The Danger of a Single Story

In this popular TED talk, Nigerian migrant and Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns about the danger of holding “a single story” about individuals, communities, and nations. She explains,

when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

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 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.

Guiding Questions

  1. What does Adichie mean when she talks about “a single story”? How is it similar to a stereotype? 
  2. Why is it dangerous to hear only a single story?
  3. How can you recognize if you have been exposed to a single story?
  4. What can you do to make sure your ideas individuals, communities, and nations are not dictated by a single story?
  5. Adichie defines power as “the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Who has the power to tell someone else’s story? If you are telling someone else’s story, what should you keep in mind?
  6. Adichie referred to writer Chinua Achebe’s phrase “a balance of stories.” What do you think this phrase means? What would a balance of stories create? How can you make sure you consume a balance of stories?
  7. Think of single stories that you may be surrounded by. Reflect on them. How do they come to be? Why is it important to see these single stories and only single stories?

Key Quotes

I have always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and 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 the broken dignity.