In her 2009 TEDtalk, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addressed “the danger of a single story.”
As a child, she read books written primarily by British and American authors, which featured white foreigners and which formed in her mind the idea that literature could only hold foreign characters. Her exposure to African literature changed this view and “saved [her] from having a single story of what books are.”
This single story problem spilled into her life outside of books, as when her family employed a boy need Fide to help around the house. All Chimamanda knew about Fide was his poverty, and she came to define him by this. She developed a single story of poverty for families like Fide’s.
When she moved to the United States to study, she encountered the single story that many Westerners held of Africans: one of catastrophe.
These single stories are the essence of stereotypes.
“The single story,” Chimamanda explained, “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.”
When you hear about stereotypes on the news, reports most often focus on negative stereotypes. However, stereotypes relate to both positive and negative over-generalizations, as well as neutral ones. That all Asians are smart is as much a stereotype as all blacks are un- or under-educated. That all Americans are rich is as much a stereotype as all Mexicans are poor.
If you are part of a group (and everyone is part of some group), you have stereotypes applied to you. They can relate to your race, your ethnicity, your nationality, your religion, your political leanings – any part of you that you can categorize is fodder for stereotypes.
Think of a group you are not associated with. What are the first thoughts that come to mind? Those are most likely the stereotypes.
Stereotypes arise from, as Chimamanda affirmed, the telling of a single story, and no matter how you shine the light on them stereotypes do people a great injustice. Positive or negative, stereotypes mangle social perceptions and simplify identity to a set of “right” traits. They create caricatures of society.
Christians are judgmental.
Muslims are terrorists.
Men are tough and unfeeling.
Women are helpless and emotional.
Republicans are close-minded hypocrites.
Democrats are lazy socialists.
Brits drink tea.
Americans eat exclusively fast food.
A single story is taken and projected onto the whole group. I am as guilty of this as anybody else. No matter what beliefs one holds, stereotypes swamp our perceptions of society. What, then, are we to do?