If you haven’t already seen it, this TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is well worth 19 minutes of your time. She talks about the dangerous power of a single story. The way we too often assume that people who are different from us can be defined and summarised by one story, whereas our own culture is allowed the complexity and contradictions of multiple perspectives. The effect of doing this is to emphasize the thing we see as different and to minimise our shared humanity.
Her message is powerful and resonates for a number of reasons. I was challenged and intrigued by the way she talks about stories, and how we can make a story an entirely different story by starting it with “secondly.” In other words, the point at which we choose to begin telling someone’s story will completely shape how we hear and understand it.
The comment that really resonated with me today, however, is this one:
“Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
Why did this hit me so strongly? I think it is because I am afraid that this is what I see happening around me.
Australians have started to tell the story of people who come to our shores seeking refuge in a particular way. We define their whole story by that one action. We are starting their story with a “secondly.” Our government has even pronounced on what language is and isn’t acceptable to describe these people. We are being shown them as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again.
When we define people as only one thing, and a thing that we think we are not, it becomes very easy to see them as “other,” and to dismiss the rest of their stories. We end up dehumanising them. I have observed it in the way different tribal groups relate to one another in parts of Africa. I see it in the way the early Jewish church struggled to accept Gentiles in the New Testament. I’m even noticing it in the way young men speak about women online. And I hear it every day in the rhetoric and debate that surrounds the “issue” of asylum seekers in Australia today.
At the political level, it can feel like this battle has already been lost. Many seem quite comfortable accepting the single story we have been told.
At the personal level, I’m grateful for those who continue to listen to the myriad of different stories from those who make up the Australian community in all its diversity. If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out www.welcometoaustralia.org.au and maybe take the time to listen to just one of the many stories there.
I would hate to think that my life could be defined by a single story someone else told about ‘people like me.’ I hope I can show that same grace to others, no matter where they come from or how they arrive on my doorstep.