Beyond the Single Story

Bianca Settino, The Unmentionables’ Social Media Manager

“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.”

These were words spoken by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she explained how reducing complex topics to a sole narrative can result in a critical misunderstanding. Single stories present people or situations as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again. When we’re only exposed to one point of view, we accept that dominant narrative as the whole truth. We fall into the trap of the single story, as we are dissuaded from seeking out alternative perspectives and are prevented from forming a complex, nuanced point of view.

People can’t be fit into single molds or tiny boxes because identity is not one-dimensional. It’s comprised of a multitude of overlapping stories, and it’s impossible to truly understand a person unless you know all of his or her stories. Adichie explained that the issue is really about power – the “ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” Power shapes how and when stories are told, as well as who tells them. It can lead to the dispossession of an already disempowered group by starting their story with “secondly.”

There exists a single story of refugees. Over the years, the media has shown them as one thing, over and over again: people who are displaced, forced to flee, and without a permanent home. While it’s true that they are refugees, they are not just refugees. Confining them to this sole identity paints an incomplete picture and dismisses the rest of their stories. Even if what country they come from and their reason for leaving are known facts, little is known beyond that. People often forget that refugees have lives before they flee home. They have unique relationships, experiences, dreams, and ambitions. They have stories, not just one, to share.

By reducing an entire group of people to a single identity and treating them on the basis of one narrative, the media has focused on what makes refugees different instead of recognizing their equal humanity. They have been dehumanized and robbed of their dignity, which has stopped people from feeling anything more than pity for them and their situation. Their story has been started with “secondly.”

While single stories can dispossess and malign, a multitude of stories can empower, humanize, and repair broken dignity. To gain a better and deeper understanding of refugees, we should open our hearts and minds to different narratives. Instead of automatically putting them in a box, we should be ready to listen if they’re willing to tell their stories. Even if they don’t want to share, we should know that there’s always more than meets the eye. This is the only way to move beyond the single story of refugees.

Bianca Settino