I recently watched a speech on-line by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who spoke at TEDGlobal in London in 2009 about “The Danger of a Single Story.” (please take 18 minutes to watch the inspiring talk here).
Ms. Adichie spoke about how impressionable people, especially children, are when hearing a story. The invaluable lesson is that, by only hearing a fraction of the truth (whether in the media, in school, or in popular culture), we are creating damaging misrepresentations.
Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.
We have all experienced this, and might even be unaware of the line between what we believe to be true and what is actually authentic. As educated adults it is sometimes difficult (but not impossible) to get our news from various sources and perspectives. We can seek out stories on-line, speak with people from both sides, analyze issues using various sources to try to gain understanding of the many angles that compose a subject. But what about children? What is our responsibility as parents and teachers, to assure that we are not developing stereotypes as we teach our kids about the world?
She talks in detail about her home, and how she perceives it and how it is perceived outside of Nigeria. She asks: how are we portraying the continent of Africa to children? [Just as an aside, Ms Adichie briefly mentions her irritation that "Africa" is frequently referred to as if it were a country. How can we minimize and ignore the immense diversity of languages, cultures, and people in 54 different nations-- and package them into one single label?] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently tell us
“If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think: that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
How many of us hold the same definitions and images as our story of “Africa?” Are these the sole images and lessons that we are giving our children about Africa? As Ms. Adichie articulates so well, the problem with focusing on pitying the catastrophes is that we have “no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
Children need to hear different stories- not just about Africa, but Latin America, and Asia. Search out literature that identifies individual stories from specific countries (instead of attempting to represent an entire continent). Talk about the differences between rural and urban areas, the existence of rich, poor and middle classes around the world, and the diversity within countries. Watch movies from other countries to see how they portray aspects of their culture. Talk to kids about stereotypes presented in Hollywood movies (see this great video on Hollywood films’ misrepresentation of African males). Reach out to neighbors from other countries, or kids who are new to the school and unfamiliar with the community. Vary the experiences your kids get from different culture, some days focusing on unique celebrations or recipes or where people live. Other times, talk about commonalities that their peers around the world enjoy: love from their family, playing with friends, music, games. By making sure our kids hear different stories and perspectives about other countries and cultures, we are shaping their view and not limiting them to a single stereotype. As Ms. Adichie said,
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of the people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
What are more ways we can expose our children to many different perspectives and stories? How can we show them that there are many pieces that come together to form a national identity? What can parents and teachers to do avoid cultural stereotypes? Join in the conversation- leave a comment and share with others tips and suggestions.
* Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977, and grew up in a university town called Nsukka. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State in the US with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She also has a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from John Hopkins and a Master’s degree in African Studies from Yale.