Single story’ syndrome keeps people from knowing full picture

Hama Bbela and Hama Bbela

‘I didn’t know people in Africa drive cars,’ said the nice lady at the counter, as she nonchalantly handed me my groceries. She said this following a 15 minute conversation about my name and where I was from.

I’m used to these reactions now, having spent some time here. They point to something at the heart of peoples’ perceptions of each other. It’s a phenomenon described by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as ‘the single story.’

This is what happens when we hear one story about a person, idea or thing and form unchanging opinions and ideas based on that. Everything from xenophobia, racism and ethnic cleansing can be traced to the single story.

I always remember incidents listening to rap music and getting hateful stares from people who consider all rap demeaning. The flack hip hop receives is the same as the flack Elvis or the Beetles received when they came out.

These misconceptions were largely from people not getting the whole story. It’s easy to say negative things about rap if you have never picked up an album. People build opinions of not just rap, but many aspects of life based on just one story.

The human need to stereotype probably points to a prehistoric need to identify things quickly. In so doing, mankind’s ancestors probably assessed threat levels as well, because identifying things quickly was key to survival. This instinctive behavior has persisted into modern society, much to my dismay. It has worsened in the sense that these half-truths guide how policies are made regarding how we treat each other.

I personally was guilty of stopping at the single story. Growing up, my images and ideas of America were largely based on popular movies and music. Before I read John Steinbeck or any black authors, I seriously thought America looked like either New York or California.

Many people around the world in the mid-90s probably thought America was like an episode of Baywatch, Beverly Hills 90210 or a Dr. Dre video. These things represent elements of America, but are in no way the only stories of America. When I read Toni Morrison, Steinbeck, Maya Angelou or Ralph Ellison, a more well-rounded story of America unfolds. Yet even these don’t tell the whole story.

As educated human beings living in an age of easily accessible information, we shouldn’t fall victim to the single story. We need to seriously ask ourselves to look at an issue from all possible perspectives. Ideas, thoughts and people are the product of multiple stories and experiences. The world is made up of multiple stories and experiences.

Adichie warns of the danger of a single story and how it leads to misunderstanding among people. Getting the whole story requires a lot of patience. As people, we are prone to first impressions evolving into our only lasting impressions of people and things. These impressions quickly evolve into stereotypes.

We love first impressions because we are too lazy to ask or try to know more. Thus, when I’m asked why I speak English or if we drive cars in Africa I don’t get angry anymore. I try to encourage people to know more, to try to uncover what is at the heart of a movement, person or thing.

So when we leave for the holidays, let’s try to learn the patience and empathy needed to get more than one story. We should apply this to all aspects of life and how we treat each other. This will make for a better and more informed world.

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