Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes a concept called “the danger of the single story” in her TED talk. She explains that this danger comes from people being told the same single story in slightly different ways over and over again until it is the only story they know. These stories perpetuate stereotypes when people hear them multiple times with no frame of reference to recognize that they are stories about individuals and often incomplete. The stories of a few do not reflect the truth about an entire group of people, but the single story makes it appear that way.
The phenomenon of the single story plays out in homes, classrooms, and the media. At home, children may hear a single story about long-held beliefs, prejudices, or fears that are passed on from one generation to the next. In the classroom, the danger of the single story occurs if youth learn about history from only one point of view. This problem can also occur in English Language Arts if students never read books with diverse characters or only see diverse characters portrayed in one way. When the media repeatedly tells a narrative involving a specific group, from only one perspective, that too drives the single story. The recent documentary, 13th, does a great job of illustrating this issue by explaining how the portrayal of African American men in the media played a major role in their mass incarceration today.
The danger of the single story is that it can have a catastrophic impact on people, other species, and the planet. Narrow perceptions create divisiveness between people who do not even know each other, and this can lead to discrimination and unjust policies. When Europeans first arrived in the United States, there were a lot of writings about how the natural world needed to be tamed. This story was perpetuated in articles and in paintings, but it was because of the transcendentalists that Europeans began to consider another perspective. The transcendentalists explained that the natural world was something to revere and protect, instead of something to dominate and control.
With animals, there are many examples of the single story having an effect on how they are treated both by individuals and society at large. For example, there is the perpetual story about farm animals and our relationship with them; most people are told, throughout their entire lives, that farm animals are meant to be our food, and it is the only story they ever hear. This is the predominant single story we are told; however, there are some people who question that story and who are working to suggest another perspective. They advocate on behalf of farm animals and believe that all sentient beings are here for their own purposes and not for humans to exploit.
With certain breeds of dogs such as the American Staffordshire terrier, one of the breeds most commonly referred to as a Pitbull, a single story has been propagated about them, based on the actions of only a few. This has led to policies, in some jurisdictions, that ban these dogs from being companion animals, ultimately reducing their opportunity for adoption and increasing their risk of euthanasia.
The danger of the single story has also severely affected many groups of people including: immigrants, Indigenous people, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and Muslims. For many of these groups, a single story has been promoted about who they are, and it is incomplete; it aims to group people together, rather than see and know them as individuals. This has caused a lot of violent behavior towards these individuals and has led to proposed policies that are based on hate. The perpetuation of these incomplete stories has caused people to support a proposed policy to create a registry of immigrants coming to the United States who are Muslim (something that was previously deemed unconstitutional) as well as the deportation of millions of immigrants, without even thinking about the devastation these actions will cause.
As educators, we have a responsibility to share and promote stories about diverse groups, both humans and other species, so that when a child hears a narrative about someone, they can recognize it as a story about an individual, not everyone who reminds them of that individual. As explained by The Academy of Prosocial Learning, our minds are like file cabinets that categorize information to help us make sense of the world. The danger, however, occurs when the same story about a particular group is reinforced over and over again, and we never hear any other stories. The story we categorize ends up becoming the only story we have filed in our brains. We begin to associate anyone who reminds us of the story in our brain with the information that we have stored. This is how stereotypes thrive, which then leads to violence and the unjust treatment of others.
In a recent workshop, The Academy of Prosocial Learning advocated for the need to be cognizant of any policies that are not bias-neutral. Policies should be created based on addressing an issue, not on targeting a group of people or a specific species. Bias-based policies unfairly target innocent individuals on the premise of a single story and are unconstitutional.
We must encourage youth to question their own perceptions and to consider where those perceptions come from. In our recent webinar, The Power of Humane Literature, we discussed how books with diverse characters in relatable but varied situations can be a cure for the single story. Seeing everyone as an individual takes time and practice. As educators, we must provide our students with activities that allow them to practice this vital skill, one that is essential for living in a diverse society that is just and sustainable for all.
Sharing many stories with youth is not about indoctrination. It is about providing them with accurate and diverse information so that they can develop their own moral compass. Promote and encourage perspective-taking so that youth begin to see past the single stories that they hear. It is essential for youth to learn to question information that is fueling the stereotyping fire, Diverse stories provide them with opportunities to practice empathy and critical thinking. When young people develop these skills, it reduces their chances of falling into the single story.