Skip to content

The Danger of a Single Story

January 14, 2013

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 Adichie

Faun says:

I watched this TED talk for a purpose unrelated to this blog, but have decided that it’s a marvelously communicated, important argument that should be shared widely.
I don’t want to write a post that selectively summarizes Adichie’s points for my own purposes. She articulates her ideas much clearer than I can, so I would really urge you to just watch the talk.

My addition is this: as a Canadian, when I watch this I think about celebrations of multiculturalism such as ‘Heritage Days’ in Edmonton. For readers unfamiliar with it, I’m sure that you have encountered something similar. Here, representatives of different ethnic communities get together annually in Hawrelak park and put up tents with food, music, and merchandise.

I would argue that sharing the surface of community is better than sharing nothing at all. At the same time, though, what kind of ‘single story stereotypes’ does experiencing only a shallow, marketable version of different nationalities create? Do we become complacent in regards to intercultural relationships in Canada? This country has a long way to go before the asserted aims of real multiculturalism are met, and I suspect that few of us actually commit to understanding and valuing traditions for their arts, moralities, scholars, and stories beyond what is displayed at Heritage Days.
I would also connect Adichie’s ideas to the current Idle No More movement. One of the most striking things noticeable in discussions (especially online) about this movement is the ignorance of those speaking about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Many critics are skipping right over the facts and resorting to overused stereotypes, relying on the single story of Indigenous peoples that they have heard repeated time and time again.

Canadian or not, I will bet you a hypothetical million dollars (and because I chose the social sciences as a career, this will remain forever hypothetical) that you find this TED talk relevant, thought-provoking, and delightful. One of the many marvelous things about her discussion is that I’m having a very hard time narrowing down its audience. It’s applicable to everyone who has ever interacted with others.

Miriam says:

This TED talk has been making huge waves in the social justice community, and I have seen it referenced in many of the recently published books I have read for my inter-religious dialogue job. The most recent time I saw it mentioned was when the author Brian D. McLaren quoted it in his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the Road?” The context in which McLaren talked about the single story was his education in grade school, growing up in the USA. There, he learned, as almost all of us did, History with a capital ‘H’. He learned a history of America that at the time he did not consider to have any kind of agenda, despite looking back and realizing that of course the history he learned was biased toward and against certain things. An example he gave was the telling of Columbus’ discovery of America. The textbook completely left out the atrocities committed on the island population by Columbus’ crew, which included slavery, rape, and murder. A similar thing can be said of our Canadian education; that ‘single story of Indigenous peoples’ that Faun talked about above is a story partially perpetuated by what we learn in school growing up—at least in my experience.
The whole reason that the field of history interests me so much is that I see it as a way to debunk the single story. The use of history is not to chronicle exactly what happened in the past, but rather to interpret the past for the present and future. When we tell a single story as our history, we do a tangible disservice to people we are inevitably harming from using this approach. That is why we must constantly go back and reappraise and reassess, both the personal history of our own lives, and our collective history that we continue to live out each and every day.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: