The Single Narrative
Updated: Sep 1
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I recently was a part of a conversation that really got me thinking. During this conversation, I was to learn that this person was travelling overseas in the next couple of months to volunteer their precious time to the 'less fortunate'. To no surprise I had my many reservations and questions regarding this; but my first and foremost inquiry was regarding what destination they would be visiting and 'saving'.
Their answer...... Africa.
This is where I really became quite baffled. Sure, you're visiting the continent, but I asked what country!? To my surprise, I had to explain this and then reiterate what I actually meant.
Now in no way am I trying to make fun here; there is no doubt in my mind that this answer is purely as a result of education. But the question then is, if you can't acknowledge that there are 54 recognised territories and states within the continent of Africa, as well as be able to determine and respect that there are a multitude of differences and cultural variations between each Nation, then are you capable enough to go and 'help'?
The concern here is the ever growing and undermining issue of confusing a continent for a country, especially when it involves grouping developing Nations.
The West has a perception issue. More often than not, we group African Nations and speak about topics revolving around 'catastrophes' and 'famines', which stereotype and undermine the individuality of each Nation. Not only does this create sweeping generalisations about a number of different populations, but also continues the ignorant views and values from the West. Such values then feed the dangerous perspectives and practices of programs such as voluntourism and other unethical foreign aid interventions; as well as simply just contributing to the ignorant worldly views of many people from the West.
Such limited categorisations are often a way of justifying our harmful interventions. It's a vicious cycle.
Whenever I have this discussion with people, a lot of responses fall back on people also describing Europe in the same manner. However, when this discussion escalates into further detail, it is always found that when people use the term 'Europe' as a descriptive, it's more often than not, for a number of different and collective countries within the continent they are visiting. Not often do you hear people talking about their trip to 'Europe' if they are just visiting one single Nation within the continent, such as Germany or Italy. Usually people will simply state the country they are visiting as such. Whereas, within Africa, it is more common for a traveller who travels to only one destination within the continent, to still describe their journey as a trip to 'Africa'.
We see this same narrative when people continue to group and discuss epidemics and human right issues as a whole 'African' issue. What is even more problematic, is that often the ones that are mentioned, are not even in more than one country within the continent. Thus, these explanations for the use of 'Africa' is simply an excuse for ignorant views.
An article within the Guardian, written by Nicolas Kayser-Bril called "Africa is not a Country", beautifully captures the absurdity of this discussion through one simple description. He states:
"Many public figures and journalists have no problem describing someone from Botswana and a person from Mauritania as "Africans". They probably wouldn't call them "Americans" if they were from Brazil and the United States, even though the distance between the two is the same – and the economic conditions as different."
Irrespective of these limited labels and their accuracy, these generalised terms become the definition for a number of people, nations and a continent, simply through the saturation of repetition. More often than not, it is beyond those who are labelled and categorised to alter such commentary.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2009 Ted Talk, discusses the damaging issues that come with a "single story". A notion described as an entire culture or a number of different cultures being summarised into one narrative. She describes her experience of such, with her college room-mate in The United States:
"What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronising, well-meaning pity. My room-mate 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."
With such a single and limited narrative, comes the dangerous tendency to undermine and dismiss an entire culture of people. Through such tendencies comes a multitude of other serious development issues and concerns. Such dialogue needs to be readily addressed and challenged in order to change this narrative and address the West's disposition to dominant and determine a majority of the global communities' narrative.
Adichie's description of a 'single story' can relate to a number of things' inlcuding the common narrative and rehtoric delievered by the West. One also being the themes related to dress-up parties and the issue of cultural appropriation. An example of this can be seen through 'Mexican' themed dress-ups. Such a theme stereotypes the Mexican culture into a very limited, harmful and ignorant, often inappropriate, list of imagery and descriptions. Thus, continunig and perpetuating the idea of a 'single story' continues.
To address themed dress-up parites more effectively, individuals should stick to imagery and ideas that fall within their own cultural brackets. Such a choice should be determined through the ability of an individual's capacity to fully understand and determine what's appropriate and respectful with the boundaries of what they know.
More often than not, dress-up parties encompass a minority culture being exploited by a dominant culture. It's important that we stick to what we know, not what we think we know.
Similar discussions have also focused and highlighted the issue of people wearing Native American headdresses; something that is extremely sacred continues to be worn so carelessly and thoughtlessly to dress-up parties and festivals. In addition to this, we also see the Hindu and Jain- Bindi being exploited just the same. The list goes on.
The West has a tendency to steal from minorities. Modern colonialism continues to surface through all of society's facets, whether we are aware of it or not.
At the end of the day, it's simply about being responsible; it's about recognising our privilege and being aware. Adichie responds to the dangerous narrative of a 'single story' in highlighting that we need to move beyond these simple collective descriptions. She states:
"Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes, but there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important to talk about them."
This statement is also true to dress-up parties amongst many other things. Cultures are more than just your cheap Ebay costume purchase.
Let us leave the single narrative with the finishing of this post, and begin to expand and understand the complexities of culture and the differences each and every one encompasses. When we know better, we can do better. So let's swap ugly privilege for respect.