The Danger of the Single Story


I am a Caucasian, Christian female.


Based on that sentence alone, you have a preconceived idea of who I am as a person.  I’m not sure which part caught your attention more – the identity of my race, the identity of my religion, or the identity of my gender.  

However, none of these descriptors give you clues as to the identity of my inner self.  You don’t know my hopes or fears.  You have no clue what I value or appreciate.  There’s no indication of what lights my fire or absolutely unnerves me.

That’s the danger of the single story.  By now, you have put me in a box based on the small piece of information above.  Whether or not you intended to do it, I have become one thing in your mind.

Imagine how many people we do this to, day in and day out.  We watch the people around us and only slightly interact when the need calls for it.  It’s only the people we truly love and care for that get a chance to show their inner selves to us.  It’s the relationship that forms the story.  

This is the danger of the single story.  Writer Chimamanda Adichie cautions us from letting the small pieces of information, whether they be judgements or assumptions, cloud our vision of those around us.  This misunderstanding can damage or even prevent future relationships.  The single story causes unintentional judgement that can create a “patronizing well-meaning pity,” similar to what you may have experienced after reading my introduction.

As educators, think about our students’ single stories.  The boy who never turns in his work – he’s hopeless.  The girl who talks incessantly – she’s impossible.  We see our class lists and either smile with excitement or groan with anguish about our new group of kids.  In some institutions, it’s encouraged to speak with previous grade level teachers to review the history of our students.  It’s meant to better prepare us for the behaviors or attitudes we may see them exhibit.  However, over the years, I have met less and less with these former teachers.  This allows me to approach each student with a blank slate rather than this single story.

Now, let’s extend this idea to the role of leadership.  How do we as leaders risk jeopardizing the relationships with our colleagues based on their “single stories?”  Do we shy away from someone who we see as unapproachable or gravitate to those who appear confident?  This may even affect the tasks or responsibilities we ask of others – all because we let the single story control our relationships and create ideas that are incomplete.  The challenge, then, is to go beyond the single story.  By learning about your colleagues’ inner selves, you build the sentences and paragraphs that form their complete story.

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