“Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books. But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.”
-CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE
This woman speaks so beautifully about a common trap we all often fall into. The single-story that we tell ourselves about others who are a part of a demographic we know little about is how entire populations of people become framed in the most absurd ways. In listening to her words, it became apparent to me that it is true when she says that the single-story problem often stems from those with power writing the narratives, but there is more to it than that. One of the problems that creates these single-stories is that we don’t take enough individual responsibility for expressing our uniqueness that sets us apart from our in-group.
I notice that the people who are often most angry about being stereotyped are the very people that seek approval from their in-group most. There is often a fervent desire to take others to task for pigeonholing them, but they don’t express the parts of themselves that may not be viewed upon favorably by said group. Thus, the stereotypes of certain groups are perpetuated, allowing those who control these narratives to paint the picture of their choosing.
There is often a defensiveness that works in tandem with a protectiveness that causes us to work exceptionally hard to control how others view us. We don’t want to be disloyal to our in-group, but we don’t want to be stereotyped either. We all must take responsibility for challenging the single-story by being more generous with ourselves in sharing with others. The idiosyncrasies that differentiate us are the very things that can bring us all together. Communicate aspects of yourself that do not fall in line with expectations. It may be slightly uncomfortable to reveal things that challenge others’ perceptions of you, but it can be quite freeing. Don’t be afraid to break the mold —doing so can be in service of something greater than yourself.