The Danger of a Single Story

The Danger of the Single Story

I wanted to share this TED talk because of the impact it had for me in thinking about the way in which I view people, the things that have created my generalizations and the role that I play in maintaining these popular narratives. The goal of Voices of Homelessness is to help break the stereotypes that our community has about what it is like to be homeless. We want to show that those that have experienced homelessness are people and deserve to the have the dignity and respect that each of us desires from others on a daily basis. In watching this presentation, many of the points that she makes directly related to the work and I wanted to share those with you.

Building the Single Story

First, Adichie builds the idea of a single story by providing three examples: 1) the poor houseboy, 2) image of Africans in the eyes of her white college roommate and 3) her image of the immigrant Mexican.  In all of these examples, Adichie discusses how too often we hear stories of people and places that share commonalities. These stories are repeated over and over and soon they are seen as the only story and the presumed truth. For instance, Adichie states “that is how you create a single story: Show them as one thing, as only one thing, over and over and that is what they become.”

For homelessness, our common narrative in the United States is the alcoholic, drug user, who is too lazy to get a job and stop being homeless. Through media and popular images of homelessness, our society has built this single story of the homeless individual that is at fault for their own failure and situation. We place personal blame, writing them off as unproductive members of society. Becuase of this, we either pity them (as Adichie mentions happened in each of her examples) or we ignore them, becoming resentful to their lack of effort and ambition to change their own lives.

The Role of Power

One of the most powerful segments, though brief, was the discussion of power and the role that it plays in creating these stories. It is impossible to talk about any of these topics without talking about the role of power. Stories are defined by the principles of power affecting how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, and how many are told. Those with power hold the ability to define and shape the stories of people and places by making these decisions. Adichie states “power is not only the ability to tell the story of another but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

For the individuals with experiences of homelessness, many times they do not hold any of this power. The stories of what is homelessness and who experiences it are thrust on them, regardless of their own individual compatibility. The rest of the world makes presumptions and those with the experience have little power to change it. This blog it dedicated to giving that power back to these individuals by providing them with the space to share their own stories and create their own narrative of their lives.

Consequences of Stereotypes

These single stories are what serve as the foundation of our stereotypes. Adichie discusses that it is the stereotypes that “robs people of their dignity, it makes the recognition of our equal humanity difficult,  and it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” She talks about the fact that stereotypes are dangerous, not because they are untrue (because there may be circumstances in which they are) but because they are incomplete. They show the definitive story line and make it difficult to see it as any other way. However, Adichie suggests that the use of many stories may be able to break these single story narratives. She talks about how things could have been different in each of her example situations if each person was willing and able to hear the variety of stories, the good and the bad that make up those realities.

This is what this project intends to do in our community for homelessness. My dream would be for these stories to showcase the multiple stories of homelessness and to show that those that are experiencing this difficulty are diverse. The use of one single story for those that share this experience is an injustice because of the multitude of stories that are represented in that population. I hope with these stories that we are able to draw on more similarities than differences and the readers will be able to see that most of us are each one paycheck or crisis away from being homeless ourselves. Finally, Adichie states that it is “impossible to engage with a place or person without engaging with all the stories of that place and that person.” Therefore, as a community, all the stories of this shared experience must be understood and accepted as truth in order to effectively deal with the issue of homelessness rather than the issue of the homeless.