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Race and Racism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Romantic Love Theme Icon
Separation vs. Connection Theme Icon
Cultural Criticism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Americanah, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Racism Theme Icon

While Americanah is a tale of individual characters, it is also a sweeping analysis and critique of race and racism in America, England, and Nigeria, and the novel is peppered with Adichie’s biting observations on the subject. In Nigeria, Ifemelu doesn’t really think of herself as black. There is still a racial hierarchy in Nigerian culture, however, as light-skinned or mixed-race people are considered more attractive, and people use products to make their skin lighter. But when Ifemelu and Obinze go to America and England respectively, they find that racism is a much more pervasive part of life. Ifemelu first truly discovers race—and starts to consider herself black—only when she is forced to adapt to America’s complex racial politics. Adichie gives many examples of racist incidents, like Obinze being mocked for scraping his knee because he’s a “knee-grow,” people assuming the white Curt couldn’t be dating Ifemelu, or patients refusing to have Aunty Uju as their doctor. Ifemelu then starts a blog about race, and Adichie scatters blog posts throughout the novel. Through these posts Adichie is able to be most outwardly critical of racism in America: Ifemelu describes many microaggressions, incidents, and assumptions she has experienced that many whites wouldn’t always notice or understand, and she is able to do so bluntly and humorously. Many of these posts (as well as Ifemelu’s relationship with Blaine) involve navigating the differing experiences of African-Americans and “American-Africans,” or Africans who come to live in America and experience racial prejudice for the first time.

Most of the novel’s discussion of race involves pointing out racism and humanizing it (both the victims and the perpetrators), but Adichie also gives some examples of people overcoming racism through close friendship and romantic love. Characters like Curt, Kimberly, and Nigel achieve this to varying degrees of success in their relationships with Ifemelu and Obinze. As Shan complains about in describing her own book, most editors don’t want a novel that focuses on race—the issue must somehow be made more “complex” or described so beautifully that the reader doesn’t even notice it. With this Adichie comments on her own work, declaring that race and racism are big and complicated enough issues on their own, and they deserve a novel as sprawling and complex as Americanah.

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Race and Racism Quotes in Americanah

Below you will find the important quotes in Americanah related to the theme of Race and Racism.
Chapter 2 Quotes

And after you register your own company, you must find a white man. Find one of your white friends in England. Tell everybody he is your General Manager. You will see how doors will open for you because you have an oyinbo General Manager. Even Chief has some white men that he brings in for show when he needs them. That is how Nigeria works. I’m telling you.

Related Characters: Nneoma (speaker), Obinze Maduewesi, Chief
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Obinze's cousin Nneoma has just gotten him some work with the "big man" Chief, and now Nneoma explains how Obinze can get even richer. On one level, this quote is part of Adichie's ironic, sometimes humorous criticism of Nigerian culture. The concept Nneoma outlines touches on the corruption Adichie sees at all levels of the Nigerian government, in which flattery, deceit, and an extravagant show of wealth are seen as common and even necessary traits.

This particular kind of corruption also deals with race and racism, however, as it's suggested that (black) Nigerian "big men" must hire white men to act like their "boss" in order to seem legitimate. The Nigerian is the real boss, but the English employee's whiteness gives him a kind of respectability and power (in society's eyes) that no amount of money can buy. Even in Nigeria, where race is much less of an issue than it is in America, whiteness is still seen as inherently better.


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Chapter 9 Quotes

“Dike, put it back,” Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. Pooh-reet-back. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing.

Related Characters: Aunty Uju (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point Ifemelu has just moved to America, while her Aunty Uju has been there for years, so Ifemelu is observing both this new culture and the way it has changed her aunt's identity. In Nigeria, Uju was a confident, outspoken woman who seemed to understand Ifemelu better than anyone else, but now it's clear that living in America has "subdued" Uju's identity in many ways. As this quote shows, Uju has learned to be apologetic about her foreignness, and she tries to speak with an American accent in front of white people so as to bring less attention to herself. Clearly many instances of racism or ignorance have led to Uju's creation of this new "persona," but Ifemelu is seeing it for the first time and is appalled.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Later, she said, “I have to take my braids out for my interviews and relax my hair… If you have braids, they will think you are unprofessional.”

“So there are no doctors with braided hair in America?” Ifemelu asked.

“I have told you what they told me. You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.”

There it was again, the strange naivete with which Aunty Uju had covered herself like a blanket. Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place. Obinze said it was the exaggerated gratitude that came with immigrant insecurity.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Aunty Uju (speaker), Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 146-147
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunty Uju has just passed her exams and is licensed to become a doctor in America, so she is planning out what she has to do to get a job practicing medicine—and part of this involves straightening her hair. This quote is an important explanation of the symbol of hair (and particularly black women's hair) in the novel, as Uju has learned that for a black woman to wear her hair naturally or in braids is considered "unprofessional"—or essentially, not white enough to be professional. Here Adichie is critiquing American culture for the way racism is ingrained at every level—even including standards of beauty and fashion—but also showing another way Uju's identity has been "subdued" by this society. In order to protect herself, it seems that Uju has given up an important part of her character, and this feels tragic to Ifemelu.

Obinze then has a good explanation for this (that immigrants are taught to be so grateful for being allowed to live in America that they submit to its society's racist practices), but it's also worth noting that Obinze himself is not yet an immigrant—he's still in Nigeria. He can observe this phenomenon from the outside, but it's only once he's illegally in England that he too can understand real racism and the pressures to conform and subdue one's own identity.

Chapter 14 Quotes

They mimicked what Americans told them: You speak such good English. How bad is AIDS in your country? It’s so sad that people live on less than a dollar a day in Africa. And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock, because it was a mockery born of longing, and of the heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again. Here, Ifemelu felt a gentle, swaying sense of renewal. Here, she did not have to explain herself.

Related Characters: Ifemelu
Page Number: 170-171
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu has recently started college in America, and she feels isolated and disconnected from the rest of the students—until this scene, where she is invited to the "African Students Union" and she meets other students from Africa. Surrounded by people who experience the same kind of racism, ignorance, and homesickness that she does, Ifemelu feels a new sense of connection with these students, and she also feels reaffirmed in her identity as a Nigerian. She doesn't want to have to subdue herself and change her identity like her Aunty Uju has, but she also doesn't want to keep being hurt by racism and ignorance. In moments like these Ifemelu gets a renewal of strength and personal connection as she seeks to adjust to a new culture while also staying true to herself.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“Isn’t she just stunning?”

“No, she isn’t.” Ifemelu paused. “You know, you can just say ‘black.’ Not every black person is beautiful.”

Kimberly was taken aback, something wordless spread on her face and then she smiled, and Ifemelu would think of it as the moment they became, truly, friends.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Kimberly (speaker)
Page Number: 181
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu is now working for Kimberly, a wealthy white woman, and this new environment exposes Ifemelu to yet another aspect of American culture—the subtle racism and condescension of some wealthy, liberal Americans. Ifemelu has noticed that whenever Kimberly is talking about a black woman, she uses the word "beautiful" to describe her, even if the woman isn't actually beautiful. This is an astute and humorous bit of cultural commentary about white America on Adichie's part. Many white people do things like this and don't even know it, or intend any harm by it, but it still adds to the narrative that blackness is different from the cultural norm and needs to be lifted up by well-meaning white people. This scene is also important because Kimberly doesn't get angry or defensive when Ifemelu calls her out—and it's for this reason that Ifemelu feels a sudden sense of connection with Kimberly, and feels like the two women are now really friends. For the isolated, depressed Ifemelu, this is a crucial moment.

Chapter 16 Quotes

It was like a conjurer’s trick, the swift disappearance of his hostility. His face sank into a grin. She, too, was the help. The universe was once again arranged as it should be.

“How are you doing? Know where she wants me to start?” he asked.

“Upstairs,” she said, letting him in, wondering how all that cheeriness could have existed earlier in his body. She would never forget him… and she would begin the blog post “Sometimes in America, Race is Class” with the story of his dramatic change, and end with: It didn’t matter to him how much money I had. As far as he was concerned I did not fit as the owner of that stately house because of the way I looked. In America’s public discourse, “Blacks” as a whole are often lumped with “Poor Whites.” Not Poor Blacks and Poor Whites. But Blacks and Poor Whites. A curious thing indeed.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Kimberly
Page Number: 204-205
Explanation and Analysis:

Kimberly has called a carpet cleaner to come to her house, and the man acted confused and hostile when Ifemelu answered the door (Kimberly's house is huge and in a fancy neighborhood). When Ifemelu made it clear that she was "the help" rather than the homeowner, however, the carpet cleaner immediately became friendly. It's thus suggested that the carpet cleaner initially acted hostile because Ifemelu was "out of place"—as a black woman, it seemed strange to the carpet cleaner that she would be in that house in that neighborhood, and perhaps the carpet cleaner also didn't like the idea of having to work for a black woman. But once Ifemelu assumed her proper place (as a worker for the rich white homeowners) then everything was once again in its proper order and the carpet cleaner became comfortable and friendly.

For her part, Ifemelu is mystified but also hurt by this interaction, and the realization that her unique identity is, in society's eyes, less noticeable than her race. Ifemelu then goes on to later write a blog post about this, critiquing American society again for its inherent racial hierarchy, and also the way different groups are portrayed in the media. Here she particularly points out that blacks are presented as a homogenous group, and that group is assumed to be poor.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“Just a little burn,” the hairdresser said. “But look how pretty it is. Wow, girl, you’ve got the white-girl swing!”

Her hair was hanging down rather than standing up, straight and sleek, parted at the side and curving to a slight bob at her chin. The verve was gone. She did not recognize herself. She left the salon almost mournfully; while the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning, of something organic dying which should not have died, had made her feel a sense of loss.

Related Characters: Ifemelu
Related Symbols: Hair
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote also centers around the symbol of hair, and black women's hair in particular—an issue that has suddenly become personal for Ifemelu. She just got her hair straightened for a job interview, because she has learned that black women's hair, if left naturally curly or in braids, is considered "unprofessional." The injustice of this suddenly strikes Ifemelu once her hair is actually straightened—not just that it's racist for society to have a standard of beauty and professionalism that centers around whiteness, but also because she feels like a part of her own identity has been burned away when her hair is burned straight. She, like so many other immigrants, is forced to subdue parts of her identity, and even appearance, in order to fit into American culture without being judged or dismissed.

Chapter 27 Quotes

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. Yet he understood. It had to be comforting, this denial of history.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi
Page Number: 320
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Obinze reflects on the current environment in Europe, in which white people feel that their culture is under attack and fear that they will be "overrun" by immigrants from Africa or the Middle East. This is one of Adichie's overarching cultural criticisms of the West—that wealthy countries want to exploit poor countries, but then Western citizens feel afraid or hateful when the people from those exploited countries seek asylum.

This idea also shows how race and racism affect even people's views of history and memory. Adichie suggests that white Europeans choose to forget their history of colonialism precisely because its victims were so far away, and were people of color. And once this history comes back to haunt them, in the form of refugees and immigrants from countries exploited by colonial powers, it's easier for white Westerners to distance themselves from their past and only deal with their present fear—essentially separating themselves from history, and pretending that present events are happening in a vacuum, without precedent.

Chapter 29 Quotes

He was making fun of his wife, but Obinze knew, from the muted awe in his tone, that it was mockery colored by respect, mockery of what he believed, despite himself, to be inherently superior. Obinze had remembered how Kayode had often said about Emenike in secondary school: He can read all the books he wants but the bush is still in his blood.

Related Characters: Obinze Maduewesi, Kayode, Emenike, Georgina
Page Number: 326
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote refers to Emenike, Obinze's old classmate from Nigeria, who has now come to England and become rich and successful, and has also married a white Englishwoman. Even as a teenager, Obinze remembers, Emenike was ambitious and would pretend to be richer than he was (he was actually from a very poor bush village). Now Emenike has assumed a new identity—that of the successful Englishman who also retains his Nigerian roots. Obinze will later learn that Emenike really is romantically in love with his wife (Georgina), but here Obinze only notices how Emenike holds his wife to a different standard because she is white. Emenike might complain about her or make fun of her, but he still considers Georgina inherently superior to himself. This is another of Adichie's cultural criticisms of how race is viewed in both the West and Nigeria—whiteness is assumed to be best, and this view is so normalized by those in power that even black Africans have developed an inferiority complex about their blackness.

This quote also suggests that Emenike may have been so successful in England precisely because he is so skilled at assuming new identities to fit his situation. When he was friends with the rich teens like Obinze, he pretended to be rich, and now he pretends to be fully English (but he also knows how to flatter white people and play his role as a "grateful immigrant"). Seemingly no one has any idea who the "real" Emenike is, as he has learned to adapt so well that he has no fixed identity or personality aside from his adaptiveness and ambition to better his social standing.

Chapter 31 Quotes

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker), Curt
Page Number: 359
Explanation and Analysis:

Ifemelu is at a party, and addresses a black Haitian woman who claims she had dated a white man for three years, and "race was never an issue for them." Ifemelu is a little drunk, so she decides not to let the issue pass, and she accuses the woman of lying. Ifemelu then gives this statement that encapsulates many of her (and Adichie's) ideas on race in America.

Because of this quote's subject matter and position in the narrative (right after Ifemelu and Curt's breakup), it's clear that Ifemelu is here referencing her own past relationship with Curt, and finally admitting some things to herself that she had been unable to see when she was actually dating Curt—like the fact that there was always a kind of separation between them because of their experiences of the world, and the way society viewed them racially. In private they experienced a real connection, and were in love with each other romantically, but in public they were always separated by the issue of racial identity and experience. Ifemelu had an entirely different experience because she was black—meaning that American culture treated her as different or inferior—while Curt had no idea this was going on, and was inherently unable to understand it. The privilege of white ignorance is a divide in interracial relationships, Ifemelu suggests, because the non-white partner will always seem to be offended or hurt by things that the white partner doesn't even have to recognize as existing.

These are issues of racial justice and social criticism, but here Adichie also shows how these issues affect one's personal life, like one's identity and romantic relationships. Ifemelu's identity is inherently divided from Curt's because of their different experiences, and the way that society sees them affects their relationship even in private. Essentially Adichie is saying that nothing exists in a vaccuum, and these issues of racism and isolation affect even the most seemingly private of human affairs.

The simplest solution to the problem of race in America? Romantic love. Not friendship. Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comfortable. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.

Related Characters: Ifemelu (speaker)
Page Number: 366-367
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes from one of Ifemelu's blog posts, and relates to her earlier discussion of her own relationship with Curt. She here takes her ideas on race as related to romantic love and puts them in the wider context of "the problem of race in America." Ifemelu suggests that the best way to "cure" racism is for more white people and black people to fall in love—truly in love, not just a "safe, shallow love." (The "breathing" language here is also reminiscent of Ifemelu's first true love, Obinze, whom she "wanted to breathe the same air as.") But then Ifemelu laments the fact that American society has made it so difficult for this to happen. Ifemelu has just discussed the separation between herself and Curt during their romance because she had a totally different experience of the world, as a black woman, than Curt did as a white man, despite the fact that they were lovers and equals when they were alone together. American society, whether intentionally or not, places obstacles in the way of interracial relationships, in that the non-white partner will always be treated and viewed differently from the white partner, and the couple itself will be seen as something "different" or even dangerous. This is just another way cultural racism affects one's personal life, as Adichie continues to explore the nuances of race in America.

Chapter 37 Quotes

So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy.

Related Characters: Shan (speaker)
Page Number: 417
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a statement from Shan, Blaine's sister, who is a writer and an ambiguous figure in the book. Shan has just written a memoir and is trying to get it published, but her editor has criticized her for writing too much about race. Shan then delivers this statement, saying that it's impossible to write directly about race in America without being pigeonholed as a writer. The (mostly white) American literary world doesn't consider race a "universal" issue, and so writers of color are expected to tone down their discussions of race and make them vaguer, more "watery and fuzzy"—essentially so that white readers won't feel uncomfortable or like they've been accused of something. On one level this is a criticism of how racism subtly affects even the structure of the literary world and our culture's ideas of aesthetic quality (the belief that it's only great writing if it somehow "transcends race," whatever that means), but on another level Adichie uses Shan's statement to comment on her own project: Americanah itself. In the novel Adichie is trying to write directly about race and racism without being "watery and fuzzy," and is trying to prove that race is a universal issue, and is a big and complex enough subject to warrant a sprawling work of literature like this one.

“You know why Ifemelu can write that blog, by the way?” Shan said. “Because she’s African. She’s writing from the outside. She doesn’t really feel all the stuff she’s writing about. It’s all quaint and curious to her. So she can write it and get all these accolades and get invited to give talks. If she were African American, she’d just be labeled angry and shunned.”

Related Characters: Shan (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 418
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Shan continues her speech on racism and America, and delivers a broad statement that also subtly criticizes Ifemelu and makes her seem like an outsider. Shan suggests that Ifemelu can only write her blog about race in America and be praised for it because she herself is not American—she's disconnected from the real experience of being AfricanAmerican and experiencing that particular kind of racism. This implies that white Americans are willing to listen to outsiders' perspectives on their culture moreso than to oppressed Americans themselves. At the same time, Shan also makes Ifemelu feel isolated and separated with this statement, as if her experience of racism is less important or less real because she isn't African American.

Chapter 40 Quotes

Her phone beeped with a text from Dike.

I can’t believe it. My president is black like me. She read the text a few times, her eyes filling with tears.

Related Characters: Dike (speaker), Ifemelu
Page Number: 447
Explanation and Analysis:

It's 2008, and Barack Obama has just been elected president of the United States. Ifemelu, who has been a fervent Obama supporter during his campaign, then receives this text from her cousin Dike, Aunty Uju's son. This is a poignant moment in the book, as it shows Dike, a young African American, feeling affirmed and empowered in his identity and blackness. With Obama's election, Dike has something direct and tangible that proves that blackness is not something negative, shameful, or inferior—a black man like himself has just become the most powerful man in the world. This doesn't mean that racism is "solved," of course, but it is a big step in affirming black identity and moving away from the inequality of the past.