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The Danger of a Single Story

I recently watched this highly inspiring TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author and speaker, who talks about “the danger of a single story.” Stories have the power to influence and to shape. Stories inform our beliefs and they also shape perception of the truth. A single story, therefore, twists and misaligns reality to that single perspective and lands us with stereotype or incomplete “half-truths.” She describes several of her experiences from childhood as anecdotal evidence: growing up reading American and British stories in Nigeria, she heavily internalized the contents of those stories as representative of ALL stories. Because she never read any stories where characters looked like her or spoke like her or lived like her, she assumed that stories could only be about foreign people—people with blue eyes who commented about the weather and drank ginger beer. She recounts how her mother constantly emphasized and labelled a nearby family as poor. When she went over to visit, she was surprised to find the son of that family making this beautiful basket—she had reduced that family to this singularly defining characteristic of being poor that to think them as anything else came as a surprise.

Where are we guilty of this in our own lives? Chimamanda points out a very obvious one—in the United States, people’s perceptions of Africa are often reduced to two images: 1) exotic animals in a beautiful safari 2) war-torn, third-world conditions where children are starving and dying of AIDS. They don’t realize that there are many stories of Africa—vibrant businesses, daring entrepreneurs, happy and thriving family life.

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

Media has an incredible power to shape perception and to shape common belief. In a previous blog post, I talked about watching the documentary “13th,” which explains how mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex came to be in the United States. So much of the criminalization of black people in America came from propaganda that stretches way back to when slavery first ended in America. Whites in power wanted to continue to have access to cheap or free labor (slavery), which was permissible by law if the people were convicted of a crime:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” — 13th Amendment to the Constitution

This led to many blacks being convicted for small crimes or misdemeanors, thrown unfairly into the “justice system” because it was advantageous for those in power. This led to the characterization of blacks as criminals or thugs in the prevalent media at the time such as “Birth of a Nation.” This led to a portrayal of blacks as subhuman or animal-like which justified, in people’s consciences, a whole slew of injustices that we now look back with horror. But those stories shaped people’s perception of reality—in this case, not to “empower and to humanize,” but to “disempower and to de-humanize.

Political campaigns and propaganda have done this all throughout history. American narrative has dispossessed and maligned immigrant groups by associating Mexicans with immigration, Chinese with cheap labor, Russians with political spies.

This is why for me, as a writer, I am so inspired by Chimamanda and her honest sharing that none of us are impervious from the way we are malleable by stories. And why the work of a writer can be important. I will write about this more, but I’ve had an itching to put stories into writing ever since I was young. There’s something about recording and writing something down for all to see that captivates me. But I think the flip side is that I should be equally zealous to share that writing, because that can inform people’s realities and give them a richer, more diverse perspective on the world.

Question: what’s a story or perspective that you want to tell or share with the world?

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