Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
In the previous lesson, students began the first stage of the Facing History scope and sequence, “The Individual and Society,” by considering the complexity of answering the question “Who am I?” In this lesson, students will continue to explore the relationship between individual and society by examining how we so often believe “single stories” and stereotypes about groups of people. The activities that follow ask students to reflect on the basic human behavior of applying categories to the people and things we meet and to think about the circumstances in which “single stories” about others can be harmful or even dangerous.
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.1
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.2
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.
Explore Why “Little Things Are Big”
The reading Little Things Are Big provides students with the opportunity to examine how the stereotypes we believe about each other can affect our choices. The author of this piece describes a dilemma he faced over whether or not to help a woman late at night on the New York City subway. The dilemma he describes, and his own evaluation of the choice he made, can provide the basis for a meaningful and engaging class discussion. Consider sharing the reading with students and using the connection questions that follow for discussion and reflection.