The Danger Of A Single Story

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

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The Danger Of A Single Story

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” Ted Talk, in July 2009, explores the negative influences that a “single story” can have and identifies the root of these stories. Adichie argues that single stories often originate from simple misunderstandings or one’s lack of knowledge of others, but that these stories can also have a malicious intent to suppress other groups of people due to prejudice (Adichie). People, especially in their childhood, are “impressionable and vulnerable” when it comes to single stories (Adichie 01:43). Adichie asserts that media and literature available to the public often only tell one story, which causes people to generalize and make assumptions about groups of people.

Adichie shares two primary examples to discuss why generalizations are made. Reflecting on her everyday life, she recalls a time where her college roommate had a “default position” of “well-meaning pity” towards her due to the misconception that everyone from Africa comes from a poor, struggling background (04:49). Adichie also clearly faults herself for also being influenced by the “single story” epidemic, showing that she made the same mistake as many others. Due to the strong media coverage on Mexican immigration she “had bought into the single story”, automatically associating all Mexicans with immigration (Adichie 08:53). These anecdotes emphasize how stereotypes are formed due to incomplete information, but one story should not define a group of people.

Adichie also tackles the effect of political and cultural power on stories. Power not only spreads a story, but also makes its ideas persist. Adichie states that power can be used for malintent, through controlling “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, [and] how many stories are told” (09:25). Using power to manipulate our understanding of others can be evidenced by Adichie’s trip to Mexico, where she realized Mexicans were not the harmful Americans Western media had portrayed them to be. Additionally, influential western stories have caused people like Adichie to have a limited idea of characters that appear in literature, since foreigners were not part of them. This is why the first stories Adichie had written included white characters playing in the snow rather than things reflective of her life in Africa (Adichie 00:39). Adichie explains how she became enlightened through “the discovery of African writers”, which “saved [her] from having a single story of what books are” and becoming another victim of a biased sample of literature (02:36).

Adichie puts her speech in a nutshell stating that “to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” (09:25). Her conclusion responds to these misconceptions by reiterating the importance of spreading diverse stories in opposition to focusing on just one. She professes that the rejection of the single story phenomenon allows one to “regain a kind of paradise” and see people as more than just one incomplete idea (Adichie 18:17).

 

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