyway. I’m just giving you an assignment. I think it would be a great novel. I’d buy it.

Coates: There’s also a long history of white people doing us badly.

Adichie: Very badly.

Coates: I’m a fan of people being able to write about other people when doing it respectfully. I love Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker—

Goldberg: Right. Doctorow did a successful job of writing [historical fiction featuring black characters in early 20th-century America].

Coates: Yeah, Ragtime’s great. But he was very, very respectful of the experience, as you should be about anybody’s experience when you’re writing about it. Unfortunately African Americans—and certainly Africans in American culture— have a long history of being presented by other people in a fashion that is, shall we say, at the very least not respectful. So all that baggage comes with it. When it gets refracted through, “Who has the right?” which is not a question I would encourage to be asked, but—that’s the context and the place.

Goldberg: My only point is that I want writers to write about whatever they want to write about.

Adichie: So do I. So do I.

Goldberg: But I hate this idea that this space is being closed to anybody who wants to write anything about anything.

Adichie: It’s a strange thing, though, because there’s two sides to it. So, on the one hand I think of course anybody should write what they want. I think my friend Dave Eggers—so Dave wrote a book about a guy from Sudan called What Is the What. And I thought it was very well done. And Dave is white and male, and this guy he wrote about is black and African. It’s not that it can’t be done. It simply—Ta-Nehisi said it well—there’s a history.

And it’s not just that there’s a history. It’s also, I mean—when I say I know a lot more about whiteness than white people know about blackness, it’s not because I’m necessarily interested in whiteness. It’s because I live in a world that is [so] steeped in whiteness, that you don’t have a choice. So I know a lot about white women’s hair because all the women’s magazines are about white women’s hair. But my white friends know very little about my hair because they don’t know. And of course, America being America, where liberals are very well-meaning—nobody asks anything because they’re just really well-meaning.

Goldberg: Going back to this point about everybody being scared to actually ask stuff.

Adichie: Yeah, and I don’t mind. I’m like, Ask me. I’ll tell you because don’t you know. So this woman said to me once, “Oh. Your dreads are lovely,” and I said to her, “No, I don't have dreads. They're braids.”

Goldberg: But there’s no offense meant.

Adichie: No, no, no, no. Because there’s a difference between—there’s malicious intent and then there’s just simple, well-meaning not knowing. And I like that. I like the kind that isn’t malicious.

Goldberg: Let me come finally to the issues of feminism and this very strange moment and maybe very hopeful moment that we’re in in America. The moment triggered by the revelations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, which has now taken on much more meaning than just what happened in one movie company over a period of years. The question is: I feel like maybe we’ve reached a tipping point. It seems as if it used to be that the default position of women was not to talk about this and now it seems like we’re moving toward a place where people can talk about it and we’ll be getting a fuller understanding of how common this kind of behavior—maybe not the level of Harvey Weinstein behavior but level of sexual harassment, intimidation. Am I being overly hopeful about where we’re at?

Adichie: Yes.

Goldberg: Yes?

Adichie: Yes. I’m happy that you’re hopeful. I want to be hopeful too but I don’t know. And I don’t want Harvey Weinstein to be this sort of the standard. I don’t want him to be. So I’m happy that women … and I know about the #MeToo hashtag and women are talking about it. It doesn’t surprise me obviously because I think that most women, if not all women, have a story but it’s also for me about other things. … We just need to find a way in our culture to start believing women. And I think that’s really the fundamental thing. And so Harvey Weinstein–type assault is terrible obviously but so is just that larger diminishing of women … all over the world. In the U.S. it’s so much more subtle and almost sophisticated that it’s difficult to point out. In Nigeria it’s very in-your-face. So you know what you’re dealing with. You know somebody be like, “Oh, you’re a woman, you really can’t be governor.” So you know what you’re dealing with.

Goldberg: And that will be said in "polite society"?

Adichie: Oh, they will tell you. Oh, yeah. They’ll tell you. In the U.S., they’re thinking it. They don’t tell you.

Goldberg: Do you think people were thinking that about Hillary Clinton?

Adichie: Of course. Of course there were many people who thought. Yes. Men and women, by the way, not just men.

Goldberg: Women too.

Adichie: Let’s be clear. Yes, women too. So, I want to be hopeful. I desperately want to be hopeful, but I don’t know.