Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Gray Matters Within Single Or Multiple Stories

Jenny Chen's picture

Having grown up in a middle class American community, the ideas of diversity, acceptance, individuality, and selflessness have been stressed throughout my education as well as in my household. Growing up with my mother can be confusing at times, especially as a youngster. I would often here her yelling, “You can’t expect to be able to help others unless you figure your own problems out. Focus on your own life,” and usually around the same time she would also yell, “You have to think about others. What do you think everyone else needs? The world is not always about you.” At five or six years old, those statements seemed like contradictions, but as I grew up, I discovered the idea of “gray matter” or the fact that everything is not one way or another. My parents worked incredibly hard to “get me out” in the world by sending me to public school, private school, boarding school, putting me on swim teams, taking me to art classes, afterschool programs, music lessons and so on and so forth. And while their intentions were for me to become well rounded, they also wanted me to be placed in different communities with people of different socioeconomic status and backgrounds. As a child, I rendered these activities and experiences as “good” or “bad” depending on how I fit in each situation, but now, I see all of these as learning experiences that brought me to where I am now.

It was not until Chimamanda Adiche’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” that I once again re-evaluated my own life experiences. Adiche states that as children we are “vulnerable” and to me, people at whatever age are always vulnerable, which is part of why I think there are so many stereotypes and racial biases in the adult world. I feel that no matter how well rounded we are or how much the ideas of diversity or acceptance are taught to us, we all, as humans, have preconceived notions of what we have not experienced yet and Adiche describes this as a single story. I have traveled on vacation with my family once in a while, and we have physically seen the beauty of other countries such as Italy, England, Bermuda and a few others, but we did not become immersed to learn the cultures of these other nations. Our preconceived notions still stick, and what has changed it that we were able to actually “see” the country. Now, my study abroad experience in New Zealand was quite different, as I was able to live amongst Kiwi’s and experience their culture, as well as learn about their view of Americans, which is often times rather entertaining. In some ways, I still only know a single story. I have been told many other stories, but I have only lived a single story (or maybe a little more than one since NZ) but generally speaking, there is a lot of “gray area” that I speak about but have yet to experience. Adiche also opened my mind to new questions that I did not really think about before. What is true diversity? What should be done to prevent “single stories” but also reduce biases later on in life? Also, in reference to Pim’s reading, “To Hell With Good Intentions,” by Ivan Illich, what is a good intention when you have a single story?


alesnick's picture

"What is a good intention when you have a single story?"

I appreciate this way of linking Illich and Adichie.  It is the tip of a mighty iceberg, as it brings us to the question of how to think about goodness in relation to complexity.  The distinction between having heard about vs. having experienced more than one story is also intriguing.  Do you think this is primarily a function of age/time, or is it something education could address?