Culture Guides

The Danger of a Single Story – Lies of Modern Culture

Chimamanda Adichie speaks of the misleading myths that frame the identity of powerless peoples.

Were you ever told as a child eat up, there are people starving in Africa?

Or were the only Africans you saw the natives on Tarzan reruns who looked suspiciously Latin American as they jumped up and down and shook their spears?

Chimamanda Adichie explains in this moving and eloquent speech why our mental image of a people is often determined by a single story, a single depiction of a nation, inducing a single emotion to be felt in their regard. The complexity of a foreign society gets reduced to a single stereotype and the humanity is lost. Mexicans are illegal immigrants. Africans fight senseless wars. American youths are serial killers – if you just read American Psycho.

But of course no one would make the latter mistake as there is a wealth of American stories broadcast every day. The media is saturated with stories of Americans in movies, songs and books. Can you name a single novel set in Ethiopia? A film about the Burmese? A song about life in Ecuador?

Banksy interprets modern African reality

Chimamanda Adichie argues that we need ‘a balance of stories’ where we can see the diversity of other cultures and peoples instead of the cartoon version we hold in our heads. Stereotypes may sometimes be true but they are incomplete. Yes, many Africans struggle to survive but they also flourish. There are Mexicans who abuse the American social system and there are tens of millions more who have no intention of ever leaving home.

Stories can impoverish our mental maps of the world but they also have the power to enrich it.