Monday, November 9, 2015

The Single Story of Dr. Q and Others

TED talk about the "single story" - great video, from a Nigerian speaker

When I read the description of the video, I first assumed that a “single story” referred to larger-than-life persons such as Dr. Q. I just read his story for a book study in my county.

I immediately concluded that the message would be to avoid basing opinions of all immigrants, for example, off of the one incredible story of Dr. Q. Instead, I learned that the definition of a “single story” is quite different, standing for an all-encompassing narrative. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of seeing foreigners /others as the latest incarnations their country’s one, most common stereotype. Mexicans are poor immigrants. Africans are war-torn and starving in the dirt roads. The British are drinking tea and chatting about the weather. 

I really appreciated Ms. Adichie’s disappointment in hearing that her characters were not Nigerian/African enough because they were instead middle class people dealing with personal and family problems. This, in a country where the government is failed and so many live precariously. Yet the story was genuinely Nigerian, just not one focused on the country’s most salient (and lamentable) features. In that way, Dr. Q. is a single story. “Oh, yeah, poor Mexican immigrant. His country is in turmoil, so of course he crosses over illegally. Oh, but wait, this one is so gifted and hard-working, he makes it as a neurosurgeon! Dude, AWESOME!” Despite all of his success, his still tends to be a single story because the book (even an autobiography) looks at him first and foremost as a poor Mexican immigrant. The book is clearly marketed that way.

His many qualities are very pronounced: extreme empathy, humility, and probably more than anything, an unrelenting desire to achieve more and more. It’s not in a greedy way, just in the ambition of always improving.

Interestingly, Ms. Adichie did not have a single story of America. Her reading on the USA involved many authors, and so she understood that the country was a place of diverse individuals. Does this openness suggest that education is the way to avoid a single story, or does it instead/simultaneously suggest that a robust marketing scheme is necessary? I don’t know.

I don’t feel that as an educator I make my students a single story. For one thing, it is usually only after I get to know them that I learn origin stories such as how they came to the US. To put it in terms of the issue at hand, it is only after I make a human connection with them that I learn about what some people might use as a source for stereotypes. By that point, therefore, I know a human person, not a stereotype, and so I think I evade the risk.

Some stereotypes, however, hold true and can even be helpful. Many adult Latino immigrants have a low level of education, and may even be illiterate. This deficit would normally pass down to their children, my students, so it is important to know about and address. We need to make sure all schools foster a love of reading. As an educator, I have to be ready to teach the child that enters Kindergarten knowing how to read, as well as the one who is not familiar with books at all. This isn’t a single story about the child or the family, but it is definitely part of the bigger story of who they are as people. Once we get to know a person, we see that there are so many stories. And an essential part in understanding a story is appreciation for the main character.