There is never a single story about any place.
– Chimamanda Adichie
Yesterday, a friend directed me to Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story.” For those who aren’t familiar with her work, Adichie is a Nigerian-born writer and MacArthur Fellow; her most recent book, Americanah, garnered a host of best-of-2013 accolades and is being adapted into a film starring Lupita N’yongo; her other TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” is sampled in Beyonce’s song “Flawless.” She’s a writer with an almost nauseating amount of talent. In “The Danger of a Single Story,” she shares the story of meeting her roommate at her American college, who was shocked to learn that she spoke English (and that English is, in fact, the national language of Nigeria), that she listened to Mariah Carey and not “tribal music.” Adichie explains that her roommate had only one story about Africa – “a single story about catastrophe.” That story, unfortunately, is the single story that most Americans hear about Africa; they do not hear about the writers, the professors, the accountants, the architects that also populate the continent. The single story about Africa, in Adichie’s words, is “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
My friend brought up this TED talk to discuss the single story about Thai women; after reading her thoughtful piece, my thoughts wandered to the single story about Asian Americans. Though there are a wide range of Asian American narratives, it’s not hard to determine which one is the single story – it’s one about the quiet, hard-working people who earn the highest grades in their class, who become doctors and lawyers and engineers, whose median income is higher than those of white people. The single story of Asian Americans is the model minority myth, and even though it’s been refuted countless times, this story is stubbornly persistent. It’s only been a few weeks since Bill O’Reilly made the late-night rounds with it in his attempts to disprove the existence of white privilege. (In case you’re wondering: He’s mistaken.) Donald Sterling actively preached this story. Earlier this year, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld wrote a book largely based on it. Even Serial, the most popular podcast in America (with which I am newly obsessed), subtly reinforces 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.
It’s not that these Asian Americans don’t exist; they certainly do, and much of my own story aligns with this narrative. The problem is the perception that this is the only story about Asian Americans – that all of us are hardworking, overachieving success stories. The reality is far more complex: There are countless Asian American narratives. Asian Americans originate from more than 20 different countries and speak dozens of different languages. There are Asian Americans who immigrated a few years ago and ones who have been in the US for centuries. For every Asian American who came here for graduate school, there’s one who arrived as a refugee; there’s a blue-collar worker for every white-collar professional. Yes, the median household income for Asian Americans is higher than that of white people, but there’s also a higher percentage of Asian Americans living in poverty. There are Asian Americans who are amazing at school and plenty who are not. (The fact that I even need to say that is absurd, but given the single story about us, it’s a necessary clarification.) The problem with the single story, Adichie says, isn’t that it’s entirely unfounded – it’s that it provides an incomplete picture of the range of experiences in a group. Things aren’t nearly as simple as the single story makes them out to be.
The single story is something that all minorities in America – in terms of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, SES, what have you – have to face. One of the most tangible representations of privilege, in my mind, is the luxury of having multiple stories. White people, for example, do not need to worry about their experiences being pigeonholed into a single story; if they turn on a TV or go to a movie theater, they can be fairly confident that they’ll see a wide range of stories about white people. They can watch Whiplash and not worry that non-white viewers might think that all white people have inherent musicality. They can watch Big Bang Theory without worrying that people from other races might think that all white men are nerds. They don’t need to worry about these ideas taking root because the abundance of white stories on TV and movies clearly disproves them. People of color – not to mention women, poor people, disabled people, and members of the LGBT community, to name a few – aren’t so fortunate.
I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
Adichie observes that single stories have the additional consequence of highlighting our differences instead of our similarities. The single story defines other groups by what they supposedly do that we don’t, when in reality, the vast majority of us do and want the same things: We eat, we sleep, we work, we laugh, we cry, we hurt, we fear; we want meaningful relationships, safety and stability for ourselves and our loved ones, and on and on and on. With the single story, however, people from other groups become alien and unfamiliar, their experiences unrelatable and unknowable.
Adichie is quick to note that she is also guilty of believing the single story at times, citing her experiences with her family’s domestic help in Nigeria and a visit to Mexico in the midst of the American immigration debate as examples. I too am guilty of believing the single stories I hear of people I know little about – often without even realizing that I’m doing so, that I’m making assumptions based on only one story. For this reason, I’m grateful for this framework, this language that she’s given me to use in situations that are unfamiliar to me. If I’m a little too confident that This Is How Things Are, or This Is How These People Behave, all I have to do is ask myself: What other stories might I be missing?
And judging from some of the comments I see on the internet –
All that comes out of Detroit is _____
Liberals are just _____
Muslims are so ______
Haha, classic feminist to say _______
– it seems like this is a question that many of us could afford to ask more often.