Double Consciousness in Novel Americanah

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There is a presence of people in the twenty-first century that coexist amongst varying social, racial, and religious backgrounds. Many people living in the United States today have ties to countries all over the world and these ties have a history. This history lies in the movement of a people from their native country into a host country. “The word “diaspora” is defined, at its simplest, as the dispersal of a people from [their] original homeland” (Butler 189). In other words, diaspora is the diverse unity of people spread far and wide. “Beginning in the late 19th century, it was used for decades almost exclusively in reference to Jews who were scattered throughout Europe, North and South America. Later, in the 1950s and 1960s, the “African Diaspora” came to mean all those communities around the world with close genetic and cultural ties to Africa. Most recently diaspora refers to various groups that have developed transnational and intercultural identities in which a common thread links an infinitely wide range of manifestations.” (cite)

Chimamanda Adichie’s acclaimed novel Americanah addresses issues with the diasporic movement—more specifically, the double-consciousness that results from the subjugation of the white gaze which “traps black people in white imaginations” (Grant)—through the experience of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in Princeton, New Jersey, who decides to move back to Nigeria after she breakup with her boyfriend. Ifemelu’s stay in America plays an essential role in Americanah because it expresses the double consciousness that is derived from living under the stereotype of the white gaze.

Double Consciousness & the White Gaze

Double-consciousness is a term coined by WEB Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (Pittman). Double consciousness refers “to a source of inward “twoness” putatively experienced by African-Americans because of their racialized oppression and disvaluation in a white-dominated society” (Pittman). In other words, blacks in America are aware that there is a duality to their existence: they are subjected to living up to the standards of the dominant white American standards while also trying to keep the beliefs and cultures of their own experience. This conscious duality is conflicting.

Since Ifemelu situates herself into white American, she reveals the most prominent essence of double consciousness because she is the one character who roots herself into white America where she is constantly subjected to the white gaze. Ifemelu has a duality to her in white America because she herself tries to achieve the ideals of white America while also trying to maintain the values and belief systems of Nigeria. The double-consciousness that is presented in Americanah is correlated not only to the immigrant status of Ifemelu, but the color of her skin. Before coming to America, Ifemelu was not aware of her blackness; it is only “when [she] move[s] to America [where she] become black” (Adichie 220). Situating herself in American society forces Ifemelu to face the reality that in the eyes of white America, she is merely black—nothing more and nothing less.

This is the biggest issue Ifemelu faces. In America, she automatically becomes black. Although she is Nigerian, in the eyes of white America she is just black; this is an issue she never had to deal with in her home country. Aunty Uju says, “all of us look alike to white people” and this is very true, especially for Ifemelu (Adichie 120). Ifemelu never experienced racism in Nigeria, so when she gets to America this is something that stands out. She becomes black, and thus, becomes less than who she is—at least under the white gaze.

Examples of Double Consciousness

The first instance of the white gaze comes from Ifemelu’s roommates. This is her first encounter living with Americans and in return this is their first encounter living with an African woman. Her roommates make broad assumptions about her character because she is African. When Ifemelu states that she does not like dogs, her roommate, Elena, asks, “is that like a cultural thing?” (Adichie 128). The irony to this statement is that if a white person had stated that they did not like dogs, it would have been accepted that they simply just did not like dogs. It would not have been associated with anything cultural, but because Ifemelu is African, there has to be a cultural reasoning behind it. Thus, Ifemelu becomes subject to the white gaze. She is perceived how Elena wishes to see her. Later in the novel, Elena even says, “you better not kill my dog with voodoo (Adichie 187).

This reinforces the ignorance—whether knowingly or unknowingly—Elena has to cultures outside of her own, which inadvertently becomes a way in which she perceives others: through her white lens. At this point in the novel, Ifemelu feels as though the world is against her. The microaggressions and cultural misunderstandings are not humorous to her. “She was at war with the world and woke up each day feeling bruised, imagining a horde of faceless people who were all against her” (Adichie 187). She is at war with white America and the white gaze that they view her with creates an “us v. them” mentality. Ifemelu is made to be the outsider. There is a white norm in place and because she is visibly not a part of this norm, it is assumed that there is some underlying reason to her choices. Ifemelu becomes the “other”—someone who is not accepted and as such does not belong, and she feels this from the world around her thus, forcing her to revel with the two sides she must constantly see herself through. This same issue arises when she tries to get a job.

Ifemelu constantly struggles to find a job in America. When she is preparing for her first interview, her job counselor, directs Ifemelu to “lose the braids and straighten [her] hair. Nobody says this kind of stuff but it matters. We want you to get that job” (Adichie 202). It is implied that in order to get a job, Ifemelu must aspire to the standards of white beauty because her current hair would keep her from getting any kind of job in America. This is a key example of how the white gaze imposes this double consciousness onto Ifemelu. She is trying to keep her natural Nigerian hairstyle, but because she is in America, that exact hairstyle—her naturalness—is preventing her from succeeding, which forces her to conform. She cannot be herself and thrive in a dominant white society; thus, creating an internal struggle for Ifemelu.

When she does decide to stop putting relaxers in her hair, her coworkers assume its political—just as her roommate assumed her dislike for dogs stemmed from something cultural. Her coworkers ask, “Does it mean anything? Like, something political?” (Adichie 211). It is important to note that both in the instance with the roommate and in the context of this quote, the term “like” is used almost as a tool for Adichie to point out the inherent ignorance of white America. Since her natural hair is not part of the white “norm”, it has to mean something more than it is. Ifemelu cannot simply like her natural hair and keep her afro because that is not up to white standards. While Ifemelu herself may loathe the whiteness that oppresses her, she has to change parts of who she is in order to be thrive in American society.

When Ifemelu gets a babysitting job for a wealthy family, they decide to get their carpet cleaned. Ifemelu answers the door when the carpet cleaner comes and is met with hostility. As she opened the door, “he stiffened when he saw her. First surprise flitted over his features, then it ossified to hostility” (Adichie 166). The carpet cleaner did not expect Ifemelu, a black woman, to be the owner of such a prominent home. In his eyes, she should not be above him on the social ladder and when he finds out that she is the help, “his face [sinks] into a grin. She, too, was the help.

The universe was once again arranged as it should be” (166). This man’s assumptions are based solely on looks: As far as he was concerned, I did not fit as the owner of that stately house because of the way I looked” (166). Ifemelu again is subjected to the white gaze; she is not perceived as she is, but what they think she is. Thus, she is at an odd with who she is and how she is perceived. Ifemelu does not see herself less than she is, but in the eyes of white America there is a system at play. A system with which she falls at the bottom. It is not socially accepted that she be in a place of power, of wealth, especially in relation to a white man or woman. Thus, Ifemelu is forced to see herself in two lights—her own and white America’s—both equally at odds.

She receives further criticism from white America when she dates her boyfriend, Curt—who also subjects her to his own white gaze. When she dates Curt, she receives stares, sneers, and shocked looks that a white man would be interested in someone like her. Some women “looked at her with surprise, a surprise that some of them shielded and some of them did not, and in their expressions was the question ‘Why her?’” (292). These looks were amusing to her at first, but after a while she becomes exhausted: “At that party, as Curt held on to her hand, kissed her often, introduced her to everyone, her amusement curdled into exhaustion. The looks had begun to pierce her skin. She was tired even of Curt’s protection, tired of needing protection” (293).

In other words, she was tired of justifying herself. A white man and white women couple would be socially acceptable, but because she is a black woman dating a white man, people are surprised. Thus, the white gaze she receives further establishes her double-consciousness and even forces her own prejudices to take form. She cannot just be or exist; there is always some other reason to her way of living and this becomes a main source of her double consciousness and her own projections. Her awareness of this fact perpetuates her double-consciousness because she is forced to see herself as white America does and is supposed to use their perception of her to act according to their white standards.

Curt unknowingly imposes his own white gaze upon Ifemelu when he sees the website Ifemelu is looking at for hair tips. He claims that “it’s like this movement of black women” (Adichie 212); in reality, it simply is a website where black women share their tips for managing and styling their hair. There is no other reason behind it, but because it is a site for black women, it cannot just be a hair website. It has to be a movement, something special, something other than what it is. Moreover, when Ifemelu and Curt breakup, he asks if there was another white man in the picture because he wants to be the only white man who had her (Adichie 228). He also claims that he was so good to her (289) further implying that she was not worthy of that goodness and was lucky that he even wanted her.

It does not seem that Curt is fully conscious of his own white gaze regarding Ifemelu, but yet he still has these perceptions instilled in him because he is part of white America. He believes that he was so good to her because without him she would not have a job and she would not of had her eyebrows done in the salon. To an extent it seems that Curt believes Ifemelu needed him in order to attain certain things in life. Therefore, insinuating that his whiteness is what she needed to be successful, which ultimately shows that Curt indeed does have his own white gaze with which he views Ifemelu.

Ifemelu herself writes in her blog, “so whiteness is the thing to aspire to… many minorities have a conflicted longing for [White Anglo-Saxon Protestant] WASP whiteness or, more accurately, for the privileges of WASP whiteness…. …what do WASPs aspire to? Does anyone know?” (Adichie 207). The question suggests that there is no “authentic” identity that can be imposed as a standard; there is only what one aspires to (Rodriguez). Even though the WASP has no authentic identity, it is what is aspired by non-whites for success in white America. As such, white America has set the standard for others to follow which holds non-whites to a standard that is prejudicial. This reinforces double-consciousness because non-whites will never be white despite having a desire to climb the social ladder. They will always be black and never on a level playing field of their white counterparts.

Rejecting the White Gaze

While others like Aisha and Aunty Uju strive to be white in order to gain these privileges into society, Ifemelu recognizes her own double-consciousness and eventually chooses to no longer hide who she is. She goes back to her natural hairstyle, she stops using an American accent, and eventually she decides to move back to Nigeria. Ifemelu seems to be the only female character from Nigeria who refuses to be seen under the white gaze that she fell victim to and ultimately rids herself of this double-consciousness because she is choosing to live for herself regardless of how white America perceives or will perceive her to be. In another blog post, Ifemelu explains,

racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well white people don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they’re not smart enough to be doctors (Adichie 327).

This quote not only identifies what blacks have to be conscious of in America, but it also potentially makes Ifemelu’s white blog readers aware of their own white gaze—as well as the readers of this novel. If Ifemelu’s white blog readers and the white readers of this novel are aware of their own white gaze, perhaps that will lessen the way they use it to perceive non-whites, which will help alleviate the double-consciousness that is accompanied by the white gaze. Black people in America are very much aware of their blackness and it is ostracizing, especially in white America, where they are judged by their skin color before anything else. Ifemelu is aware of the institutional racism that is a norm in American society and through her blog posts ridicules the inner workings of this society as an outsider.


Throughout Americanah, Ifemelu is exposed to the white gaze that consistently racially stereotypes her. She is marginalized by the white population for the way she speaks, looks, and acts, which ultimately reinforces her own double consciousness. In her novel, Adichie reveals that this white gaze is all too real in society and that it exists because of preconceived stereotypes. Stereotypes that do nothing but create a false social order that then becomes a norm and aspiration for non-whites to aspire to. Although Ifemelu’s double consciousness intensified because she was trying to live her life according to white standards, she eventually realized her own double consciousness and chose to be herself regardless of how she will be perceived. Adichie cleverly uses Ifemelu to reveal that while this white gaze may exist, it can be overcome, and one can be at peace with who they are—all a person has to do is give up trying to shape themselves in white America’s image.


Cite this paper

Double Consciousness in Novel Americanah. (2021, Sep 29). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/double-consciousness-in-novel-americanah/



Is Americanah third person?
It is. Americanah is written in third person.
What is the book Americanah about?
The book Americanah is about a young Nigerian woman who moves to America for college and her experiences with race and identity.
What is the main idea of Americanah?
The novel tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to the United States to attend university. The novel chronicles her experiences with race, identity, and love.
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