The danger of a single story

December 11, 2014
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“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.They make one story become the only story.” ~ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The decision not to hold police officer Darren Wilson responsible in Michael Brown’s shooting death awakens the lingering feeling of injustice in Trayvon Martin’s murder – and heightens, once again, the feeling that black life is devalued.

The same anger people felt when learning Martin’s shooter would not be convicted is being seen now in Brown’s case – if not more.

It is a collective anger, heated, boiling, oozing out and never evaporating because the vessel continuously fills with no relief.

And while there are similarities in the overall devaluation of black life, it is dangerous assume that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are one in the same — this being the very assumption that killed them.

In her 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about the danger of having an incomplete and often inaccurate view of someone based on a story concocted from a single experience.

She shared her experience of an African coming to the U.S. and how coming here she was viewed through a single story — a stereotypical view of being African with no distinction for what country, social or economic class she was. People had assumed they knew her life story when she told them she was from Africa.

This single story Adichie speaks about could help explain the state of interracial interactions in the U.S., especially when the Internet and television exposes people to typecast representations of other races, cultures and economic classes of people they may rarely interact with.

And when they do interact, this single story that has been so ingrained in someone’s mind, can be unknowingly projected onto these interactions.

In Michael Brown’s case, perhaps there were two single stories at play – Michael Brown’s assumptions about Darren Wilson, and Darren Wilson’s assumptions about Michael Brown.

According to grand jury transcripts, a lot of Darren Wilson’s actions were based on an overall view of the community he was patrolling. When asked about his relationship with people in the Canfield Green Apartments in Ferguson, Missouri, where Brown was killed, Wilson’s response was telling.

“There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community does not like the police,” Wilson says in the grand jury report.

He also said there are good people but that he was on high alert coming into the community. This could have contributed to him feeling unsafe and taking things further than needed.

Michael Brown’s true view was silenced, but he could have carried the same story of distrust that other members of his Ferguson community have — a distrust shared by many black communities outside of Ferguson, stemming from a long history of injustice.

Could this distrust and lack of respect for police result in certain behaviors that look foreign or unruly to someone who has never lived in such conditions, where police are looked at as an entity of oppression instead of protection?

Michael Brown, other members of the Ferguson community and African Americans as a whole carry a certain skepticism when it comes to fully trusting police and believing our rights will be upheld as equally as our white counterparts.

All single stories are problematic, including this skepticism African Americans may carry. But it is a story that’s especially important to know for young black males, as the single story police may hold could be a matter of life and death.

Adichie said in her speech, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

And until law enforcement looks at the people they are serving as people with a heart pumping blood much like themselves – whether white, black, poor, crack addicted or high on pot – the skepticism from the community they serve will continue, creating dissonance, injustice, unnecessary pain, racial tension and preventable loss of life.

We need to remember these words from Adichie: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

Michael Brown will not experience this kind of paradise, but we can open our ears, eyes, minds and hearts to real stories, real people, truths buried underneath all of the dangerous stereotypes that do nothing but separate and cause unnecessary harm.

Black life matters; human lives matter.

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