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.
–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recently I watched a Ted Talk that spoke volumes to me about the danger of what speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “single story.” In the talk, Chimamanda discusses what happens when we hear—or tell—the same story about a place or a person. A “single story,” she says, relegates a person to a single point of view, one lens, one narrative that people then assume is the whole story. She tells of her own experience when at 19, she came from Nigeria to the U.S. to attend college. Her roommate, upon learning that she would be living with someone from Africa assumed that Chimamanda must come from terrible poverty, starved of education and infrastructure. In fact, Chimamanda is the daughter of a college professor and an administrator and grew up in a conventional, comfortable middle-class Nigerian home.
Chimamanda’s own introduction to a single story came when a hired helper named Fide came to work at their house. “The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. When I didn’t finish my dinner, my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” She goes on to explain: “Then one Saturday, we went to [Fide’s] village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterened basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
How often do we make assumptions about people based on our own lens told through a single story? Here at Fedcap, we work with a number of “populations,” that can be too easily defined by their barrier or their hardship rather than their entire story. What picture do you conjure when you hear “previously incarcerated?” Whose face comes to mind when we talk of recovering addicts? What does a homeless person look like? What are their stories? The people we meet on a daily basis—whether through our programs or as we navigate our lives—all have backgrounds, histories, talents, and rich narratives that, when seen, heard, acknowledged and affirmed, serve as a source of strength and resilience that will help them overcome whatever barrier is in their way and will see them through to success in the form of economic well-being.
The staff at Fedcap and our family of agencies work hard to gather and celebrate the whole story of those we serve. And I am constantly reminded that one of the keys to helping people out of their own stories of stigma and a key to removing barriers is to listen for the whole story—to probe for the stories of strength, creativity, resilience and possibility that already inhabit parts of their lives. By acknowledging the whole story, we help lift people up, we celebrate our common humanity, and we give them a sturdy platform from which to move forward. And, by hearing the whole story, we are made even more whole and we are ever better to explore the power of possible.
I am curious about your own experiences of a “single story.” Have you experienced it in your own life? Have you been surprised, as Chimamanda was, when you discovered a rich and deeper story about someone you know? I welcome your thoughts.