I recently watched the TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she discussed how vulnerable we are to believing in single stories. A single story is one view of something which is repeated until it is accepted as fact. She described how in the past she has bought into single stories, and was in turn stereotyped due to other people’s belief in them about her native country Nigeria.
Adichie vocalised for me what has been at the back of my mind since returning from overseas. It is the worry that I not only believe in single stories in my day to day life, but more significantly that I have inadvertently created one.
From February to May 2016 I went to live with a family in a rural village in Banan District, Battambang Province, Cambodia. Since then, my friends and family have asked me about my experience: mainly what I ate, what the people were like, whether it is a very poor country, and how the locals reacted to me as a foreigner. I could potentially be their sole source of knowledge about the country, putting me in a sensitive position. What I say to people about it could be taken as fact – as a true and whole representation of the country rather than just my limited opinion.
The fact is that everyone is in danger of being an author of a single story – not only about the people and places further afield, but also about their home.
For example, when I was living in Cambodia my Cambodian friend Mony and I would often exchange information about each other’s culture. Mony originally knew very little about Britain, just like I knew little about her country. What she heard about it from me and the other UK volunteers may be the only information she would receive about it for a long while. From what we talked about, she probably got the impression that British people eat burgers every day, are mostly vegetarian and wear baggy, patterned trousers all the time.
When I was talking to Mony, I realised how much I summarised the UK in order to give her a broad idea of the place. Besides this, she had an idealised image of Europe and I didn’t want to admit that my country was not as nice as she imagined it to be. I gave her a story of a developed, secure nation which is a good place for a woman to live and have as many boyfriends as she likes. Despite having lived there all my life, I was not able to give Mony anything other than a single story about Britain.
Single stories are dangerous because they reduce a group of people down to one thing. Whether they appear kindly, such as: ‘people in Cambodia are really friendly,’ or harmless like: ‘British people love drinking tea,’ they feed into reductive stereotypes and do not acknowledge the broad variety of people who live in every community.
Someone who goes to a country having heard just one perspective about the place may have a certain perception in mind, and treat people differently because of it. For example, in Cambodia I was amazed when I met a monk who lives alone on a hill top, bathes every-day in a stagnant pool, and yet who owned a smart phone and whose passport was filled to the brim with stamps from all over Asia and beyond.
“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.”
Single stories are also destructive since they dehumanise the people who are within the stereotype. It is much easier to ignore the suffering of a kindly, ambiguous mass of people than an individual like Mony, who is funny, playful, hardworking and in her fourth year at Battambang University. Adichie describes this eloquently in reference to America’s single story of Africa:
“In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her [Adichie’s American roommate] in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
How to Avoid Spreading a Single Story
1) Remind yourself, when hearing about another person, country or community from somebody else, that what the person is saying is just their own perspective of it, and does not account for the whole picture. Look beyond what is being said. It is impossible for one person to create a true representation of an entire community and every person within it. There are always multiple perspectives that are equally valid.
2) Be aware that, when you talk about a place or population, that you do not make sweeping statements such as ‘the people are very poor’. Instead describe specific people you have met, giving them humanity.
For example, when I talked about Cambodian people I tried to describe my host family specifically – who, by the way, I found to be kind, biased, hospitable, cheeky and shy, who ran out of water several times in the dry season but also hosted amazing parties and paid for their children to go to private school.
3) If you are confident enough, challenge misconceptions and stereotypes when you come across them. This doesn’t mean ripping the person who is talking to shreds, since anyone can support stereotypes without realising what they are doing. Kindly nudging them in the right direction, or mentioning that you encountered something that doesn’t fit into that stereotype would work more effectively.
This article is also a disclaimer on my part. In my blog posts I have written a lot about Cambodia and my experiences of it – but I would like to express that my experiences are wholly subjective. I only lived there for three months in one relatively small community. My main intention when writing these articles is to share what I, as a Westerner going into South East Asia for the first time, have discovered so that you can get a glimpse of Cambodia from my perspective.
“When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
Thank you for reading.