Adichie and the Danger of a Single Story

I recently watched the Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “The Danger of a Single Story” [1] and I find it among the most inspiring and eye-opening talks I watched so far. Her personal account of experiences with narrow world views and superficial opinions about “the Other”, the unknown and strange, provides an extremely valuable insight into the ways in which we tend to reduce what we don’t know or what does not concern us to a single story that determines our opinions and value judgments. Everyone is guilty of believing and promulgating one-dimensional ,and thus easy to understand, accounts of what they are not familiar with. The challenge lies in actively engaging with these accounts, questioning their one-dimensionality, making them personal and complex. The challenge is also to admit one’s belief in those stories and being guilty of not taking them time to become more informed.

Everyone of us is a product of their environment, culture, and social surroundings and this makes us predispositioned to think and behave in certain ways and adopt certain opinions and values. This is why it is important to listen to the voices of others, who come from different environments, cultures, and social surroundings in order to escape the temptation of constructing and believing in single stories.

But multiple stories, and layered, multidimensional accounts are often uncomfortable, because they question the reality we construct around us and the identities we assume. It is much easier to understand black and white, two-dimensional explanations of the world, than to think in many colours and dimensions. It is easier to see those we don’t know as inferior, to pity them, and to tell ourselves that we are doing enough good by donating a few dollars every month, than to see individuals with different needs, talents, and characters.

Many people are aware of their biases and simplifications and it makes them afraid of saying the wrong thing or embarrassing themselves. They are interested in those they are not familiar with and they want to learn about their stories, but the fear of awkward situations and being identified as having prejudices keeps them from engaging and interacting. Rather, they shun away from the unknown and ignore their knowledge of their biases and misconceptions.

From working with Syrian refugees in Germany, I know that first encounters can be daunting and awkward and that feelings may get hurt involuntarily. I pitied the people how had to flee their countries with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing and I perceived them as impoverished, uneducated victims. However, from talking to and becoming friends with refugees, I realised that they are most often among the middle and higher classes, who had status and possessions in their communities, and who enjoyed good education as engineers, doctors, or scientists. They were sent by their family to find a better place to live and they spent most of their money to pay traffickers, who promised safety and paradise. They came to Germany, hoping to be able to contribute with their skills and knowledge and get their families to follow them.

I had fallen prey to the single story of the poor, uneducated refugee, who comes as one among many, as part of an unidentifiable mass, which is a burden to European countries. I was ashamed of myself the way that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was ashamed when she came to know Mexicans.

I think it is important to admit to the thoughts I had and the stories I believed, in order to show people that it happens to everyone and that instead of silently feeling ashamed and moving on as if nothing happened, we should use the uncomfortable feeling and unease to change something and to create more stories where there was only one.

[1] Adichie, C.N. 2009. The danger of a single story. [Accessed 18 Nov 2018]

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