This post was inspired by a fantastic talk of the same name by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I will embed below for your viewing pleasure.
” 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.”
For a period of time a while back, I worked at a disruptive transport startup company that we will call…Youba. Brought on as a general hand around the office while they set up a local branch, I ended up staying for twelve months and watched the company grow from an incredibly hands-on approach to the more remote systems that one would expect from a technology company.
The thing is, during my time at…Youba…I accidentally ended up exposing myself to just one story, over and over again, and as Chimamanda says, it became my only story.
Let me explain.
As you may have noticed during your own experiences with this company, while drivers come from a range of ethnic backgrounds, the majority do seem to be what politicians would describe as ‘immigrants’. And most of them were lovely! Unfortunately they weren’t the drivers I got to hang out with. The majority of the drivers that came to spend time in our offices were the ones that had to be brought in to be ‘spoken to’. The ones that were brash, argumentative, frequently dismissive of me as a female, and occasionally very upsetting. The troublemakers. And these trouble makers were more often than not middle aged men with an ethnicity other than my own, who spoke English as a second language. Day in, day out, this was the story I was exposed to. It’s been years since I left that role, but I still struggle with the stereotype I built every time I interact (or even walk near) someone who matches the demographic of those drivers. It’s been ingrained and it is sometimes incredibly hard for me to put those thoughts aside and focus on the personality traits of the person actually in front of me.
But that’s a real-life series of interactions that led to my misleading impression of an entire group of people (and to be completely fair to myself, I had to deal with a -lot- of horrible people in that job). As Chimamamda points out, it’s the stories we are told that are much more instrumental in shaping our views of the world.
Like many people, I went to see Hidden Figures when it was in the cinemas (mostly because the costumes looked amazeballs. I was not disappointed). For those not in the know, Hidden Figures tells the stories of some of the ‘Coloured’ female mathematicians who helped to put man into space. It’s a great movie, I highly recommend.
But it wasn’t the way the women were treated in this movie that shook me, it was something much more subtle than that. As a couple kissed on the screen, it occurred to me that I had never seen a black couple kiss on film before.
Hand on heart, I have been racking my brains for the past few months, and I still haven’t come up with a single film I have watched where two lead characters of colour were allowed to express themselves in a romantic way. Please send me your examples so that I can track them down, please.
I know that as a white female, I enjoy a privilege. The stories I see told are my own. The histories I learn are those of my people (except for my Maori blood, but that’s a story for another time). I see my life reflected back at me in every medium I choose to consume. The only stories I have about people different from myself are those the media has chosen to present to me.
If we are what we eat, then we are also the information we digest. In the technologically driven age, that information is force fed to us – when was the last time you had to actively searched beyond your phone screen for your news?
The classic example is the Muslim terrorist. You may not be the sort of person who thinks that everyone who practices one of the largest religions in the world is a terrorist, but how many times has that image been presented to you as the truth?
There is an advertising rule of thumb that says that a products advertising has to reach a consumer at least seven times before it makes an impact on them. After that point, I guess the brand has managed to imprint on your brain, forever reminding you of hot, salty fries when you see the golden arches. So if I can think of seven times I’ve been presented with a Muslim stereotype in the last week, what truth am I being convinced of?
When it seems that every force in the world wants us to barrel towards WWIII at the moment, how do we become the bigger person? How do we fight back against the single story?
As the old adage says- Our first thought is who we were conditioned to be, our first action is who we are.
Challenge yourself. Reach beyond what the popular culture is preparing for you. Read from authors of a different country, watch movies that weren’t specifically created for you.
Prior to meeting me, my other half discovered that he held a negative stereotype of Asian baristas (yes, he takes his coffee seriously). What did he do about it? He went out of his way to only drink coffee made by the many many wonderful (and some terrible) Asian baristas of our fair city until he had taught his subconscious the lesson I think we all still need to learn- some people make fantastic coffee. Some people make terrible coffee. Race has nothing to do with it.
I refuse to let the media tell me what to think as the world seems to descend into chaos around me- because if we’re learned anything from pop culture, that is definitely how any apocalypse starts.
*If you find any of the terms I have used above to refer to people of various ethnicities offensive or derogatory, please enlighten me so that I can be sure to make appropriate corrections. Please also accept this clip from comedian Aziz Ansari, because I find him hilarious *