While reading an article in the New York Times about Barbara Bush and her work in global health, I stumbled across a TED Talk transcript from 2009 that she’d sighted in her interview. The article about Barbara was a fascinating portrait of millennial success and philanthropic drive, but I was immediately drawn into to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Talk: “The Danger of a Single Story.”
Adiche introduced the concept of a single story through her own experience. She described how, as a young writer, she wrote about characters and plots that reflected her own limited understanding of what books should be like. Having not read many books by African writers, she didn’t understand that characters could look and act the way that she did as a Nigerian woman, that a fictional world could be anything more than a western writer’s understanding of it.
Beyond the page, the single story concept is reflected in people. When you encourage and promote ideas of culture and community as only being one way, you limit them and create an expectation of being that results in a single story. Africa for example, which is often described as a single unitary place and not, as it actually is, a continent of many nations, inspires in most a mental image of poverty and public health crises. That is the single story that has been created for it, the lesson that has shaped its image.
“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,” Adiche says.
But we are all more than the single stories that others believe us to be, more than even the narrow labels we assign to ourselves. Our problem is that we can’t see it. We’ve had these ideas of the world drilled into us repeatedly, been assigned expectations from birth by society, our families, our peers.
One of my newest friends tutors small children with hearing disabilities. The other day she told me about how one of the kids she looks after has just had a birthday and about how he’s struggling with his new introduction sequence. Even in preschool it’s common practice to relay your labels at introduction. Name, age, and something about you (like favorite color or animal), a series of labels that help other kids, parents, or teachers categorize your identity for reference. To a preschooler, having a birthday is a major change and that’s because they’ve been taught that age, as part of their identity, is valuable. But age is really just a number and those three labels do not define him. He is more than a single story.
Recently however I’ve accepted that letting go of labels isn’t easier to do just because you’re older. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but overcoming my own labels has actually become a source of anxiety for me. They may not have been the truest definitions or the most accurate reflections of my identity, but over the last twenty-something years I’d become accustomed to them, anyway. I’m no longer, “Lunar, twenty-something, student.” Instead I’m supposed to be, “Lunar, twenty-something, adult, paralegal, resident of X, etc.” But let me be the first to admit that I actually have no idea how those new labels are supposed to fit.
When I’m writing checks to pay my bills or making calls about student loan payments I guess I think for a moment that I understand. I’ll feel this wave of responsibility lift me up taller and it’s like I can see the other side of the fence for a moment. But I always come back down. I’ll remember that I eat boxed mac n’ cheese for dinner at least once a week, that I still enjoy animated movies and gummy worm candy, and in the end I’ll accept the fact that, like the little boy who just turned four, I don’t actually feel any different than I did yesterday. I’m still just me. Whatever that means.
So who am I if not the single story that’s been painted of me? What details and descriptors can I add to the incomplete picture of my life, the narrow stereotype that was given to me by others and then perpetuated by myself? This is my ongoing struggle, the fuel to my anxiety.
How can I shed a label without knowing where else I belong? How can I let go of a foundation – even an unstable one – before I’m ready to stand on my own, label-less feet? I know it limits me to use those labels and I know it limits people’s’ understanding of me, too. I am more than my single story. But until I figure out what else to say, those labels are the only explanation I have. Its narrow-minded, but I can’t give them up just yet.