The Danger of a Single Story

Posted on October 30th, 2012 by

The Danger of a Single Story is a talk in which an author, Chimamanda Adichie, talks about the impact of stories in her own life. She makes an argument that everyone’s story matters and that silencing and controlling the stories of others is an act of violence.

  • What idea was most powerful to you in her talk? What does it help you understand? What questions does it raise for you as a writer, reader, or teacher?
  • Think about this as a mentor text for your own writing. What writing strategies did she use to create a powerful text? What would you like to try yourself?
  • Other thoughts?


  1. Hannah Forster says:

    I really enjoyed this video! In my opinion, the most powerful point she made was when she was poking fun at the concept of believing that because one book has a certain type of character that represents a culture, all people from that culture or location must be exactly the same. She said “I read ____________, and I was very disappointed to see that all young Americans are serial killers.” This subtle joke, which reversed the roles, really resonated with me. It sounds absurd when she puts it like that. Why would anybody assume that one book about a young American serial killer portrays all young Americans? But, of course, this is exactly what we do when we read books about other cultures and assume that all people are exactly the same as those in the story. This is exactly where the danger lies in “one story.” Her subtle humor while highlight her own experiences with “one story” probably made the audience, like me, feel embarrassed for ever thinking that one book or story could allow us to draw conclusions about a group of people.

    Her story about her first college roommate wanting to hear her “tribal music” is actually ridiculous, but unfortunately not surprising. It is so incredibly important as teachers to remember to represent other cultures in a variety different ways and to teach your students to read and think critically about these topics so as not to make assumptions and generalizations.

    As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I would like highlight her use of personal experiences and subtle humor to capture the audience. Though her writing made a lot of concrete points, her personal experiences made it more realistic for the audience. Her subtle humor caused the audience to think critically, for of course there is always some truth in jokes. As a writer, I would like to work on capturing my audience in this way, and I would like to remember as a teacher to teach the importance of connecting with your audience.

    Thanks for sharing, Valerie!!

  2. Cassandra Faust says:

    In my opinion, the most powerful idea in her talk was that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” I think this is a topic imperative to discuss with our students. In a globalizing world, it is essential that we teach our students to search for the “whole story,” and not the “single story” when learning about other cultures. It is important for our students to learn how to view other cultures, as well as other people as a whole story. Another powerful, and humorous example she used in her speech was when a student made the comment to her about how it is such a shame that males in Nigeria are abusive like the character in her story. I love how she responded with the comment about how she just read “American Psycho,” and how it is such a shame that American adolesents are all serial killers. This was the perfect example of how this student was categorizing all Nigerian males based on a single character in a piece of literature.

    In using this as a mentor text, I love how Chimamanda Adichie shares with the audience both negative stories such as the food dissapearing from the table, and her ignorant roommate, as well as the positive stories from her life. As educators we are going to need to be critical of the literature we are sharing in our classrooms and how they portray a story or a culture. Furthermore, we need to teach our students how to be critical of what they are reading and to question whether or not the literature is being stereotypical or only representing a portion or “single story.” I think it would be a worthwhile project in class to have a classmate choose another person to write a story about and have to “dig” for the whole story in order to properly represent the person. It may teach the students how careful you have to be to look further than a “single story.”

  3. Kelly Okerman says:

    I really enjoyed this presentation. Chimamanda Adichie challenges her audience on multiple levels. Not only did she discuss the importance of having multiple perspectives but she also challenged people to think deeply using different emotions as well as confronted overarching historical powers. Her talk made me think of global competency. This is an essential concept to instill within each student. Global competency is the ability to see beyond one’s own story and see how their decisions directly affect other people’s stories. In this way, a student’s perspective of life is not a flattened story, but a complex array of emotions, histories, and relationships. Chimamanda Adichie described how students develop their own thoughts through their experiences, and students’ perception is often incomplete. As a child, she herself was only shown foreign literature. For this reason, Chimamanda did not belief she could write about her life. This directly relates to situations that happen in the classroom. If students are only shown fiction literature and have no knowledge of non-fiction texts, they form a misconception about reality. Similarly in history, if students are fed stereotypes and biased information, they will hold a view of the world in their mind that is not reality.

    I also appreciated that Chimamanda Adichie did not express her story as a single story. She did not blame a single person for things that have happened in her life. In the same way, a teacher cannot assign blame to a single person within his or her classroom. If a student is not grasping a concept, it is probably not entirely the students fault nor the teachers fault. Yet the teacher’s responsibility is to make a change in the curriculum to fit the needs of the class. Outside the classroom, we each have this same responsibility. Each of us must work to transform our single-minded perceptions into actual understanding and experience of reality.

  4. Megan Born says:

    This video communicated many important messages. As a child growing up, I had many experiences with hearing the “single story.” In school, I was mostly taught things from one perspective, whether it came from my teacher or a book I read or my peers. Being from the rural Midwest, I was told multiple perspectives while learning about the things and people I grew up with but not when learning about different lifestyles, people, events, or locations. I didn’t travel much; maybe to other states in the U.S. but never out of the country. Because of my limited experiences and viewpoints at such an impressionable and vulnerable age, to this day I catch myself thinking just like the “single stories” that were once told to me.

    As an elementary teacher, it is imperative that I teach my students to understand that there is never one story to anything in life. They must question and research different views on anything before they form an opinion or assume something. I want my students to know that just like many stories formed them, many stories formed everything else in the world. It might be useful for them to think about taking one story from their lives and another person forming an opinion of them based on that one story. I’m guessing the students would not feel good about that. This would teach them to see how important it is to know a story that is true and complete. It is very important that when I teach any subject, I must teach it multiple ways and from multiple views. Not only will it make it easier for students to understand something, but it will encourage them to be lifelong researchers and to always find the whole story.

    I loved how the speaker emphasized how knowing only the “single story” can cause conflict and show the differences between things. Knowing multiple “stories” can bring people together because it is much easier to find similarities between things knowing the complete story. I also liked that she brought up how any source of power can greatly influence what story is told. As a teacher, I have a lot of influence and power in my students’ lives and I must use it carefully and wisely so my students can be well-rounded people who are always getting the full story.

  5. Bailey Zeinert says:

    I really enjoyed watching this! The speaker was so easy to listen to an I was able to understand the points she was making. I loved how she calls it knowing only one story. I was able to think of it as a trial and jury. With the trial the jury has the chance to listen to both sides of the story. When writer, and news broadcasters choose to tell us only one side of the story, we as viewers and readers only have that to listen and believe. Her story really helped widen my eyes to the types of books I have read in my life. It is so true that many writers tend to only write to one stereotype. I see now that the western stereotype is heavily portrayed from children’s books and up. I want to read and experience more books written by authors form around the world.

    I can’t wait to start looking closer at the books I read and find for my future classroom. I want to ensure that more than one story is being told about all people. When reading and writing i want to challenge students to think about the characters and develop them in a way that isn’t typical. To have them embrace the differences that life has to offer in the world.I am excited to take in information that i hear or read and challenge myself not to accept one view, but to find other ones and consider those stories as well. I don’t want to fall into the cycle of only believing one story and never thinking or considering that their are outliers to the stereotypes.

    I just really enjoyed watching this! I thought she did a great job speaking and making it comical. I appreciated that she acknowledged that she has fallen into the trap of believing the single story about things in her own life. I like that she was accepting the fault and not just preaching and pointing the finger at others.

  6. Sophia Hanson says:

    The most powerful idea I took away from this story is that telling only one story of someone and their culture is robbing them of their dignity. This hit home for me because I cannot imagine what it would be like for people to judge me based on one single event in my life or one single view point of my country. People are not made of one story, countries and communities are not made of one single story. It is all of the stories, all of the little pieces that make up a person. I also found it very interesting how she talked about the definition of power. power is not just telling someone else’s story, but it is making that the only story, the only view point. of that person or country. No one should have this power; it is unfair and promotes inequality.

    As future educators, it is important for us to recognize how vulnerable our students are. They are vulnerable to the literature and information we expose them to. This is part of the reason why it is so important to share several stories of countries and people, not one single story. We want our students to be open minded about all cultures, not biased or stereotyped. We must show our students that everyone can exist in literature.

    Over all, I think this is a great video. It has really made me think about how I just assumed things as a child because I only heard “one story”. There is so much more to the world that a single story.

  7. Mariah Krusemark says:

    I think this video is very inspiring and powerful. It is amazing how a single story can truly affect what people believe about different people and cultures. The stories we hear and read as we grow up really have an impact on what we believe as adults. These single stories enable us to assume things of other cultures just like her roommate assumed that she didn’t know how to speak English or work a stove, and that she listened to tribal music instead of Mariah Carey. Her roommate had a single story of her and didn’t view her as the full human that she is. She mentioned that there is a tradition of telling the African culture through stories that include the characters being very poor and having AIDS. I remember learning things like this as a child. We hear versions of these stories, but don’t actually get the whole story. We hear the single story, which is incomplete. She was focusing on how the cultures are different rather than similar.

    As teachers, it is going to be very important for us to be critical of the literature we bring into the classroom. We need to make sure that our students aren’t relying on the single story to make assumptions about others. We need to be sure that our students understand that one character in a story does not represent the whole culture from which they come. Our students need to be critical readers so they don’t believe stereotypes that come from single stories. It is our job as teachers to help each of our students accomplish this.

    • Jessica Erickson says:

      I loved watching this video and I loved the way the speaker put it as “one story.” The idea of how a single story or idea affects the way people view things such as other people and culture is such a true fact in my mind. If you grow up being taught certain things about other cultures and you have never experienced the actual culture you have only seen one story or only one view point. Its kinda like the saying take a walk in another person’s shoes. I also liked how the speaker made connections to things that people in the audience could understand. She made reference to Mariah Carey and meeting a college roommate for the first time. You could see these misunderstandings happening as one persons story over lapped with another persons story.

      As teachers we need to make sure that we don’t share just one story with our classes. We need to make sure that we included different types of literature to represent different cultures, we need to make sure we teach our students to be critical about literacy so that they do not make wrong assumptions, and we need to make sure we have no stereotypes in our classrooms. We are so influential in our students lives that we need to make sure we do not give our students only one story.