The Danger of a Single Story
Updated: Jan 11
Even as I opened my eyes this morning at 7 o'clock, my subconscious was reminding me that I had nothing prepared for my language class this morning. I was Pinterest-ing ideas for a video to share and discuss, and that's when I met Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story." I'll put a link to it below. Please listen. It's not really about racism, it's about stereotyping. And the reaction from her college roommate when she got to America? Reminded me of so many questions I've gotten about moving to Haiti and about my husband! She's a beautiful storyteller... here are some of her words:
"I grew up in Nigeria. I was an early reader. I grew up reading American and British children's books, and in those books the characters were white and blue-eyed. They had pink pigs and snow at Christmas. They ate apples and had Easter eggs at Easter. I was also an early writer. And when I began to write, at the age of seven, stories written in pencil on lined exercise books, all my characters were white and blue-eyed. They ate apples and played in the snow at Christmas, and talked about going out when the sun came out.
Now this was despite the fact that I lived in a world where people were mostly black, and ate mangoes instead of apples, and didn't have snow, and never talked about the weather because there was no need to.
The sun was always out.
And of course, I had never seen a pretty pink pig. All the pigs I'd seen were brown and quite disgusting.
What this demonstrates, I think, is the power of stories. How impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of stories. Because I had read stories in which the characters were white and foreign, I had become convinced that the stories that were worthy of books were those in which the characters were white and foreign.
I loved those British and American books. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. The unintended consequence was the fact that I did not consciously, actively know that people like me – little girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair did not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.
Representation matters. If we see only one type or person doing a certain job over and over, we begin to think that only that kind of person can do that job."
We went to work on moto this morning. Riding a moto puts you a little closer to the stories around you... the smoke and dust in your eyes, the grimace of a person balancing a load on their head. All the sounds and smells and bustling humanity that is Port au Prince, from dress shirts to dreadlocks. The French signs I practice deciphering, the used clothes and brightly colored curtains and couch pillows for sale, and a person trucking down the sidewalk carrying 2 full-sized mannequins. The billboard for the sushi restaurant and all the high-end European brand car dealerships. We even passed a European man in a Land Cruiser that stared down at me in a rather strange way.
All of this is Haiti... There are the mountain village farmers... the Caribbean fishermen with wooden boats... and this... the teeming island's mass of humanity seems to converge in this one city. Dirty. Scary. Trashy. Smelly. Port au Prince. Where people randomly burst into song as they walk down the street. Where merchants gossip and storekeepers go to sleep on the cool-ish concrete of their boutiks in the afternoon. Where families make gigantic sacrifices for their children to go to school. And anywhere you look up, there are the hills... "from whence cometh your help." When there's nothing else to do, you can always throw your arms to the sky and say "Oh, Jezi, pa kite'm..." Oh Jesus, don't leave me. And he doesn't. He gives you a friend to braid your hair while you gossip frantically all the while. A cup of passion fruit juice to beat the heat. An auntie to make you tea if you get sick and scold you for all your short-comings in the most loving, busy-bodyish way you can imagine.
And here I am in the middle of this all. Away from the world I was born in, I have been given this chance to learn the stories.
In just a year I have heard so many. The person that a casual foreigner looks at with condescending "awww" of surface pity – I have sat with them and listened to their true story. I have heard the wails at a funeral, sat in a dark backyard and been offered a pate and juice at a wake of a woman who died because of inadequate medical care. And then, the next day, gone to a wedding in the third floor of a pretty building... the room draped in white cloth and hung with gold Chinese lanterns. Here I was offered a piece of teriyaki chicken on a skewer by a very formal looking waiter, and a fried plantain pressed into a bowl filled with chicken, with a plastic goblet of champagne to wash it down. The bride was glowing. I could not have been more jealous of her caramel complexion.
This country's people are individuals to me now and I look at mostly with respect and admiration... not with condescending pity or casual curiosity.
And it was interesting, this morning's lesson. To sit with my be-suited, Audi driving, class of lawyers, and ask them what they felt the world thought about Haiti...
The women are ugly... it's a dangerous, unstable country... the food is no good... Haitians are all poor, and looking for someone to take advantage of...
And then we talked about the truth, the real story of Haiti that maybe few know: the "debt" of what would currently amount to 20 million USD that they paid to France for their independence; the ways the USA and other "friends" of Haiti have hurt the economy by doing things like shipping rice to Haiti to be sold at a much lower price than Haitian grown rice. It's a long story. And far from simple.
I asked them what it took to be successful in Haiti. They said courage, education, and dedication. And then you might still not make it, because you'll need to accept that the system is set up to work against you.
I was glad for my 2 hours with them. And so thankful for this life God has given me to open my mind and heart to new people - seen as individuals and not as a race.
"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." - Chimamanda Adiche
Here's the video. If the link doesn't work, search for "The Danger of a Single Story."