There is a woman named Chimamanda Adichie who speaks on the topic of stereotypes. She has a TED talk called, The Danger of a Single Story. Her thesis is basically that the danger of stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.
When I teach Public Speaking I share Adichie’s filmed speech with my classes and ask them to consider the topic of stereotypes. Adichie explains that we often believe “single stories” about other people based on our limited experience and/or knowledge of the category to which we relegate them in our minds. For example, a teenage boy, a black man, a lesbian, a homeless person: all of these profiles conjure not only images in our minds but we are also likely to assign some elements of character to the individuals themselves.
Single stories can also be based on a person’s choices: a pregnant teenage girl, an ex-convict, the man who cheated on his wife, the woman struggling with alcoholism. We see the actions of another person, and assign to him or her, an entire inner life, thus failing to see their true qualities, characteristics and lifetime of varying actions.
In my classes, I ask students to identify what they believe other people have labelled as their single story. Once they identify the way in which they believe they have been perceived and labeled, I ask them to write a paper about why the single story that has been assigned to them by others is false, or at least incomplete. Once their papers are written, I ask for volunteers to share the “other side” of their single stories.
I give this assignment in the beginning of the semester because I feel it creates an awareness of both self and others. In a class that thrives only in the midst of trust, it is important that the students learn to trust the people around them with something that makes them feel vulnerable. Something real: something that allows each student to truly be seen. It is my role to protect their hearts during this assignment by encouraging, rewarding courage and monitoring (not controlling) the reactions of other students to those who are sharing.
What I have learned from watching my students complete this assignment is that they are keenly aware of the stereotypes into which they have been pigeonholed and they are burdened with a feeling of hopelessness in being able to release themselves from these perceived classifications. They want to express themselves as the whole people they are. In other words, they feel stifled by the single stories assigned to them and, conversely, most students feel a freedom when they can identify their single story, confront it and verbalize why this single story is creating a false narrative in their daily lives. When a student can identify the false narrative, the narrative no longer has the power to “be” their identity.
I have also found that the students who are able to free themselves from believing the lies about themselves, and when they stopped telling themselves lies about their own abilities, experiences and identity, they begin to see others differently. They begin to identify their own attitudes and moments of stereotyping and, instead of trusting in quick judgments of others, they learn to ask questions.
Because this assignment helps students trust their classmates, their speeches become more in-depth, they choose their topics with bravery and they speak with more confidence. What’s more important: they begin to consider the idea of extending grace to others, even without knowing “the whole story.”
As I scroll through my Facebook news feed lately, I see a lot of judgment. I see people trying to define their own sense of self worth by quickly shutting down thoughts that are contrary to their own. It is like the old arcade game, “Whack-a-Mole”: the more people you can control by shutting them up or making them feel less than yourself, the more points you get. The points transfer into a sense of self-worth and self-aggrandizement.
Or do they?
Perhaps the more Moles you whack on your way to higher self worth the lonelier you become once the game is over. Are we to gain our worth from being right? Or, more accurately, are we to gain our worth from showing how much better we are than other people because they are wrong and maybe even kind of stupid? What kind of game are we playing? It seems to me it is a game of trying to establish our own importance amidst a sea of voices that is as deep as it is wide. What is our culture becoming when instead of throwing out life lines, we kick the heads of those trying to reach the surface, hoping that they drown: one less set of lungs, more oxygen for me. Are we now a world of pirates?
I will admit, I do believe some stereotypes and I think you probably do, too.
For example, if you happen to support abortion as a woman’s right to choose, I assume that you also are outraged by the death of an innocent lion, you are probably a Democrat and you probably had a party when Same Sex Marriage was turned into law.
Another example, if you support Donald Trump’s ability to speak his mind freely because he is an American, I assume you are also outraged by basically everything Obama has done in the last 7 years, you are probably a Republican and you probably think Michael Brown was shot because he was being aggressive toward a police officer.
Here is my point: stereotypes are dangerous not because they are not true but because they are incomplete. So, we can become aware of the stereotypes we believe and still make a conscious choice to make the effort to see other individuals as individuals. To treat them with respect, ask questions and then extend a grace that makes room for differences: grace that connects instead of dividing.
I have an assignment for you. If you have read this far you are not allowed to now stop and choose to avoid the assignment. You’re in it now and you will be graded (mwa-hahaha!). Your assignment is this:
In one paragraph, identify a single story that has become the lens through which others see you. Then, write a second paragraph stating why that single story is not complete, or maybe even untrue.
In a third paragraph, tell the truth about yourself in this area.
Then, think of someone you have chained within a single story; be honest with him/her about your perception and then ask 2 or 3 pointed questions that will help you understand their broader story.
Here is the link to Adichie’s Tedtalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg
–Jill Szoo Wilson