“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
So says post-colonial writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her breathtaking 2009 TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story.” (Many are familiar with her other famous TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which has been sampled in Beyoncé’s “Flawless” and published as a book.) In this talk, Adichie talks about what it means to have a single narrative of a country, a people, or an individual. She opens by sharing some of her own stories about her childhood in Nigeria, as a voracious reader of the British and American children’s literature available to her, and her later discovery of African writers:
“I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”
Adichie gives deep, nuanced examples of what a “single story” can look like from the position of stereotyping someone else, as well as when being stereotyped. Because, as the quote I started with indicates, the “single story” is a breeding ground for stereotypes. And at its core, the single story is a question of power:
“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is ‘nkali.’ It’s a noun that loosely translates to ‘to be greater than another.’ Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”
We live in an increasingly polarized world. Despite the proliferation of online material about any topic—or more likely, because of it—we buy into and perpetuate countless “single story” narratives every day. About people halfway around the world or down the street. About the perpetrators of terrible atrocities, and about the victims. About our own place in history, and about the way history happened. It’s easy to believe a single story; it’s necessary to complicate it by lifting up many stories, particularly of those with less power historically and in today’s world. Adichie’s words are evergreen. We can all benefit from balancing our perspective with varied stories of people, countries, movements, and historical events that defy the limited narratives we’ve been handed.
I’ll close with Adichie’s words on the extreme power of stories:
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
If you haven’t seen this talk before, or even if you have, go check it out. It is (excuse a moment of fangirling for Queen Bey and Queen Adichie) flawless.