Second-Class Citizen

by Buchi Emecheta

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Discuss the theme of racism based on stigmas and stereotypes in the novel Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta.

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Adah has always dreamed of one day going to England. Indeed, it is the pinnacle of her ambition. But when she sets foot in the country as a teen bride, the dream quickly turns into a nightmare. Far from the fairytale land of Adah's imaginings, England is a place where dark-skinned people are unwelcome. Legal discrimination is everywhere; property-owners will openly refuse to let their houses to those from Africa and the Caribbean. Adah even wishes that she and Francis could paint their faces white until they finally manage to find a place to live.

Even after Adah finds a job at the library, she's made to feel inferior by her co-workers. By constantly talking of boyfriends and clothes, they are setting themselves apart from the newcomer, who comes from a completely different culture, where such topics of conversation are not considered acceptable for a young lady.

A further example of racial prejudice comes when Adah tries to become a babysitter. She quickly realizes that British people expect their babysitters to be white. This is because they subscribe to an insulting stereotype of black people as lazy, untrustworthy, and somewhat dangerous. For white British people—or, at least, most of them—it seems black skin color has entirely negative connotations. And this is why both Adah and Francis find that in Great Britain, they are second-class citizens.

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Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta (1944 – 2017) is a quasi-autobiographical novel based on Emecheta's experiences as a Nigerian immigrant to England. Originally published in 1974, the novel addresses issues of what we would now call "intersectionality," or the way the protagonist's race and gender affect her socio-economic marginalization in a synergistic manner.

In her early life in Lagos, the protagonist Adah Ofili is from a middle class family but encounters being a "second class" citizen when her family and society obstruct her dreams of education because she is a girl. Despite that she persists, completes her secondary education, and gets married in order to be able to move to England and attend university.

Despite her education and intelligence, in England she finds that her race makes her, to a degree, a second-class citizen, treated not as an educated middle-class woman but lumped in with all other Nigerians, within a generically racist set of stereotypes, and pressured to live in ethnically segregated neighborhoods. Her own resentment of being forced to live with lower class Nigerians makes us realize that one can simultaneously be a victim of, as well as a perpetrator of, prejudice and stereotyping.

The novel, however, has an optimistic theme in that Adah realizes that she can assert her worth against racial and gender stereotyping in England and achieve her dreams of being an educated writer.

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The novel Second-Class Citizen can be analyzed from a perspective of racism. There are many forms of racism in the novel. Clearly, the English harbor their own forms of racism against immigrants, including Nigerians like Adah and Francis. For example, Adah's son has to receive medical care at a second-class hospital when he is stricken with meningitis, and Adah and her family must live in a run-down neighborhood when they arrive in London. Her husband, Francis, tells her:

"Everyone is coming to London, the West Indians, the Pakistanis, and even the Indians, so that African students are usually grouped together with them. We are all blacks, all coloureds, and the only houses we can get are horrors like these" (page 35).

The white English people view all brown-colored foreigners as the same, and they make housing available in immigrant neighborhoods for them, but not in neighborhoods where English-born white people live. The English hold stereotypes that all brown people are the same and should be segregated in housing, medical care, and other areas.

Adah harbors her own stereotypes and class-based stigmas. For example, when she arrives in London, she thinks, "to her horror, she saw that she had to share the house with such Nigerians who called her Madam at home" (36). She has had an elite education and background in Nigeria, and she harbors her own stereotypes of Nigerians from lower-class backgrounds as crude and lesser.

Her husband, Francis, tells her:

"You may be earning a million pounds a day...but the day you land in England, you are a second-class citizen. So you can't discriminate against your own people, because we are all second-class" (37).

He says that although Adah would never speak to a bus conductor in Nigeria, in England, the black middle-class are composed of bus conductors. Adah has her own stereotypes of lower-class people, but she realizes that in England, all black people are stereotyped as lower class and undeserving of having educated jobs. She also has stereotypes of her neighbors, who are Yoruba, and of a different tribal background than she has (she is an Igbo).

Though the book also deals with the second-class citizenship that Adah suffers as a result of her husband's cruelty and sexism, it is also clear that both Adah and Francis suffer from the racist attitudes of many English people and that Adah at first has her own stereotypes to overcome. She eventually becomes a proponent of anti-racism and anti-sexism and insists that she and her children fight for first-class citizenship.

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