Overcoming the Single Story with Community

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“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.”  — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I learned of the concept of the single story from a talk given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In her now famous 2009 TED talk, the novelist explains that a single story of a culture or people is very common, but dangerous. At some point or another we have all assumed an understanding of what it must be like to live in, say, South America or China, but to have only a single story of those vast places in our minds is absurdly limited. When we have only seen or heard or read glimpses of other people groups and places, we tend to assign them a story based on these glimpses. Often the stories are so limited they are downright comical.

I grew up primarily on the west coast: Oregon, mainly, for the first 16 years, with travel experiences to the north in Washington and to the south in California. This put me in contact with a certain west coast culture of relaxed, outdoorsy individualism that was pretty well matched by my experiences when I moved to Alaska to finish out high school. My peers in this culture dressed for comfort because on any given day they were guaranteed to — at a minimum — get their hands dirty. That was my single story of American life. When I graduated, I got a scholarship to a small university in Tennessee. I knew Tennessee was not going to match my experience growing up, but that was about all I knew for sure. My only glimpse of Tennessee (prior to arriving) was a single story of a “backwoods cabin Tennessee,” probably from books or movies. Upon arrival, I expected to meet at least a few cabin people.

This is ridiculous to me now because, of course, even though I lived there for five years, I never once met a person who lived in a backwoods cabin. What I found instead were polished peers in crisp polos and khakis, accomplished musicians, brilliant playwrights, hilarious comedic writers, gifted financial minds, and some of the most disciplined athletes I’ve ever known. Thankfully, my two single stories very quickly grew to dozens of stories, and I was much better for it. I also provided another story to my college peers who had their own single stories. To them, the Alaska girl with too many flannel shirts to be wearing them ironically was the backwoods cabin person. As I shared my story, their horizons broadened as well.

We probably all have some experience of this. I was lucky in that mine was not painful and actually made me a better person. The single story obstacle in my case wasn’t a big deal. But this is not always the case.

Single stories are more dangerous on a larger scale, especially when accompanied by fear or judgement. These stories often focus on racial, religious, or economic traits. Sometimes our glimpses are from newscasts regularly highlighting the poverty of Africa or the extremists of Islam; other times our single stories come from actual stories — movies, plays, and books — with stereotypical roles for the characters. Our single stories can even come from what we have heard second-hand about a place or what we experienced first-hand on a short-term travel experience.

It really doesn’t matter how we obtain our single stories. What matters is that, even though they are clearly limited, we tend to keep them.

We tend to keep telling these single stories as we create and communicate because we simply only have the one to work with. This kind of limited understanding is fine for a starting place; after all, we have to start somewhere. But to stick with a single story for any people group or place simply defies logic. And yet, we have done it for a very long time.

Why is that?

One idea offered to explain this phenomenon is that we are more drawn to simplicity than we are to truth because we can control simplicity. Research shows that we are drawn to simple ideas more than we are to complex ones. We even buy according to what is simple over what is complex. If a website lacks clarity about what is being offered, we bounce more often than we explore further. The fact that our brains tend to prefer simplicity becomes problematic for more than just marketing execs when it comes to tackling more important things. Things like the truth.

The truth is never simple.

The truth can be complicated, paradoxical even. Often, it has the scent of mystery. This can make it uncomfortable to process and hard to accept. Because we are much more comfortable with what we can control, we prefer simple, often over-simplified, categories for our ideas.

A single story fits this requirement. It is very simple and easily controlled. It’s easily obtained, explained, and replicated. It’s ridiculously repeatable.

And this is the problem.

Single stories are tenacious and infectious. They spread. And the more negative they are, the more so. They set up camp in our minds and imaginations and generate things like fear, condescension, and a lack of respect. They breed assumptions. Even when they generate pity, they prompt us to herd whole people groups into a corral of “them.”

And it doesn’t end there.

Besides the resulting words and behaviors wafting up from the stale air of our limited understanding, another challenge arises from the single story. A single story highlights how we are different, but neglects the balance of how, as humans, we are the same. This lopsided focus on differences stirs up division so quickly, the damage to relationships and cultures is hard to even calculate. Even when we never mean to do anything of the sort, we find ourselves caught up in it all.

So what do we do?

Back to me in Tennessee: I didn’t keep my single story of a backwoods cabin Tennessee for long once I got there. Why not? Because I was very quickly exposed to other stories. To my delight, my single story of Tennessee grew to be a collection of wonderfully diverse stories as I started to get to know my peers and build community with them.

And it turns out that this is the best thing about single stories: they can be replaced with just a little effort to take in more varied ones.

One of the places this happens organically is in community. Community is a positive transformation that happens to a group of people who come together with a shared intention of connecting and enough perseverance to get through the obstacles in the way of doing so. The reason for connecting doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters is that in almost any true community setting, be it a social or religious group, a 12-step meeting, or a group of parents at a regular playgroup, we take in more stories almost effortlessly. It’s just what we do in community. We show up and hear stories. And if we’re really intentional, we listen to each other’s stories. And we share ours, so others get to add to their collection as well.

But what if we aren’t in community with anyone? How do we get community?

We create it.

At its core, community building is a creative act of the will. In her recent interview with Krista Tippett for On Being, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love and other best sellers, speaks of how we are all creators: “Creativity is innate. We are all makers, and we are descended from makers. Every human child does this naturally.”

With our own ingenuity and creativity, we can create community and take in more varied stories from the people in the community.

And there’s one more key:

Community is created by makers who have chosen curiosity over fear. Gilbert says, “Curiosity give you clues, not a destination. Interesting people are interestED people.” With curiosity at the helm, each of us can become community creators, connecting with another, asking questions and simply being curious enough to take in more varied stories of our life together on this planet.

And the more varied, the better.

Where it happens or for what reason people are connecting matters less with community building than the fact that the participants are intentional and willing to persevere past the single stories to get a broader understanding of our life together. We can do this in reading groups, on sports teams, at project meetings, on the bus, or in the neighborhood. But it gets even better when we reach further — out of our regular routes — to find those who have grown from other gardens, come into town for other reasons. As we build community with those from more varied backgrounds, the new stories are like fresh water into our stagnant ponds. Everything gets greener, more oxygenated. The clouds clear when we get curious and start listening to the stories and joyfully gathering them in.

So we have a starting place. We can overcome the single story with a resistance of curiosity, community building, and story gathering. We can refuse fear and choose curiosity. We can fight the heavy with the light. We can transform a “them” into an “us.”


1 Comment

  1. MacKenzie Branch

    @mackenziepauline

    Great article. I too am preparing to step out of my “single story” and into a small college in Tennessee. One of the many things I am looking forward to is all of the new stories I will encounter in this leap outside my comfort zone (which is currently rural Illinois). It won’t be as big of a culture shift as West Coast to Tennessee (at least I don’t think so…maybe I’m more naive than I think!) but it will still be a huge change for me. I’m eager to discover the community that is waiting there.

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