A Single Story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” is a personal favorite of mine (it is embedded here, I suggest watching it). I first heard it in my Geography of Africa class as an undergraduate student at Rowan University. My professor asked us to collaborate as a class and list the things we knew about Africa. What we didn’t know was that our single story was on full display on the chalkboard. After the exercise, our professor played Adichie’s TED talk and boy did we feel stupid. I think Adichie’s point in her TED talk is incredibly important. I think everyone should watch the video. I know I posted my thoughts on a diversity program I went to from over the summer, but I think Adichie’s message comes from a different place and is incredibly important.

Adichie’s point is that we all have a single story and there is a single story out there about us. In the talk, she shares personal stories to illustrate her points, mentioning times when she had single stories of others.  We all have had a single story of a person, a culture, or a place, don’t even deny it. “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.” Education, Adichie specifically says story telling, is the key to neutralizing the single story. What if we knew of all the things going on that we didn’t know?  What if we educated ourselves and others around us? Adichie eloquently says it as: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

I seriously wonder to myself how many people actually understand the religion of Islam and the people who follow it. Or what about the members of the LGBT community who are constantly told they are not worthy to marry by our elected officials? Are people basing their single stories off of what they hear about them? I wonder if people understand the trials and tribulations of anyone who has been oppressed in this country. I wonder if people only see what the media says and they take that as their single story. These are the thoughts that tend to scare me.

Let someone tell their story. If you don’t understand, ask the questions that will let you understand. Our lives will be richer for it. I have found that the most rewarding conversations and experiences I have had were when I listened to someone tell their story. I enjoy finding out where someone comes from, why they are the way that they are, what they value, and potentially how they are different from me. As a student affairs professional, I think those differences will help me understand my students, my coworkers, and my fellow citizens. I will finish this post the same Adichie finished her talk. “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place [or anyone or anything too], we regain a kind of paradise.”

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