Deconstructing the "Single Story"

NewsNotes Spring 2016

In her now famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about growing up middle class in Nigeria and being exposed only to American and British books. The characters in those books, as she tells it, were exclusively white. These stories impacted her own writing and artwork, influencing her to populate her stories with white, blue-eyed people who talked about the weather, played in the snow, and ate apples despite the fact that she experienced none of those things growing up as a black woman in Nigeria; her peers were black, who, like she, ate mangoes which were more available than apples, and who had never seen snow. Growing up exposed to foreigners exclusively through these books and not through any other sources, she developed what she calls a “single story” about foreigners.

Adichie goes on to talk about her experience with her American roommate while attending college in the U.S. She explains that her roommate was shocked that Adichie could speak English so well, that she knew how to use a stove and disappointed when, after asking Adichie to play her favorite music, Adichie produced a tape of Mariah Carey songs. Adichie also observed that her roommate’s default position about people from Africa (often identified as a country rather than a continent) was pity. Her roommate’s single story of Africa was of famine, war and AIDS – a single story of catastrophe and suffering narrowed by pop images, literature and news stories. 

Adichie’s own single story about foreigners was formed when she was a child, as it is for most of us. But even in adulthood, she illustrates, we still struggle with seeing beyond what we are exposed to. The constant stream of images and stories we receive from news sources and social media about refugees, the war-ravaged Arab countries, and terrorism in Europe, for example, influences our perception of those places and minimizes the complexities of those challenges. (During this election year, watch for the over-simplification of topics such as immigration, economics and foreign policy – a form of single story.) 

Children are impressionable and highly vulnerable to defining their world through single stories. As adults we have a vital responsibility to expose children to many stories, many perspectives, many experiences. I have particular pride in how Peninsula School, over the course of its 90 year history, has courageously combatted the single story by engaging students in exploring challenging topics and exposing them to perspectives outside of their own communities. Going back to the very foundations of the school, Josephine Duveneck led the school to challenge Japanese internment, segregated schools, and farmworkers rights, and later the school community was vocal in its opposition to the Vietnam war and in promoting a connection to nature. 

That proud tradition continues today in classrooms with teachers diving into topics about the Jewish holocaust, civil rights, Black Lives Matter, the plight of refugees, immigration, gender stereotypes and sustainability. Students examine sources of news and social media to deconstruct the single stories and discuss history, systematic oppression and prejudice. 

What I find most powerful at Peninsula is the value we place on engaging students in a democratic process – this value lies at the foundation of Josephine Duveneck’s dynamic vision for the school. The profound power of the democratic tradition occurs in student meetings that are a regular part of each classroom’s school day. It is in these meetings that students are exposed to the perspectives of others, where students find their own voice, where they learn how to resolve conflicts, and where they experience the balance of individuality, diversity and community. 

Peninsula has a legendary 90 year history of providing a space where children thrive and develop their full potential as confident contributors to the world. It’s our mission! Inherent in that mission is our duty to help them gain a deep understanding about their communities, about others and about the rich complexities of the world outside our campus so that they have not a single story, but many, many wonderful stories that will help them become ethical leaders and compassionate citizens.