The Danger of a Single Story: A Simple Idea for Revising Biases and Presuppositions

What is the single story that you most believe about yourself? About others? About your vocation? About love or justice? About death? Is that single story a river whose strong current is fed by the tributaries of many stories and experiences? Or is that single story a cage? The power of stories to trap us inside them is subtle and formidable. It takes additional stories to liberate us from stories. 

I suppose I had an intuition of the power of single stories to make us unwitting viewers of incomplete, sometimes dangerous, always limiting perspectives. But it wasn’t until I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay based on her Tedtalk of the same title, “The Danger of a Single Story,” that I found a way of helping my students (and myself) look at their view of the world and its formation in a way that didn’t make them defensive and left them feeling hopeful that they could grow into a more complex view of the world.  

In her talk, Adichie says 

I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging properly with all the stories of that place or that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar . . . Stories matter. Many stories matter.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

I assigned Adichie’s talk on a whim, and it was voted, by far and away, the student’s favorite reading of the semester. Like all compelling ideas, once students grasped the concept of a single story and its dangerous power to dehumanize, strip away dignity, and perpetuate stereotypes, they began to see single stories operating everywhere. In a happy coincidence, we read “The Danger of a Single Story” right after we read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Both texts provided a way for students to conceptualize the formation of their attitudes and the limitations of formative stories unexpanded by additional stories and experiences. 

Part of the reason that Adichie’s talk worked so well is, I think, that she includes her own experiences of falling for a single-story. Students felt as though they could relate to her examples of holding a single view of the family of a poor house boy, named Fide, that her parents employed growing up and, later, as an adult, falling for a media-coverage induced single story about Mexico and Mexicans. 

“So that is how to create a single story,” Adichie says. “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that it what they become.” I think that students felt encouraged that they, too, like Adichie, could realize and admit when they were operating within a single story. And they felt encouraged that they could grow into a more complex understanding of the self, other, and the world by a willingness to add additional stories through education, travel, and relationships. An important course objective in the required freshmen class that I taught “The Danger of a Single Story” is “clarifying biases, prejudices, and presuppositions on social and cultural issues.” Adichie’s essay provided them with what many discussions do not — a way forward. And that way at least begins by adding additional stories.  

A particularly compelling example Adichie gives of the danger of a single-story is that of her college roommate:

My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I’d learned to speak English so well and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey . . . 

What struck me was this: She felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of a catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of connection as human equals.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

But, after time in the U.S., Adichie claims that she started to understand her roommate’s single story:

If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of 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. 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story

Of particular value, here, is Adichie’s emphasis on “popular images” as the source of single stories. This helped students see that one of the greatest sources of dangerous, single stories are found in our phones and feeds.

When we got to our readings on vocation, the concept of a single story proved invaluable. Students have fallen for many single stories of vocation. “Vocation” as trade or career is perhaps the most common single story. Another single story of vocation is the “one thing I was put on earth to do” mentality that confines and confuses students. Another one they’ve fallen for is the solipsistic view they are the single source and author of their vocational stories. “One vocation for life” is another. And then there’s that most American of delusions, “I can do or be anything I want to be.” 

These problematic ideas of vocation have, of course, been expounded upon in essays like ‘“Who’s There?”: The Dramatic Role of the “Caller” by David S. Cunningham and “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too)” by William T. Cavanaugh (both included in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education). But framing these vocational problems with Adiche’s idea of a single-story gave students an initial way of understanding these problems that could help them into more theoretical discussions like the ones just mentioned. It’s a testimony to Adiche’s gift for lucidity that she is able to discuss the complexities of post-colonial literature, power and discourse, narrative’s power of affective formation in a way that is not only immediately accessible, but immediately applicable. No matter what the theme of our course readings for the rest of the term—race, consumerism, technology, social media abuse, education, euphemistic language, disabilities—the danger of a single story provided a touchpoint concept that students kept returning to as a way to think about the formation of their attitudes on all these important topics.

Adichie’s talk showed students that we are called to be hunters and gathers of stories and that adding to one’s repertoire of framing and reframing narratives about self, others, places, and vocation is the way into a more capacious and humanizing understanding those things. Everyone gets caught in single stories. But if we can recognize when we’ve fallen for a single story, that very recognition can begin the process of expanding and revising the stories we tell ourselves and others. Growing our stories calls us to link the faintest whispers of conscience to the broadest global narratives. “When we reject the single story,” Adiche says in closing, “when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

For more on some of the myths we tell related to vocation, see the post “Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation.” The image of Adichie at the top of this post is from a mural in the Ciudad Lineal neighborhood in Madrid (Wikimedia Creative Commons). The mural was recently saved from possible destruction (see “Madrid Feminist Mural Saved From Removal Attempt by Far Right,” January 2021).

Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. Click here to see other posts by Jason at Vocation Matters.

Leave a Reply