Editing by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo
Art: ‘Aunty’ by Olivia Twist
In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against the misunderstanding of others, noting how generations of misrepresentation and stereotypes have dominated mainstream Western society. A consciousness of this issue is crucial to contextualising literature, media and their transmission in academia and in life. This TED Talk is a lesson in challenging these ‘single stories,’ and Adichie’s experiences of and insight into the subject illustrate the problems single stories create.
I have studied this topic in the past, but discovered “The Danger of a Single Story” outside of my prescribed degree programme; Adichie’s perspective – that of a black woman – is one rarely promoted by Western society. While Adichie is also an acclaimed author, her TED Talk is valuable as a perspective in its own right, especially as she speaks with the perspective of someone whose identity often suffers from the stereotypes she describes. This is important not least because first-hand accounts of neo-colonialism from the perspective of the colonised are rarely taught on university courses.
TED’s mission is to spread ideas, and the accessibility of this talk has benefitted me in particular because I am dyslexic; there are interactive transcripts and subtitles (in 46 languages), and TED Talks are freely downloadable. Adichie also speaks plainly and clearly, articulating in minutes the same critique of ‘othering’ that is articulated in much academic writing in daunting numbers of pages, for example in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978). This user-friendliness is incredibly beneficial to students whose first language is not English, as well as to the 10% of the country estimated to suffer from dyslexia (Pennington, “The Genetics of Dyslexia”, in “Facts and Figures about Dyslexia”, Dyslexia Action). The talk’s brevity (18 minutes and 49 seconds) means it cannot be considered a comprehensive summary of either the subject matter or the speaker’s experiences, but is invaluable for those with learning difficulties, especially as so many other academic sources are dense and hard to process because of their complex writing. The delivery and format of “The Danger of a Single Story” are indispensable in enabling people of all abilities to benefit from it.
Adichie argues that mainstream narratives reduce ‘others’ to damaging stereotypes, which become internalised and must be challenged. She accentuates the neo-colonial nature of single stories, consciously drawing on more obviously vicious aspects of colonialism through references to the writings of John Lok and Rudyard Kipling. This affirms that narratives are “dependent on power” (Adichie, 9:36), casting light on the context, motivations and omissions of sources from all eras. Adichie is revealing the intellectual damage caused by single stories to be part of a wider problem, and shows her audience to be aware of prescribed outlooks and of their perpetuation.
As she speaks, Adichie also acknowledges her own role in the legitimation of single stories, illustrating how even those who do not consciously contribute to them are still complicit in the problem; in America, she “had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that…[she] had bought into the single story of Mexicans” (Adichie, 8:53). By being relatable and admitting her own slipups, she leads listeners in challenging themselves to consider their personal accountability and to confront the power dynamics of their own outlooks and research.
The lesson within “The Danger of a Single Story” is significant to contemporary politics, with far-right leaders and publications across America and Europe railing against immigrants and other ‘othered’ people. It is especially relevant to media coverage of such pertinent issues, as it demands a critical consideration of sources and active efforts to see more than one ‘story’ about any given group. This is also a serious issue in today’s education, and serves as the drive behind the growing movement to diversify university curricula. Adichie’s talk is therefore also an account of today’s political climate, reflecting the current power struggles in media representation. “The Danger of a Single Story” is critical to our understanding of the way the world is presented in an increasingly intolerant Western society.
Lina Christensen of Rethinking Schools explains that Adichie “shows how colonial education made African lives … [not] worthy of study… [which] resonates with many … students, who also experience the literary canon as white” (Christensen, “The Danger of a Single Story: Writing essays about our lives”, Rethinking Schools). The testimony Adichie offers in “The Danger of a Single Story” is thus useful as a lesson across a range of subjects and disciplines with a literary or media-based focus, especially those handling either neo-colonialism or the depiction of ‘othered’ folk. “The Danger of a Single Story” should be studied to prepare students to approach narratives critically and counteract the intellectual limits of these ‘single stories,’ wherever they appear in history, literature and the media.
Considering Adichie’s comments about trans women in a recent interview with Channel 4, the lesson of “The Danger of a Single Story” is clearly one which you cannot stop learning. In admitting that the prefix ‘cis’ is not “an organic part of [her] vocabulary” (Adichie, Facebook, 13/03/17), she makes it clear that she is discussing a topic in which she is no expert, and she articulates a false ‘single story’ of trans women who have grown up and “lived in the world as a man for 30 years” (Adichie, Facebook, 11/03/17). She has been criticized for using “the hegemonic cisgender woman’s experience” to define womanhood (Willis, Raquel, “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate”, The Root), and this is exemplary of the very issue her talk tackles; Adichie must recognise that such a narrative “erases a lot of experiences” (@Lavernecox, Twitter, 11/03/2017) and remember her own warning that “stories can break the dignity of a people” (Adichie, “Single Story”, 17:35). Her error has reinforced the message within “The Danger of a Single Story”; single stories are both harmful and omnipresent. Furthermore, the single story is not only a neo-colonial issue, but one which affects all marginalised people. This talk should be studied to prepare people to approach narratives critically, reconsidering their perspectives where necessary, and to counteract the intellectual limits of these single stories, wherever they appear and whoever tells them.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, “CLARIFYING”, Facebook, 13/03/17, 01:54am, [accessed 15/03/17 www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944]
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, “Of course trans women are part of feminism…”, Facebook 11/03/17, 07:53am, [accessed 15/03/17 www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/posts/10154887462650944:0,]
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, “The Danger of a Single Story”, TED Talks, TED, July 2009, www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story, accessed 20/02/17
“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Interview”, YouTube, uploaded by Channel 4 News, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP1C7VXUfZQ, published on 11/03/17, accessed 15/3/17
Christensen, Lina, “The Danger of a Single Story: Writing essays about our lives”, Rethinking Schools, Volume 26, No.4, Summer 2012, www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/26_04/26_04_christensen.shtml, accessed 19/02/17
@Lavernecox,“Narrative which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege erases a lot of experiences and isn’t intersectional. Gender”, Twitter 11/03/2017, 11:56pm, [accessed 15/03/2017 twitter.com/Lavernecox/status/840713057105928192]
Pennington B F, “The Genetics of Dyslexia”, The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry [Online] Volume 31, Issue 2, pages 193–201, 1990 in “Facts and Figures about Dyslexia”, Dyslexia Action, www.dyslexiaaction.org.uk/page/facts-and-figures-about-dyslexia-0#_edn1 accessed 10/3/17
Willis, Raquel, “Trans Women Are Women. This Isn’t a Debate”, The Root, 13/03/17, 9.16am, www.theroot.com/trans-women-are-women-this-isn-t-a-debate-1793202635 accessed 15/03/17
About the author:
Maggie Hunt is a 21-year-old undergraduate student of Arabic and French at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently on her year abroad at the Arabic Language Institute in Fez, Morocco, and next year will finish her degree. Maggie is also dyslexic, so especially interested in sources’ accessibility.