Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian Novelist
During Commencement Address at Wellesley
Hello class of 2015.
Congratulations! And thank you for that wonderful welcome. And thank you President Bottomly for that wonderful introduction.
I have admired Wellesley—its mission, its story, its successes—for a long time and I thank you very much for inviting me.
You are ridiculously lucky to be graduating from this bastion of excellence and on these beautiful acres.
And if the goddesses and gods of the universe do the right thing, then you will also very soon be the proud alumnae of the college that produced America’s first female president! Go Hillary!
I’m truly, truly happy to be here today, so happy, in fact, that when I found out your class color was yellow, I decided I would wear yellow eye shadow. But on second thoughts, I realized that as much as I admire Wellesley, even yellow eye-shadow was a bit too much of a gesture. So I dug out this yellow—yellowish—headwrap instead.
Speaking of eye shadow, 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.
And you, because you now have your beautiful Wellesley degree, have become privileged, no matter what your background. That degree, and the experience of being here, is a privilege. Don’t let it blind you too often. Sometimes you will need to push it aside in order to see clearly.
I bring greetings to you from my mother. She’s a big admirer of Wellesley, and she wishes she could be here. She called me yesterday to ask how the speech-writing was going and to tell me to remember to use a lot of lotion on my legs today so they would not look ashy.
My mother is 73 and she retired as the first female registrar of the University of Nigeria—which was quite a big deal at the time.
My mother likes to tell a story of the first university meeting she chaired. It was in a large conference room, and at the head of the table was a sign that said CHAIRMAN. My mother was about to get seated there when a clerk came over and made to remove the sign. All the past meetings had of course been chaired by men, and somebody had forgotten to replace the CHAIRMAN with a new sign that said CHAIRPERSON. The clerk apologized and told her he would find the new sign, since she was not a chairman.