While reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s epic novel Americanah, I checked out YouTube for a glimpse of her and found two TED talks. One’s on feminism, and the other is called “The Danger of a Single Story.”
In the “story” talk, Adichie explains how often we swallow a single version of a person or place and make it the whole story in our minds. As a Nigerian, she’s sensitive to the single versions of Africa—an entire continent, for God’s sake—she encounters here in the U.S. For example, her American college roommate asked how Adichie could speak such fluent English, not realizing that English is Nigeria’s official language. Then she wanted to hear Adiche’s “tribal music,” to which Adichie reponded by offering to play her Mariah Carey tape. Then she was surprised Adichie knew how to operate a stove. The roommate had arrived in college with a single story of Africa—a poor and dark place, uplifted by a rich tribal and linguistic culture. Adichie says, “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
I soon had good reason to reflect on Adichie’s eloquent words: “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.”
This semester, I am teaching my education seminar at what I call the MPU, the More Prestigious University. Though I usually enjoy my MPU students, I prefer my students at Cleveland State University, a more working-class and diverse workplace. I view MPU kids as affluent, privileged, and often entitled. I assume their parents have well-paying jobs and good educations. I frequently consider leaving there, because I don’t feel close to or needed by MPU students, who, I assume, will all be fine in life without me. They’re getting a fancy degree at a high-priced college and will proceed smoothly into an upper-ten-percent adult life.
The day after I heard Adichie’s talk, our class was discussing the value of homework. One student proposed that it helps bridge the gap between home and school, because parents can help kids with their assignments. She was quick to acknowledge that many parents might be working too much, too exhausted, or not educationally prepared to help their kids, but, still, homework at least allowed for the possibility. Other students weighed in.
I then asked the students how many had received parental help on their grade-school and high-school homework, expecting that all or most of them would raise their hands. Surprisingly, only about half did. The discussion proceeded, but I circled back to the question. Why, I wondered, did some of you not raise your hands?
A high-achieving girl responded that both her parents had hated school and didn’t do well in it. They lacked both the ability and interest to help her. Another student, of Vietnamese descent, told us that her mother had attended school only through third grade. This student has helped her mother more than vice versa, by, for instance, writing all her emails for her. Another student described how earnestly her foster mother had tried to help her, but that she was ill-equipped to do so. I got stuck on “foster mother,” words I didn’t expect to hear from an MPU student.
Like Adichie, who admits to her own “single stories” about Mexicans and poor people, I had to acknowledge my own. What I’d regarded as a harmless bias was actually an inaccurate, limiting perspective. In Adichie’s words, “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.” The distance I’d always experienced between me and these students might not be their privilege, but rather my own prejudice.