One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, has a Ted Talk entitled The Danger of a Single Story. After you watch it, let me know if you aren’t moved to re-think how you might have helped to create your own stereotypes.
One of my Cuso International pre-departure training course tasks has been to watch the video and ponder some questions. I’m sharing the slightly modified questions with you because I think they create a degree of self-awareness with regard to how we interact with individuals both in our own communities and beyond:
1. Have you ever felt stereotyped, marginalized or that assumptions were made about you?
2. What “single stories” might have been told about you?
3. What “single stories” do you have about other communities?
4. What can you do to create “many stories” in your community?
The personal assumptions made about me might seem minor compared to somebody else’s experience of being marginalized but everything is significant as you move through this process. If you were bothered at all you begin to understand how it feels.
I returned to Canada at the age of 53 and started applying for jobs which I thought I should be able to do based on my skills and experiences over the years I had lived in Europe. Eventually after four months, a telephone market research company offered me a job because of my foreign language ability. How ironic that one of my first assignments was interviewing immigrants about their experiences finding employment in Canada! It confirmed to me that potential employers do make assumptions when a candidate’s experiences fall outside what is “normal” to that employer. I had to return to school in order to have recognizable qualifications to present to employers.
“Here we do it differently” exemplifies the Igbo concept of nkaliwhich Adichie translates as “to be greater than another”. Nkali discounts your ideas , you come to feel lesser than, robbed of personal power…and angry too. It’s arrogant to think that our way of doing something is better than somebody else’s but we all believe it to a greater or lesser degree.
I thought about the “single stories” that might have been told about me and I remembered when I overheard somebody comment: “She has an accent. Speak slowly so she understands.” I wish I’d responded with a line I read on a social media meme recently attributed to Fernando Lamas. Oh that Fernando Lamas!
“When a person has an accent it means
they can speak one more language than you.”
I know I have pre-conceived notions about Laos. And those notions are those “single stories”. I think of Adichie’s revelation when she visited her “poor” servant’s family at his village home and beheld exquisite handicrafts. I am grateful to my improv comedy friend and fellow communicator, Jennifer, who taught me the importance of “Yes, and…”
“Laos is a very poor country.” “Yes, and they produce beautiful hand-woven textiles (which provides jobs and products for export so that people can earn money to feed their families).
We change “the single story” by finding positive stories to tell about a community or a culture.
Last night I saw the documentary, Free Trip to Egypt. The Americans followed in the film had “single stories” about what they expected to find in Egypt. For the most part, each person returned home with new stories which put paid to their original perceptions of Middle Eastern society, spread for the most part through mainstream and social media. Not surprisingly, the Egyptian families with whom they were paired also had their own “single stories” about the United States.
It would be great if we were all offered free trips in order to do personal research on different communities around the world but that’s unlikely to happen. What can we do instead to counter those stereotypes based on the “single story”?
Read a different news feed, listen to a radio station you don’t normally listen to (anything’s possible online), visit a religious community and learn more about their vision of life, eat something you never thought you’d try, watch a movie in another language (got Netflix? no excuses), make a new friend...watch a Fernando Lamas movie.
And what has this photo got to do with the "single story"? The langaror communal kitchen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar feeds up to 100,000 people per day. Nobody is turned away. You don't have to be poor to eat there.