As I thought on what to write about, I kept coming back to a popular TED Talk I listened to recently. The talk, by Chimamanda Adichie, is titled “The danger of a single story.” Adichie, a Nigerian author, opened her talk by telling a story of herself as a young child. She describes reading British and American books as that was all that was available, and when she began to write at age seven her characters were what she knew from the books she had read, white and blue eyed. She talked about how as the only books she had read were books in which characters were foreign, she had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which she could not personally identify. She uses this to illustrate what it means to operate from the context of a single story.
Adichie goes on to share her belief that stories matter, but that all too often in our lives we operate from the perspective of hearing and knowing a single story- about a person, a place, a situation, or a conflict. The risk of the single story, the one perspective, is that it can lead us to default assumptions, conclusions, and decisions that may be incomplete and lead to misunderstandings. Operating from the context of a single story can prevent us from a more complex, nuanced view of a situation. Defining an experience based on a single account gives us incomplete and potentially damaging understandings of other people.
Adichie grew up in Nigeria and came to the United States for college. She describes her own upbringing as pleasant and middle class, her father a professor and her mother an administrator. She shares the story of meeting her college roommate who questioned how she was able to speak such clear English and asked if Adichie would play for her some tribal music. Her default position toward Adichie, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. Her roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe.
In her TED Talk, Adichie explains the danger of viewing each other, and the world, through this narrow lens. She says “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.”
To a certain extent stereotypes can be helpful, as our brains use them to help us make sense of the world. We see someone in a school uniform and we are able to recognize them as a student. We see someone in a red shirt and khaki pants at Target and we can assume they work there. When stereotypes become dangerous is when we push them onto others, hiding the real person with a badly drawn cutout. It can be around many things, some of the more common ones being gender, ethnicity, age, or ability.
I think about Adichie’s words and look at the polarized world around us. Some of the single stories so pronounced today like where a person is from, what they do for work or what political party they are affiliated with. We take this single story and make an assumption about a person and who they are as a whole. The truth is, each person is made up of a compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity. Single stories can have significant negative impact, primarily because they emphasize the ways in which we are different rather than how we are similar.
One way to try and challenge this single story mindset is by being aware of our biases and the assumptions we may unconsciously be making about others. Stereotypes come with fast thinking, try to slow down. Ask yourself what you’re feeling and where that might be coming from. Be curious. Use it as an opportunity to learn, both about yourself and others.
Adichie ends her Ted Talk with this, “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any person or place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
Rebecca Bowers, MA LMFT
Individual & Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families