the Danger of a Single Story

Last week, as my kids and I suffered symptoms of the flu, I had cause to consider how the word “viral” has mutated to mean more than just the spread of biological illness.  One such use of the word describes how the internet has enabled techno-viruses to invade our computers, while another describes simply, the spread of information.

I’ve received many forwards by email, and very occasionally, they are offensive, illustrating how the internet can be used to easily spread negativity based on mistruths.

But, there is little doubt that the internet also spreads what’s good, and sometimes even great.  A forwarded link received last week was definitely worth spreading to as many viewers as possible.

The link was to a talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie.  “The danger of a single story” is an interesting, articulate and poignant account of how we judge, criticize, pity, and otherwise form opinions based on incomplete bits of information.

Adichie begins by telling us that, as a seven-year-old, she would create characters that were modelled after those in the British and American books she read; she wrote about and drew characters with white skin and blue eyes that ate, drank and spoke of things that, having never been outside Nigeria, she could not personally identify with.

She was very fond of, and recognized the great value of these foreign books, but notes that, at that time in her life, this was her “single story” about literature.  As a child, it never occurred to her that girls with “skin the colour of chocolate and kinky hair that could not form ponytails” could also exist in literature, so she did not write about children like herself.

She describes other, sometimes comical situations in which single stories of Africa have had an impact on her.  Her university roommate in America was surprised that the 19-year-old from Nigeria spoke English well, knew how to use a stove, and that her “tribal” music was actually a Mariah Carey tape.

My favourite was Adichie’s reply to a student at an American university where she spoke.  The student told her that it was a shame that Nigerian men are physical abusers like the father character in one of her novels.  Adichie remarked that she just read a novel called “American Psycho,” and wasn’t it a shame that all young Americans are serial killers.

Stories speak differently to different people.  I don’t believe what Chimananda Adichie talks about is racism or blame.  However, I do believe that when somebody is satisfied with the very limited information a single story provides, closed-mindedness and misunderstanding ensue…which, of course, can easily progress to unwarranted feelings of superiority.

We are exposed to single stories all the time, and sometimes it’s impossible to delve deeper.  In my opinion, simply recognizing that a story is multi-dimensional is nearly as important.  For the most part, I don’t believe Adichie is criticizing those who lacked information, as much as she is providing examples of what happens when people hear only negative stories of a person or place, and that becomes what they mistake as reality.  Or, as Adichie 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.

I can’t begin to adequately explain the eloquence or simple wisdom of Adichie’s words, so I encourage you to watch the video, or read the transcript, and then spread it around.  It’s entirely appropriate to share and discuss with children.

Go to:  ted.com and search “The danger of a single story”