The Danger of a Single Story: Stereotypes and Misconceptions in (and out of) the Classroom

Rewind.

Setting: Small-town Texas, the summer of 2012, a living room full of family members. I was making  my rounds visiting loved ones after living in Mexico City for four years, telling stories and talking about my experiences. 

“So when I was at Walmart one day – ” I started.

“Wait, where?”  

“Walmart…:”

“There was Walmart in Mexico City?!?”

“Uh, yes, there are lots of American companies in Mexico.”

“Right, I get that, but when I think of Mexico I think of deserts and cactus, and I am just surprised to hear you say you would shop at Walmart!”

I laughed because I didn’t know how else to respond. My family live in a town of 700 people, a town too small for things like traffic lights, restaurants, and Walmart. Mexico City is a metropolis of over 21 million people set in a mountain valley at an altitude of 7,000 feet. No desert, minimal cactus, a few burros. 

Mexico City skyline

Seven years after returning to live in the U.S., I still run into these same misconceptions. In the age of information, the Internet, smart phones, social media and Google, stereotypes persist. While I moved to Mexico City without having visited first and really had no idea what I was getting myself into, I did not think I would be riding burros or living off rice and beans. I simply had not spent a lot of time thinking about what Mexico was like. But did I make assumptions about my students, however? Absolutely. 

New to teaching, I believed in a variety of stereotypes, some positive, and many not-so-positive. “A” students? Clearly more intelligent than the rest. The child sleeping through English class? Obviously he is not interested in learning. Disrespectful teenagers? No home training. I’m ashamed to say that it took me years to realize how often I made assumptions, labeled students according to their behaviors, or built my expectations based on what I thought I knew about them. 

My thinking began to shift with each year of experience, but it was transformed the summer of 2016 the time I first heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk “The Danger of the Single Story.” Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and has since become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at TEDGlobal 2009, bonus session at the Sheldonian theater, July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

 For Adichie, believing in a single story means only seeing one side or one part of someone, and not taking into account all of the stories that make up that individual. Adichie encountered this – not for the first time – when she left her home country of Nigeria to attend college in the United States. Her roommate asked to listen to her “tribal music,” and, Adichie states, was “consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.” 

This is how Adichie explains her roommate’s misconceptions: “[She] 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.” For Adichie, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes,” Adichie states, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” 

Those stereotypes I held of my students? My “A” students were often the harder workers, not the more intelligent. The kid sleeping in class? Working in a factory at night to help support his family. Disrespectful teenagers? Craving attention that they so desperately need and don’t get at home. Once I began to ask questions and hear ALL of the stories about my students, I became a much better teacher. 

Believing single stories allows for bias, racism, prejudice, bullying, and inequality. Believing single stories “emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar,” and the only way to overcome these obstacles is by choice, to choose to be someone who is curious and open-minded, one who solicits and listens to all stories from all people. 

I was presented with Adichie’s TedTalk in the summer between years six and seven of teaching. That fall, I began teaching in the most ethnically diverse school in the district. My students came from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Pakistan, South Korea, Egypt, and India. They came from violence and poverty, privilege and wealth, large cities and small villages, whole families and broken homes. I began asking questions instead of making assumptions, and the practice of putting away the single stories I once had revolutionized my ability to relate to my students. Once invited to share, students began telling all of the stories that made up their identities. 

A year later I started teaching this TedTalk as a lesson early in the semester and saw that students experienced the same transformation in their thinking as I did. While so many of them were already more open-minded than any adult I had ever met, several were, like I once was, unaware of the misconceptions and stereotypes they themselves had. My classroom became a place where students felt safe telling their stories, and conversations that sparked controversy and confrontation everywhere else became a normal part of our day. 

My students adopted Adichie’s language, often talking about the danger of the single stories they once believed about each other. They would ask each other questions, listen closely for the answers, and allow their thinking to be molded and shaped by each new story they heard. Many students commented that they encountered less racism, bias, and hate at school – a place more diverse than any other place they had been – than they did in their own families or neighborhoods. Why? I asked. “Because we don’t believe single stories anymore,” they would say. 

I created a list of discussion questions available in English or in English and Spanish on TeachersPayTeachers.com. These are tried and true questions that I taught in my own classroom, both in regular English IV for seniors and Advanced Placement Literature & Composition. The questions break the video up into three sections so that students are asked to stop and think throughout the TedTalk, and then there is a free writing prompt at the end that allows students an opportunity to make personal connections to Adichie’s ideas. I hope that this resource makes this TedTalk as accessible to you and your students as it has to me and mine. 

What are some of the single stories that people may have created about you? To what extent are these stories true or untrue? What are some of the single stories you have believed about others?

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

(A special thanks to http://www.chimamanda.com and http://www.pixabay.com for the images.)

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