The Danger of a Single Story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian novelist, nonfiction writer, short-story writer and keynote speaker for the Remembering Biafra conference, gave her popular TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” in 2009. The crux of the matter is, as Adichie puts it: “show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.”

Adichie begins her talk by discussing how as a young child first realizing the joys of reading and writing, she herself only wrote stories about blonde-haired, blue-eyed British girls because those were the types of stories that she was exposed to, never mind the fact that she could not relate to them. However upon her discovery of African authors, such as Chinua Achebe, Adichie realized that there was more than one story to tell.

She continues by offering other examples that illustrates the “danger of a single story,” such as her perception of the new houseboy that arrived to work in her home when she was eight years old and her college roommate’s stereotypes of Adichie as a Nigerian upon first meeting her. Adichie also touches upon the importance of power relations in story telling, noting that the person who has the power to dictate a narrative has the ability to shape and manipulate the dominant perceptions of a people and a way of life. She believes that “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.” However Adichie also believes that hearing multiple stories from various perspectives can help a people regain their dignity and paint a more wholesome and honest picture.

“The Danger of a Single Story” was extremely well received, and it has been added to the list of the 20 most popular TED talks of all time. Adichie has since given another well-known TED talk “We should all be feminists.”  However, it seems that the lessons from “The Danger of a Single Story” are timeless because as recently as April 2016, her talk and its message were referenced in the mainstream media. David Brooks published an Op-Ed in The New York Times in which he discusses how American politics have become prone to “single storyism.” In early February 2015, The Borgen Project published a blog about Adichie’s talk which emphasizes the point that “we must not only seek diverse perspectives, we must also tell our own stories, one that only we can tell about our own personal experiences.”

Adichie ends her talk with the idea that “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” Though her message is always relevant, it seems to be especially pertinent now given the current global political landscape in which understanding the other side is more important than ever.

Abby Pioch is the primary blogger for Remembering Biafra. She is a senior in the Elliott School studying International Affairs concentrating in international development with a second major in French Language, Literature and Culture and a minor in Political Science. She is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority and currently tutors ESL students at the Washington English Center.