“I don’t know,” said Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Saturday night at the WOW Festival, while in conversation with journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge. The remark came in response to an audience member, who asked Chimamanda a question on how you can separate art from problematic artists such as Louis CK and Quentin Tarantino. Chimamanda didn’t answer in a fluster; she didn’t even say the sentence in an unsure tone. In fact, she said those three simple words with confidence and passed the question over to Reni Eddo-Lodge, who proceeded to give advice on the query at hand.
Throughout the evening, the award-winning author and feminist shared numerous pearls of profound wisdom that included her criticism of the publishing industry and its lack of diversity. She eloquently discussed race and explained that there is no problem in being black, but there is a problem in the social meanings that are attached to blackness. Every word she spoke was important, yet it was her ability to say, “I don’t know,” that struck the deepest chord with me while sitting in the audience. There was Chimamanda, a bestselling international author, a celebrated TED Talks speaker, a woman who didn’t feel pressed to come up with an answer. As women, we all know there is an unspoken pressure that pushes us to always come up with solutions to the problems that arise inside our homes and in our workplaces, even when we don’t have the answers ourselves.
No doubt this unspoken pressure to have an answer to every problem that arises in our lives, and especially the problems that arise in our offices, is down to sexism. We know that, as women, we have to be twice as good as our male colleagues to reach their senior positions and equal their pay packets, and part of being twice as good means finding an answer to every question directed our way. And if you are a black woman or a woman of colour, there can be an even greater socially inflicted burden to solve every question you are asked, due to knowing that both your race and gender put you at an inherent disadvantage when trying to climb the career ladder.
We are often taught that we can’t say, 'I don’t know,' to our children and even to our partners, and this pressure to be the all-knowing oracle in our private lives follows us out of our front doors
Furthermore, all women – regardless of their race – are often pushed into being people-pleasers due to the roles we play in our homes. We are often taught that we can’t say, “I don’t know,” to our children and even to our partners, and this pressure to be the all-knowing oracle in our private lives follows us out of our front doors. Our existence in society has been carefully crafted to be caregivers to others – and that means being a problem-solver at all times.
However, watching Chimamanda say, “I don’t know,” highlighted that she is not burdened by her gender or race to push herself to solve every problem that may be thrown at her. It illustrated how much self-confidence and self-assurance she has in herself by admitting she doesn’t have the expertise to fill in the gaps in someone else’s knowledge. She didn’t sound any less intelligent and it didn’t invalidate her opinions or her work – if anything, it was refreshing to hear such an accomplished woman admit that she could not help.
Watching a successful woman – a successful black woman – say, “I don’t know,” can be extremely easy to dismiss. It can be easy to ask why Chimamanda should be applauded for essentially having her boundaries and not succumbing to someone else’s expectations of what she should be able to help with. What it showed me, and hopefully everyone else who listened to her, is that she listens to herself before she listens to anyone else. She puts her comfort first – something all women need to do. She is a woman who is not prepared to give a half-hearted answer to a question in order to fulfil the unfair burdens that can weigh all women down. After listening to Chimamanda unflinchingly tell someone, “I don’t know,” it is clear that there is a strength that comes from that and, as women, we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that we can’t always provide explanations to the world’s questions.