The Single Story
Quote of the day: “The saddest aspect of life now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
I was watching Ngozie Adichie’s speech on the annual Ted Talks conference and I could actually relate because I grew up with those same single stories. The Akindeles’ are very poor, the Ibrus’ are extremely wealthy, the Petersons’ girls are rotten eggs…consequently, the only thought that came to mind when I saw the Akindeles’ was poverty, and I could never see past the label, causing me to focus on the incomplete notion and ignoring the reality of the situation.
Our lives and cultures are composed of many overlapping stories. When particular stories are told and retold about a particular sub set of people, a generalization that actually sticks forms and these people are often affected by these inconsistent stereotypes.
The most common single stories are generalizations of countries based on certain individual characteristics of its citizens. When people hear Canada, what comes to mind? Nigeria? Iraq? Germany? The British? Russians? The Americans? What comes to mind, what stereotype has stuck to your mind that constructs a single picture for an entire civilization?
Well, I’ve seen a lot of movies and Canadians were mocked for being too nice which is not necessarily the case. I think of Russia and I see mobsters (Movies really form graphic mental picture that stick). Nigerians, well they are associated with fraud and apparently most people believe that we Nigerians still live in a stone age back there.
When I first arrived Canada about eight months ago, my housemate, a Filipino was surprised I could actually use a microwave. When I first introduced myself she went; ‘Oh my God, your English is so good, where did you learn to speak such good English?’ I silently wondered where she got her incomplete notion of Nigeria. ‘English is Nigeria’s first language.’ I returned puzzled. ‘That’s weird, I didn’t know Africans speak English.’ She used African as a unique generalization, apparently, I am African, I know that, but using African in that context directly points to the evidence of a generalization.
A very simple question like; ‘Where are you from, Africa?’ from a cab driver vividly indicates the critical misrepresentation of a whole race. He goes; ‘Is Africa as cold as Canada?’ and I’m wondering to myself; does he really think Africa is a country or is he basically saying Canada is a continent?
You cannot define an entire race/country based on an experience with the one perspective…
Misconceptions; common misconceptions impact our lives differently. The thing is, be it about a country or a person or a characteristic, the single story directly affects our lives. Our societies are a collective of various social stories. Imagine there’s a three bedroom apartment and three students live here; The Nigerian, the Mexican and the Japanese. These three separate cultures will definitely form a distinctive ideology of these countries from these particular people and they will also form a label of these people from their characters and their words.
Stereotypes and labels hurt (although, everyone reacts differently), they lead to segregation. It becomes a label or stereotype when it’s; Asians are good at maths or Muslims are terrorists. It’s understandable that specific phenomenon led to these generalizations but it’s wrong to judge Americans through Obama’s characterizations.
We all do it unknowingly because once upon a time, the people around us have instilled this preconceived single stories in to how our brain functions that we might not realize it. Be it country or gender or race or religion, really take your time to get to know someone before you sum up their lives worth with a story that affects them gravely, get your facts straight…most of the worlds people are sentimental and everyone reacts differently to these labels.
Single stories are a direct result of what our parents teach us. Charity begins at home; We are told about the world, about the world’s people before we see them and experience it so the only knowledge we have when we venture are the stories our parents told us or the ones we’ve seen on the Television.
Growing up I read a lot of books and even as I gradually upgraded from James Hardy Chase to Sidney Sheldon and Nora Roberts I constantly wondered why I really didn’t know any Nigerian writers. Several motions popped into my head, did we not know how to write?… but we had Nigerian home movies, those required writers?…
Eventually, I discovered the likes of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ngozie Adiche and although I enjoyed Sidney and Nora’s’ books, their books were more suited to the western cultures and regardless of how exceptional their literature is, home’s where the heart is and I craved a book rich in my culture, something Nigerian and African…It took the truly born and breed writers to fully capture the culture and society called Nigeria.
All in all, stories matter…stories are powerful because they stick and once a person preconceives a singular story as a basis for defining cultures, religions, race or gender, segregation sets in.
How can single stories be changed?