Thursday, March 22, 2012

Beware the Single Story

I still love this video that I posted a year or two ago, and I am reminded of it often.

It is so easy for those of us who work in the nonprofit world, or those of us who support nonprofits, or even those of us who are just humans to focus on the single story.

The single story is the easiest story to tell.

It's the story that all Africans live in mud huts.

It's the story that all poor people are in despair.

It's the story that all women are victims.

The single story is a one-dimensional caricature. It's a kindergarten rendering of a doctorate level problem. And it's a cop out.

I bump into single stories nearly every day. It's in the innocent looking line in a donor appeal that asks donors to save poor children from the "nightmare" that is their life. It's in the appeal to adopt a child from a certain nation because surely all children living in that nation must have dreadful lives. All other aspects of a child's life are dismissed save for one fact: they are poor. Forget their loving parents. Forget the fun they have playing with a makeshift soccer ball with the neighbors. Forget the way they love to dance and sing to the music at church. They are poor and so they only get one label: nightmare.

Certainly there are children living in a nightmare. And surely some aspects of some children's lives are nightmarish. But we simply can't boil each unique story out there to one word.

There are many reasons we tell and retell single stories. Black and white is simply easier to write than grey - and it's snappier too. Complexities muddle writing, whereas simplicity is vivid. The single story is dramatic, it is emotional, and it gets us hopping. It motivates us to just do something! The single story sells.

But the single story is also misleading. It is over-simplified. And ultimately it is an insult and a disrespect to those you're trying to help.

On the other hand, we also can't swing to the other side of our good intentions and keep telling the antiquated story of the noble savage - the idea that all the poor are somehow more noble than we are. The caricature of the good and kind pauper to our garish and gluttonous American. That is also the single story.

So how do we remedy single-storyitis?

We remember that each child, each person is unique. We realize that "African" and "American" are geographic descriptors and not one-size-fits-all end-of-story labels. We remember that there is intelligence and ingenuity south and north of the equator, as well as corruption and despair. We reject the idea that we are Prince Charming to the Bottom Billion's Cinderella. We strive to add learning and understanding to our compassion. We remember that we are all just humans, in the same hopeless boat, regardless of race, income, gender, nationality or profession.


Elizabeth M. said...

I super "like" this post!

Anonymous said...

I like this post too. I have met several people from countries in Africa and was totally surprised when they did not fit my stereotype. They were very gracious about my ignorance and patiently explained. I remember asking one guy from Uganda where he learned English. He explained that all school classes in Uganda are taught in English since there are many dialects spoken. His clipped British was his native language.