When I was young, I heard stories about the awful perils of the dreaded inner-city from my elementary school teachers. Their stories certainly made me afraid of that place. It wasn’t until my high school teachers told those same stories of predation, poverty, laziness, and despair of inner-city residents that I finally realized they were describing where they thought I lived. I was incredulous. The “inner-city” they described was nothing like the “inner-city” I knew. My “inner-city” was actually a place where most of my neighbors left their doors unlocked and always welcomed your unannounced entry; where all of my neighbors gardened and generously shared the rewards of their harvest to as many people as they could; where people shared power tools and brought food to comfort families in mourning; where people held religious services in their backyards–just like my family held mass in ours. The complexity, the values, the belief in education as well as hard work were nowhere to be found in the homogenous, single stories my teachers told about the experiences, the values, or the qualities of the people I knew in the “inner-city” who apparently sprang from their limited imaginations.
I recommend viewing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the dangers of accepting a single narrative of people and of nations:
The similarities in the many powerful stories that Adichie shared and the one that I offered involve the absence of assuming responsibility for teaching folk about the fullness and richness of our lives. Revoking responsibility in this way is certainly another model for how we can all respond to the “danger of a single story.” You don’t have to waste a single minute of your time making lesson plans for how to correct another’s ignorance regarding your identity; it’s much better to spend time learning more about who you are and living out this understanding. Personally, I have very little patience for playing the native informant for all those liberal and racially well-intentioned friends, colleagues, neighbors, or strangers about my people, our hair, or our anything else. A really good example of at least one response to an encounter with a single story of race, heritage, and culture is the one Adichie offered the young man who asked her about the brutality of the men in her country. Telling that young man about her take on American Psycho may not have taught him about the limitations of his presumptions, but it at least led to him leaving her alone– and sometimes, that’s good enough for me.