Beyond the single story

I recently finished the novel Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie. I didn’t know much about her except that she was Nigerian, an excellent writer and that she had a bestseller called “We should all be feminists” which sounded at first, as a catchy cheesy title but, one that could be helpful to invite more people to the movement towards equity.

Her novel includes a fresh analysis of race and identity along with different stories regarding the so-called America (but actually referring to the United States) and its contrasts and similarities with Nigeria. She explains many of the difficulties she faced in the United States as an African from Nigeria.

There is one particular story I like about a (white) woman who was so uncomfortable about race that she would simply never say the word “black”. So if she wanted to talk about black people, she would just say “beautiful people” – “I’m going to go see my beautiful co-worker”, or “I met this beautiful woman at the store”, and as the main character gets to know her better, she understands that these people were not especially beautiful, they were just black.

The main character of the book starts a blog about race where she tells different stories from her daily experiences as an African (as opposed to African American) living in the States. At some point, she mentions that the moment she went back to Nigeria, she just stopped being black. Her blog about race made sense no more, and she started another one to tell stories about Nigeria.

I saw this tedtalk today where Chimamanda Adichie explains the dangers of the single story. Please take a moment to see it. She explains everything so well and she is so articulated that anything I can write about it will be just meh.

This 18-minute talk basically sums up everything I care about. And it may sound obvious to some people, but still, when I start thinking everyone is on the same page with stereotypes and their implications in the way we relate to one another, I hear some of my closest friends stating: “well you know, they are just women” or “the thing is, women are” (yes all of them are just one thing) or, when the actual President of the United States establishes that “all Mexicans are rapists or thieves”, just like that, in one second and in one sentence, all women become a group of identical persons and all Mexicans are just one group of identical criminals.

Chimamanda Adichie explains with a simple example how vulnerable and impresionable we all are, particularly as children. As all she read when she was young were european books with blond blue eyed kids as the main characters, she was convinced that “books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them” and she was also convinced that the things she could relate to, were inexistent in literature. That, of course, changed later as she got to read authors from other parts of the world. But her example is so absolutely and dangerously common that I wonder how many people actually go and research beyond those european (and most available) books, or beyond those readings and movies you are given by your school or parents when you are very young. Those that make you think that these are the only existing stories. We know what we read. And the possibilities of our minds get constrained by what we read. If all you read when you are a kid are stories about princesses, you will want to be a princess. And if princesses in the books are white, skinny, blond and pretty, when you are black, fat, dark-haired and not-so-pretty, you will feel you don’t get to be a princess.

What she calls the Single Story can also be explained by the use of one simple word to describe people, places, or anything that is just not squeezable in one category. And the problem is that words are loaded. So the moment you say some people are “poor”, as she mentions, those people become only poor. And as it was for her, it becomes just “impossible to see them as anything else but poor”. Their poverty was her “single story of them.” And that happens with class differences but also gender, race, sexuality or nationality… and as we decide to define someone as just one thing, we limit ourselves to know them beyond this one definition or, even worse, we might convince them that this definition is all they are.

I am writing this post while traveling in Southeast Asia. And I was particularly affected by her story about the concept of “authentically African”. Sitting in a café, after ordering a burger in Kuala Lumpur, feeling a little guilty about not having some “authentic Malay food”, I find myself looking for cultural places in KL, authentic local experiences, I google “KL for locals” or “non-touristy spots in KL” and when I get to those places, I am always a bit disappointed as I feel I just entered a Brooklyn-style-hipsterish-café and not, as I expected, a colorful non-westerner exotic (authentic) restaurant. And the thing is that this “western” label that we try to avoid while traveling in the east is becoming meaningless. Modernity is not a synonym of the West and my idea of the authentic Malay experience might be just based on this never ending opposition between west and east, us and them. What was I expecting to see in KL?

When Chimamanda Adichie mentions she actually don’t know what “African authenticity” is, I think about a question that my anthropology professor once asked us in class “what is an ethnic group?”, followed by “are people from DC an ethnic group?”

All these words we use: community, ethnic groups, authenticity, local or cultural experiences are never something we associate based on similarities but always drawing upon differences. What is the Asian authenticity? It is just my preconceived idea of oversimplified differences between me and the Malays, between us and the others.

I was once asked by a girl I met at a happy hour in DC, after exchanging just a few words, “hey so, what ethnicity are you again?” I remember to be totally disconcerted by the question. No one had ever asked me about my ethnicity and I had not idea I actually had one. I knew the answer for “where are you from”, “I am from Mexico”… but my ethnicity? Should I answer “Mexican?”, “French?”, “white”? “white Mexican with french origins?” And then I realized she was basically telling me “you have an non-american accent, where is this accent from?”

People are more than their races, their gender identities, their sexualities or their nationalities. As we “show people as just one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they become”. People tend to emphasize differences. Differences sell more. Differences are at the base of the inequality and the establishment of power relations between the ruled and the ruler. As Chimamanda Adichie states, the consequences of showing differences instead of similarities, the problems of the single story is that it also emphasizes the different layers of inequality.

I want to close with this quote: “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Let’s read more stories, let’s listen to different people, let’s see beyond the single category. Maybe, as she says, when we decide to hear all the stories, all the complete stories we might reach a kind of (freedom) paradise.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the single story

  1. A very powerful story. Thank you. I think the way I would answer what my “ethnicity” is… er… I’m a Sindhi frog? Or, as I put it many times: I’m a cultural mongrel… (with a French passport).
    PS. The best way to get away for that stifling question is th chameleon approach. Be a Brit with the Brits. “Murikan” with the Americans. A frog with the frogs… (accent does play a role…)
    So it becomes not a single story, but a multi-layer story.

  2. Having grown up in the US, it seemed unquestionable to me that the basic divide in the world was between black and white. Even as an adult, when I was able to see the issue in less stark terms, I must’ve carried that over, because I remember what a revelation it was to hear an Iranian student I was tutoring say something casual about the history of blacks and whites in the U.S. What struck me was that this wasn’t his history or his divide. It didn’t apply to the entire universe. Yes, I knew that by then, but I also didn’t.

    Since then, I’ve moved to Britain, where the definition of black is different and where, for a while there, a lot of what I’d have to call racism (although the targets were also white) was directed at Polish immigrants.

    You’re right. Adiche’s right. No one story is enough.

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