“The Danger of a Single Story:” Is the iGen Complicit in Continuing the Single Narrative?

Nyeleti Honwana, Contributor

‘This is the 21st century after all,” is a phrase that Generation Y’ers have all uttered at one point or another. And we are proud to belong to this 21st century. We are progressive and free thinking, and we believe that all are equal and, most importantly, we are informed…or so we think. The Internet, which many of us consider our “generational head quarters” provides us with almost anything we could possibly want to know. We literally hold the world in the palm of our hands–whether it be on our Blackberries, iPhones or Androids. However, one must ask the question: what is the value of the information we receive, and how does this information influence our understanding of a people, place or occurrence?

Author Chimamanda Adichie

Nigerian author, Chimamanda Adichie (Purple Hibiscus, 2003) explains that as people, especially as children and young adults, we are “impressionable and vulnerable…in the face of a story.” In her speech, titled The Danger of a Single Story, Adichie tells the story of Fide, her family house boy when she was just a girl:

“The only thing my mother told us about him [Fide] was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say, ‘Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.’ So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.”

One day Adichie visited Fide’s family out in the countryside and was taken aback to see the beautiful and intricate baskets that his family made. She explains that she had not imagined them capable of making anything; all she knew of them was that they were poor. That, she says, was her ‘single story’ of them; they only way she had the ability to imagine them living.

When Adichie later attended university in the United States, she was met with benign ignorance. She recalls her first run in with an American roommate, who, she says, was shocked to learn that Adichie listened to Mariah Carey and could use a stove. She goes on to say that:

“She [her roommate] had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa; a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The image of Africans as a backward people, who spoke tribal languages and only listened to tribal music was the single story that her roommate had of Africa. Adichie’s roommate, like Adichie herself, was not necessarily ignorant, but had bought into the single story: the stereotype of a peoples. It is this lack of knowledge that led to her surprise when meeting Adichie. However, a single narrative can have much more damaging consequences than surprise. On many occasions the single story has led to hatred, alienation and violence.

Nine years after 9/11, there are nationwide stories of teens abusing their Muslim school mates. A recent example is Kristian, who at thirteen was experiencing the worst year of his life. Kristian was born in the U.S. to Trinidadian parents. An average American teenager, Kristian enjoyed “regular stuff” and was described by his father as a normal kid; he watched T.V. and played games on the computer  However, during the 2009-2010 school year, Kristian suffered long months of physical and emotional bullying because of his religious beliefs. Kristian was beaten, spat on and called a terrorist by four of his classmates. In an interview with the New York Post, he recalls one of the worst days: “They punched me…spit in my face…tripped me on the floor… [and] kicked me… And as they were kicking and laughing, they kept saying, ‘You f- – -ing terrorist, f- – -ing Muslim, you f- – -ing terrorist’.”

Kristian’s attackers were his 14 and 15 year-old classmates; classmates that once told him “You came here to burn our buildings down. People can’t get jobs because of you”. These teens were fed a single story of Islam, one of terror and hatred. Therefore they were unable to see the good in Kristian and, more importantly, unable to understand that they were more alike than they were different. Kristian’s ordeal is just one example of the danger of the single story. We must all be vigilant against a single narrative and strive to understand the wider story before rushing to judgment. Not doing so means that we allow the stereotypes to form our total opinion of people, places and events because we become prisoners of a linear narrative; we miss the context and ultimately lose sight of the complexities of that which is different and new to us. We become scared of the “other” instead of realizing that those whose lives are completely “unlike” ours are still human. They very well may be just “like” us, but if not, then ignoring the single story’ will allow us, Generation Y, to continue to extend our scope and understanding of the world, which can do nothing but improve our abilities to improve the world.

Taken to the extreme, it is this way of over simplifying our narrative and the image we create of the other, that leads to intolerance.  When you decide that all Muslims are terrorists and all blacks are thieves and all whites are racist, that is when the problem starts. Generation Y must avoid this problem if it wishes to successfully lead the integrated, mobile world of the future.