Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

Ted Talk

Her talk is 20 minutes well spent.  Not only is she eloquent and funny, but her message is clear and powerful.  Below are a few excerpts from her discussion about the “danger of a single story” in case you find yourself without time to watch it.

She first details some of her experiences growing up in an average family in Nigeria and encountering those less fortunate than her.

All I had head about them was how poor they were, so it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor.  That poverty was my one story about them.

Later when she came to the United States, her American roommate was confused that she spoke English so well and shared many of the same cultural traits. Her roommate had a “patronizing, well meaning pity… There was no possibility of feelings more complex than pity.”

This one was too funny not to share: 

A student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the character in my novel.  I had told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho and it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.

She explains that as she had heard many stories about young Americans, it did not occur to her that this one story could encompass an entire group of  peoples.  She finishes by highlighting the dangers of having a single story (excerpts from various parts of the talk):

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become…The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity… It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar… When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

This concept is so simple that it is quite astounding to hear it said out loud.  An earlier post here by HC mentions stereotypes: 

 Ultimately, the stereotype allows someone to not spend time meeting another person, but instead makes them feel an immediate familiarity with everyone they encounter. In essence stereotyping allows for each individual to construct their own reality that does not truly mirror the actual world they inhabit. 

I think Adichie’s talk brings more depth to this point . We enter new situations with an already preconceived notion of what to expect, automatically drawing upon the “one story” we have heard over and over again.  As she mentions about her family friends “it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor.”

Ultimately, recognizing this narrowing of focus can have huge applications on any walk of life.  Once children start hearing that mothers can be firefighters, scientists, or businesswomen, they will no longer have the expectation that all moms are homemakers.  One particular example comes to mind which appeared on the internet in January.  A picture surfaced showing a black male carrying a baby and doing the hair of his daughter, resulting in some racist and insulting backlash:

‘He probably rented those kids. They don’t even look like him,’ ‘Look at this Uncle Tom. No chance he would be doing this if his kids were black.’ ‘I would bet anything that you’re a deadbeat,’ and  ‘Cute picture. Now why don’t you hand the children back to their mom so you can go back to selling drugs or your bootleg rap CDs?’

Clearly, these individuals have heard a singular story regarding male black fathers. If this hard working father (an Idris Elba-like man may I add?)  is already pigeonholed by a cultural “one story”, what is the world like for equivalent, hard-working women?

I know I have definitely fallen victim to the dangers of the single story (from within and without).  What about you?