News Brief

You Need to Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Response to That Inexplicable BBC Newsnight Interview

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses that post-election BBC Newsnight interview with Trump supporter R. Emmett Tyrrel on Trump's racism.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the world’s leading thinkers and a true champion of women’s rights. R. Emmett Tyrrel is an aging white man and unconditional Trump stan (racist rhetoric and KKK endorsements be damned). Somehow, the unwavering feminist and the conservative asshole wound up on the same BBC Newsnight interview to discuss whether or not Donald Trump is racist.


Adichie shouldn’t have had to respond to anything Tyrrel said, but she did, and it was glorious.

If you’ve seen the video, you may recall Adichie telling Tyrrel the following: “If you’re a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is. You don’t get to sit there and say that he hasn’t been racist, when objectively he has. And it’s not about your opinion. There are objective things, racism is an objective reality, and Donald Trump has inhabited that reality.”

That Adichie was made to put up with this kind of nonsense is inexplicable. So how on earth did it happen?

Well, we now have an explanation from Adichie herself. In a Facebook post on Thursday, the prolific author spoke for the first time about the now-viral BBC Newsnight interview. Her response to it is nothing short of eloquent.

Read it in full below:

ON THE BBC NEWSNIGHT INTERVIEW

By Chimamanda Adichie

Two weeks ago, BBC Newsnight contacted my manager to ask for an interview with me. I would be interviewed by the presenter, they said, and would broadly be asked about the election. I said yes.

When I arrived at their studio in Washington DC, the show’s producer casually said, “You’ll be on a panel with a Trump Supporter. A magazine editor who has supported Donald Trump from the beginning.”

“What?” I said. At no time had I been told that there would be anyone else in the interview, never mind being pitted against a Trump Supporter.

I felt upset and ambushed.

I wanted to walk away, but decided not to. I was already there. And I did want to talk about the election, which I had experienced in a deeply personal way. I was still stunned and angry and sad. I still woke up feeling heavy. Not only because I am an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, but also because, with Donald Trump’s win, America just didn’t feel like America anymore. The country that grew from an idea of freedom was now to be governed by an authoritarian demagogue.

“I’m sorry you didn’t know it was a panel,” The producer said. “There must have been some mistake somewhere when your manager spoke to the people in London.”

Some mistake somewhere. My manager had simply not been told.

“We want to have balance,” he said.

But sneakily pitting me against a Trump Supporter was not about balance – we could have easily been interviewed separately.

It is a deliberately adversarial strategy that news organizations use in the pursuit of what is often called ‘good television.’

It is about entertainment.

I told the producer that my condition was that I not be asked to respond directly to anything the Trump Supporter had to say.

We could both air our opinions without being egged on to ‘fight it out.’

The Trump Supporter arrived. A well dressed, well groomed elderly man. The producer greeted him, gushed a little. He introduced me to the Trump Supporter. “She will be on the panel with you,” he said.

The Trump Supporter barely glanced at me.

The producer wanted us to shake hands, and he gestured to complete the introduction. We shook hands.

“How are you?” I said. Something about the tilt of the Trump Supporter’s head made me think that perhaps he had hearing problems – and suddenly his standoffishness was forgivable.

I felt a kind of compassion, while also thinking: why would this man, editor of a conservative magazine, be willing to put America in the hands of a stubbornly uninformed demagogue who does not even believe in classic conservative principles?

We got on air. We were seated uncomfortably close. The studio itself was strange, a flimsy tent on top of a building that overlooks the White House. A strong wind rattled the awning.

The interview began. I was determined to speak honestly, and not be distracted by the Trump Supporter, and be done with it and go home and never again allow myself to be ambushed in a television interview.

Until the Trump Supporter said that word ‘emotionally.’

“I do not respond emotionally like this lady,” he said.

I thought: o ginidi na-eme nwoke a?

He didn’t say my name. Perhaps he didn’t know it because he had not paid attention when we were introduced. Mine is not an easy name for languid American tongues anyway. But that word ‘emotional.’ No. Just no.

Normally I would not think of ‘emotional’ as belittling. Emotion is a luminous, human quality. I am often emotional – gratefully so. But in this context it was coded language with a long history.

To say that I responded ‘emotionally’ to the election was to say that I had not engaged my intellect. ‘Emotional’ is a word that has been used to dismiss many necessary conversations especially about gender or race. ‘Emotional’ is a way of discounting what you have said without engaging with it.

No way was I going to ignore that. Which, predictably, led to an interview in which I found myself, rather than talking about misogyny and populism, responding to a man who claimed that an anti-NAFTA, China-bashing, America-First Donald Trump would be an ‘internationalist’ rather than an ‘isolationist.’

Who presumed that he, a white man, could decide what was racist and what was not. And who insisted that Donald Trump is not a racist, even though the evidence is glaring, even though the House Majority Leader of Donald Trump’s own Republican party condemned Donald Trump’s racism.

So much for responding ‘emotionally’ to the election.

I left that interview still feeling upset. But it made me better see why America no longer feels like America.

BBC Newsnight, for their part, responded to Adichie's post with an apology the following day. (Let's hope they contacted her directly as well.) Have a look below:

Dear Chimamanda,

We hugely appreciated you coming on BBC Newsnight for our Trump special and are terribly sorry you felt ambushed by the encounter. We plainly should have done a better job of making it clear that we wanted to put you on with a Trump supporter but it was an honest mistake: somewhere between London, where the producer who booked your interview was based, and the Washington team running the show, we dropped the ball. We sincerely apologise for that. It’s simply not the case, though, that the casting was part of an “adversarial strategy” as you suggest. It would have been bizarre not to reflect the views of the half of America which had just voted for Donald Trump in the live segments of the programme. And as a general rule we think it seems odd to viewers when live guests do not engage with each other’s arguments. We’d always rather have light than heat, but we think a lot of people will have found your encounter with R Emmett Tyrell Jr quite revealing. More than anything, we’re sad and sorry you had a bad experience with us. We hope you’ll come back for a one to one interview some time.

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