By: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
On May 29, 2015, esteemed author, activist, and speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed Wellesley College's graduating class. Her inspiring address explored the importance of self-worth, the power of determination, and the awe-inspiring role of tenacity that connects every human.
I wasn’t very interested in makeup until I was in my twenties, which is when I began to wear makeup. Because of a man. A loud, unpleasant man. He was one of the guests at a friend’s dinner party. I was also a guest. I was about 23, but people often told me I looked 12. The conversation at dinner was about traditional Igbo culture, about the custom that allows only men to break the kola nut, and the kola nut is a deeply symbolic part of Igbo cosmology.
I argued that it would be better if that honor were based on achievement rather than gender, and he looked at me and said, dismissively, “You don’t know what you are talking about, you’re a small girl.”
I wanted him to disagree with the substance of my argument, but by looking at me, young and female, it was easy for him to dismiss what I said. So I decided to try to look older.
So I thought lipstick might help. And eyeliner.
And I am grateful to that man because I have since come to love makeup, and its wonderful possibilities for temporary transformation.
So, I have not told you this anecdote as a way to illustrate my discovery of gender injustice. If anything, it’s really just an ode to makeup.
It’s really just to say that this: your graduation is a good time to buy some lipsticks—if makeup is your sort of thing—because a good shade of lipstick can always put you in a slightly better mood on dark days.
It’s not about my discovering gender injustice because of course I had discovered years before then. From childhood. From watching the world.
I already knew that the world does not extend to women the many small courtesies that it extends to men.
I also knew that victimhood is not a virtue. That being discriminated against does not make you somehow morally better.
And I knew that men were not inherently bad or evil. They were merely privileged. And I knew that privilege blinds because it is the nature of privilege to blind.
I knew from this personal experience, from the class privilege I had of growing up in an educated family, that it sometimes blinded me, that I was not always as alert to the nuances of people who were different from me
Victimhood is not a virtue. We can not always bend the world into the shapes we want but we can try, we can make a concerted and real and true effort. And you are privileged that, because of your education here, you have already been given many of the tools that you will need to try. Always just try. Because you never know.
And so as you graduate, as you deal with your excitement and your doubts today, I urge you to try and create the world you want to live in.
Minister to the world in a way that can change it. Minister radically in a real, active, practical, get your hands dirty way.
Wellesley will open doors for you. Walk through those doors and make your strides long and firm and sure.
Write television shows in which female strength is not depicted as remarkable but merely normal.
Teach your students to see that vulnerability is a HUMAN rather than a FEMALE trait.
Commission magazine articles that teach men HOW TO KEEP A WOMAN HAPPY. Because there are already too many articles that tell women how to keep a man happy. And in media interviews make sure fathers are asked how they balance family and work. In this age of ‘parenting as guilt,’ please spread the guilt equally. Make fathers feel as bad as mothers. Make fathers share in the glory of guilt.
Campaign and agitate for paid paternity leave everywhere in America.
Hire more women where there are few. But remember that a woman you hire doesn’t have to be exceptionally good. Like a majority of the men who get hired, she just needs to be good enough.
All over the world, girls are raised to make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people.
Please do not twist yourself into shapes to please. Don’t do it. If someone likes that version of you, that version of you that is false and holds back, then they actually just like that twisted shape, and not you. And the world is such a gloriously multifaceted, diverse place that there are people in the world who will like you, the real you, as you are.
I am lucky that my writing has given me a platform that I choose to use to talk about things that I care about, and
The only acceptable way of wasting your time on earth is online shopping. I have said a few things that have not been so popular with a number of people. I have been told to shut up about certain things – such as my position on the equal rights of gay people on the continent of Africa, such as my deeply held belief that men and women are completely equal. I don’t speak to provoke. I speak because I think our time on earth is short and each moment that we are not our truest selves, each moment we pretend to be what we are not, each moment we say what we do not mean because we imagine that is what somebody wants us to say, then we are wasting our time on earth.
I don’t mean to sound precious but please don’t waste your time on earth, but there is one exception. The only acceptable way of wasting your time on earth is online shopping.
Okay, one last thing about my mother. My mother and I do not agree on many things regarding gender. There are certain things my mother believes a person should do, for the simple reason that said person ‘is a woman.’ Such as nod occasionally and smile even when smiling is the last thing one wants to do. Such as strategically give in to certain arguments, especially when arguing with a non-female. Such as get married and have children. I can think of fairly good reasons for doing any of these. But ‘because you are a woman’ is not one of them. And so, Class of 2015, never ever accept ‘Because You Are A Woman’ as a reason for doing anything.
Finally I would like to end with a final note on the most important thing in the world: love.
Now girls are often raised to see love only as giving. Women are praised for their love when that love is an act of giving. But to love is to give AND to take.
Please love by giving and by taking. Give and be given. If you are only giving and not taking, you’ll know. You’ll know from that small and true voice inside you that we females are so often socialized to silence.
Don’t silence that voice. Dare to take.