Soapbox: why we need more stories and more storytellers

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The other night I listened to Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk on the Danger of a Single Story.  This talk was both humorous and insightful, as she discussed growing up as middle class Nigerian, finding her voice as a writer, becoming “African” as she came to the US for college, and traveling to Mexico.

I was surprised that the idea of cleaning your plate because the children in Africa are starving thing spread even to Nigeria, in her childhood (which causes a completely different set of problems).

All of this underscored the problem of relying on a single narrative to shape your impressions of people or places.  For those of us who grew up in the “West,” the story we heard about Africa (and Africans) is one of AIDS, poverty and civil wars between “tribes.”  We didn’t hear about entrepreneurs, colleges, dense cities or beach side resorts.  Our story of Mexico, is a land of “illegals” who eat burritos and walk over to the US.  And not stories of a rich culture, or history, or cuisine and modern development.

And we can look at the “single stories” we tell of our own people.  Our black males are thugs, criminals and drug dealers.  Our Asian-Americans study hard and become engineers, scientists and doctors.  When someone reflects a different, and unexpected narrative, we call them exceptions.  Or tell them they aren’t actually members of their group.

When we talk about Oakland, our story centers around violence, corruption and despair. We ignore the tales of success, like homegrown businesses from Pandora to Blue Bottle to Oaklandish, changing everything from how we drink coffee, listen to music and how we show local pride.  Local schools improving 15% year over year or violent crime decreasing in 2013.

This extends to our pop culture and mass media, which ignores the diverse experiences here in the US and abroad, making us invisible.

Minimizing our perceptions of people and places based on a single perspective robs us of the chance to think critically, to experience things with our minds and eyes open, and create our own narratives. Hopefully, by seeking out and experiencing new stories and multiple stories we can create new realities too.

I recommend checking out this excellent Ted Talk.

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