The Danger of a Single Story

“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.”
– Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Recently I was reminded of the danger of a single story during a lecture by Robert Putman, political scientist and Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of Bowling Alone and Our Kids. Dr. Putman is an incredible scholar and also a very kind man. This is not a critique of him as a person or his work, which is needed. I think the work he is doing in demonstrating the structural inequities that contribute to poverty to an audience that are often the people who he is not studying, is valuable and necessary.

I sat in a predominately white audience who all were either in college or had obtained a college degree that I was in a unique and highly privileged position. I am privileged because I am a white woman from an upper middle class background who holds a master’s degree from an Ivy League university. I’m privileged because I study both social issues and social justice, and hold a specific degree that explicitly focuses on the psychological impact of focusing solely on pathology. I am also privileged because I live in two worlds—upper middle class and lower class. I live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Boston, yet it was a choice made out of great privilege. I wanted to live in my neighborhood because it had all the things I didn’t have growing up: kids of all ages that play in the streets tossing a football around, neighbors that sit out on their front stoops and do hair and play card games when the snow starts to melt and the days become longer.

Even as an adult when I moved into my neighborhood, this idea still excited me. I have neighbors who look out for each other. My downstairs neighbor always takes in our packages and whenever a visitor rings the wrong doorbell and kindly points them in the right direction. I had an elderly neighbor I visited until she moved into a home recently, I loved hearing her tell stories of how she immigrated to Boston and attended the school up the street, which was named after her best friend. The elderly couple that lives at the top of my street who have been married for I don’t know how long, but I think about them when I pass by their house and haven’t seen them out and about for awhile, especially in the winter. I know they’re okay though because their kids and grandkids live close by and I see them coming in and out.

I am also part of a statistically declining group of people in America to marry across class differences. My future husband and I come from completely opposite sides of the metaphorical tracks. Our family’s backgrounds could not be more different. His family has a lot of things that I never grew up with. I am not close to my cousins, we grew up really far apart from each other both in distance, in age and in emotional closeness. In fact, I have multiple cousins who live or have lived within a 3 mile radius of me and I never once saw them. Some of them I wouldn’t recognize if passed them on the street.

His family reminds me of the stories my parents had growing up. They grew up with all their cousins, in the same radius. Teenagers played with eight year olds. It is not unusual at all for the male cousins to be babysitting the babies, either their nieces or nephews or younger cousins. Not just for a few hours, but sometimes for days if someone wants to get a way. There is always food to share and always love to be found. And lots and lots of inside jokes. My partner’s aunt has a rule, her sister’s kids are her kids. Because I date her nephew, I am not her niece, I am her daughter. If we were ever to need a place to sleep or a roof under our heads we could always depend on her.

Yet, I could paint a very different portrait. I could tell you about struggles and family conflict. I can tell you about those things within my family too. The fundamental difference is that mine has a system that works for their benefit and his has a system that must be fought against in order to survive. Not thrive, but survive. In contrast, my family gets to have multiple stories and be seen more accurately for who they are. They are mothers, fathers, siblings, people who love animals, etc. They are not just people who had cancer, or in some cases who didn’t graduate from college. They have challenges, but we would never call them “challenged”.

Dr. Putnam shared a textbook story of a young woman’s parents splitting up, leading to her mom to become a stripper and herself making poor dating choices and decisions throughout her life. When a woman in the audience made a comment about “these people, from these backgrounds being challenged” I became aware of the stereotypical image I’d had of poor white people from the Midwest. Mary Sue isn’t challenged, Mary Sue has challenges. We were only told a single story about her. It felt imperative to make this point. When pushed, Dr. Putnam clarified that his intent was to get the audience to empathize with Mary Sue. To do the opposite of blaming her for her circumstances and to get this audience (again, a highly educated demographic) to see how any of them could easily be Mary Sue.

And that is my point. That is precisely where the danger lies. The system itself and policies often have a single story. We can see these stories trending in graphs and numbers, but people who live within the constraints of these systems often do not. When we, including myself and anyone with a certain level of privilege, speak about people in ways they would never describe themselves, it is dangerous not just to them but to the narrative of our country. Collectively, all of us have a responsibility to watch out for and be conscientious of the language we use. People in positions of power enact policies that specifically impact historically oppressed and marginalized groups. By labeling individuals or entire communities as disadvantaged, we fail to hold the system accountable for creating the conditions that put people at a disadvantage. When we do not use language to accurately see people and their multiple stories, we take away their autonomy, agency, and their dignity.

By Leora Rifkin

Leora Viega Rifkin is Chief of Possibility for BREAD (Boston’s Racial + Economic Activated Dialogue) & the Accelerate Boston Coordinator for Epicenter Community. She holds her master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology from UPENN. Most importantly, she believes in people & the power of love.