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Interrogating What It Means To Be Non-Judgmental In Adichie’s “Dear Ijeawele…”

Adichie's Feminist Manifesto In 15 Suggestions.

Myra here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an author that continually challenges how I perceive things, making me interrogate the implicitly conveyed messages in her text. Her condensed Feminist Manifesto is one example of this.

Dear Ijeawele.. Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions

Written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Knopf Publishing Group (2017)
ISBN: 152473313X (ISBN13: 9781524733131). Borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

Buy Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions on Amazon | Book Depository

Much of what Adichie has provided in this manifesto – by way of readable, highly accessible 15 suggestions – affirm what I know to be true and have practiced as a mother of a 17 year old young woman living in a country different from where I was born. These are suggestions that I have mentioned to my own students twenty years ago when I was still teaching the fundamentals of social sciences to university students in the Philippines: the dangers of socialization, the pernicious influence and ramifications of dressing up babies in pink or blue, and the significance of sharing the responsibility of parenting across both mother and father. These are practices that I have always known as a matter-of-fact, and which I was particularly mindful of, as my husband and I raised our daughter.

Twenty years ago, there was no handbook like this, I had Baby X by Lois Gould and Jacqueline Chwast, though – not the illustrated version but just the text, a mimeographed copy of it I passed around to my wide-eyed, impressionable students.

I have to admit, though, that Adichie’s concern about the term non-judgmental made me pause for a bit. See quote below which I have inserted in the image via Typorama:

She further adds:

The general sentiment behind the idea is a fine one, but “non-judgmental” can easily devolve into meaning “don’t have an opinion about anything” or “I keep my opinions to myself.” And so, instead of that, what I hope for Chizalum is this: that she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place.

To which I argue that withholding judgment about something does not necessarily mean not having an opinion about anything or keeping one’s opinions to one’s self. I also ask:

What is so wrong about being non-judgmental?

…especially if her premise (that a leads to b; i.e. being non-judgmental –> not having an opinion or being mum about one’s opinions) is flawed. Her entire premise also reminded me of why I did not particularly like Ifemelu in her novel Americanah (see my review here) – mainly because her being opinionated struck me as being low-key-judgmental, even while wearing the supposed cloak of broad-mindedness lined with progressiveness and sprayed with an air of superiority.

My idea of being non-judgmental is withholding judgments about people who may be different from one’s self; it suggests that I will refrain from judging people’s beliefs or practices using my experiences, my culture, my reality as parameter; it means being open and flexible in my thoughts such that I do not necessarily impose my own punto de vista as the only way of perceiving or doing things. Yet it does not mean that I will not take a decisive stand about matters that are of significance to me. To suggest this means that I am incapable of using my education to critically examine multi-faceted ways of understanding something.

Being non-judgmental means that I enter a situation with an open mind: one that I also practice as a social scientist when conducting research. I do not impose my world view, my cultural context, my socio-political reality on another; rather, I attempt to form an empathic connectedness by inhabiting another’s consciousness and breathing in another’s air momentarily, and emptying myself of myself, including my possibly unwarranted assumptions or suppositions or opinions – a task that is far from being easy, but one that is required of Weber’s verstehen (empathic understanding).

Rather than being not non-judgmental, why not just encourage curiosity and the asking of questions about things that one does not know about? I would rather have an endless fascination for all things different, rather than perceive being non-judgmental as a precursor to being on the fence about matters that are of value (that is where educating one’s self comes in – examining a situation critically from multiple angles and vantage points), or being indecisive, or being silenced because you have not formed any judgment about anything.

I do realize that all this may simply be a matter of semantics. The essence of both our core messages remain similar, because as Adichie noted, it is her hope that one’s: opinions will come from an informed, humane, and broad-minded place – which is what I also teach my own daughter and my students. However, I would replace opinions here with critical questions. The danger, also of being too opinionated is that it rigidly positions one’s self as an outsider, looking in. Although arguably, one can say that this is all we can truly ever be. But it doesn’t mean we don’t try forming empathic connectedness, regardless of how difficult it can be.

#WomenReadWomen2019: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is from Nigeria.

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

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