The danger of a single story

We’ve been talking this month about ways that valuing diversity is critical for leaders in higher education.  But what does that look like?  How can I address the big challenges we face?

AdichieAccording to the novelist Chimamanda Adichie, one important step is to recognize the importance of stories.  In this TED talk, she makes a compelling case that when we only know one thing about a person or a place, we can’t engage in real interactions.  People’s lives and cultures are built on many overlapping stories.  If all we know about someone is that she was a high school dropout, or that his family was homeless, or that her parents are immigrants, we won’t be able to create the kind of environment that will help them succeed.

Early in my career, I supervised a team that included an older woman from a culture differnt than mine. The relationship did not start out well. I realize now that I was telling myself a very small story about her – she was older, we didn’t share a culture, she had difficulty performing some of the work tasks – and I didn’t make the effort to learn more. I thought I was behaving professionally, but I think she found me to be uncaring.

Our story had a happy ending.  A few months later we both became pregnant, I with my first child and she with her third. Suddenly we had a common bond, things to talk about in the lunch room. This opened communication and created a smoother working relationship. This experience taught me a lot about leading diverse teams.

In the talk, Adichie shares her experiences with learning to tell her own stories and hear others.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

  • The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
  • Power is the ability, not just to tell a single story about another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.
  • I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or that person

I’d encourage you to view the talk, and consider discussing it together in a team meeting. Ask yourself and your team – how can we seek a balance of stories?

Dee Anne Bonebright

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2 responses to “The danger of a single story

  1. the everyday academic

    Reblogged this on the everyday academic and commented:
    favorite takeaways:
    “The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.

    Power is the ability, not just to tell a single story about another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

    I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all the stories of that place or that person.”

    In a lot of ways, this makes me think about one of my personal issues with considering race in college admissions. It’s not that race doesn’t matter – because yes, even in 2013, it does. It’s that race isn’t the only thing that matters, nor is it the most important thing. The way it’s discussed, however, loses sight of that at times; admissions officers get excited over an African-American male with strong testing not because he wants to be a philosophy major, but because he’s an African-American male with strong testing. That becomes his story. That’s the power of the dominant majority – to make one facet the defining facet, ignoring the fact that it paints an incomplete picture. It further enforces stereotypes and impedes progress.

    I’m not sure how to fix it – not talking about it or creating ever-more PC codewords isn’t the way to go – but I think this drives home the power of words and stories to shape how we think about each other and the world around us.

    Like

  2. I think that’s a good example of the single story trap we can fall into in higher education. I’m also not sure how to fix it, but being aware when it happens is a good first step.

    Like

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