We know that every person is different from any other in countless ways, yet when we encounter others, we often rely on generalizations to describe them. “It's a natural tendency,” says psychologist Deborah Tannen:
We must see the world in patterns in order to make sense of it; we wouldn’t be able to deal with the daily onslaught of people and objects if we couldn’t predict a lot about them and feel that we know who and what they are. But this natural and useful ability to see patterns of similarity has unfortunate consequences. It is offensive to reduce an individual to a category, and it is also misleading.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses the phrase “single stories” to describe the overly simplistic and sometimes false perceptions we form about individuals, groups, or countries. Her novels and short stories complicate the single stories many people believe about Nigeria, the country where she is from.
In a speech excerpted in this lesson, Adichie recounts her experiences as the subject of the “single stories” others have created about groups to which she belongs, as well as times when she herself has created single stories about others. She says:
I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar . . .
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.
Adichie’s speech provides a framework for discussing stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination with your students. A stereotype is a belief about an individual based on the real or imagined characteristics of a group to which that individual belongs. Stereotypes can lead us to judge an individual or group negatively. Even stereotypes that seem to portray a group positively reduce individuals to categories and tell an incomplete or inaccurate “single story.” Prejudice occurs when we form an opinion about an individual or a group based on a negative stereotype. When a prejudice leads us to treat an individual or group negatively, discrimination occurs.
It is important to reflect on the relationship explored in this lesson between the ways that we think about others and the ways that we treat others. Investigating the connections between stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination will provide an important framework for exploring in future lessons the ways that people create “in” groups and “out” groups, both in our everyday lives and throughout history.