#43 - The Single Story

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“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi


Recently I saw a very impressive TED TALK by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was about the dangers of the single story, of having only one story as the basis of one’s understanding of a culture, a place, a people or even an individual. The lack of additional perspectives creates stereotypes, biases and prejudices. The writer talks about her own experiences of being seen through the eyes of others as someone coming from Africa… ‘a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

Adichie’s talk was even more impressive by the fact that she owned up to also occasionally buying into a single story. In one example, as a young child growing up in Nigeria she innocently believed that characters in litera-ture had to be white, had to drink ginger beer, and had to talk a lot about the weather. She had a single story of what literature was or should be. An understandable leap considering she was extremely young and impressionable and that she only had access to American and British writers.

The second example that she gave lacks the childish innocence of the first. It was when, as an adult, she was visiting Mexico from the U.S. She found herself surprised that the Mexicans that she encountered, while walking around Guadalajara, were going to work, laughing and enjoying at the marketplace… simply doing their thing. She suddenly became overwhelmed by shame because as she walked through the city, she ‘realized that (she) had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in (her) mind, the abject immigrant.’

What I loved the most about her talk was that it really got me to examine my own ‘demons’…my own single stories that I have bought into. A week or so after watching Adichie’s TED TALK, I read an article that I had seen on Facebook. The article was beautifully written by a high school teacher who pointed out how teenagers were unfairly judged and devalued by adults. She sang the praises of adolescents and said that, as an American teacher, she was less afraid of the ever-increasing vio-lence (e.g. mass murder and bullying) in the public school system than by being asked what she did for a living. That was because, when she would answer that question, most people shook their heads in pity and proceeded to ask her how she coped with working day-to –day with teens. The reality was she loved her job and she loved the students she was serving. She gave a whole different perspective of teenagers that was a far cry from the hormone- driven beings that had little respect for rules or others, and lacked any sense of loyalty to anything. I loved the article because it gave me another story of teenagers…one I had previously failed to see as I had too readily bought into the stereotypical, degrading notions that many of us hold concerning the youth of today. I had been known to make jokes about how I would suffer when my own daughter hits those teenage years. I felt shame when I realized that I had bought into a very incomplete single story of adolescents. I feel relief that I have since enlarged my perspective.

Suffice to say, no one is exempt from buying into some sort of single story. Even the most open-minded people are guilty of it from time to time. We all have been guilty of looking at something or someone in one particular way without bothering or thinking about a different perspective that would allow us a fuller and truer picture of what we are actually looking at. The best we can do is recognize that we have a tendency to stereotype too easily and therefore, make a point of seeking out the other many stories of a particular people, culture, etc. In this way, we can round out and add depth to our perspectives and become a more loving and accepting global society.

*To read the article about teenagers, please click here…

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