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Learning from Chimamanda Adichie’s “The danger of a single story”

Today I watched Adichie’s TED video on The Danger of a Single Story. She outlined her own introduction to reading and writing stories, which were based in white children’s experiences in Britain and the USA: that is who stories were about. Stories were not about Nigerian children and her own experience was not reflected back at her. Later she explains how when she visited the USA, people there knew a single story of Africa: a pitiable place of starving people. They were confused that she spoke English as a first language and listened to Mariah Carey.

I used to hear a phrase quite a lot: “write about what you know”. This phrase suggests that we should write about ourselves or people like us because those stories will flow the best or be the most authentic. From what Adichie says, this appears to be a privilege not afforded to people of colour: she was told that her stories of middle class Nigerians are not authentically African. Elsewhere, I’ve read today that children of colour might believe that they can only write stories about white people.

The segment from Adichie’s talk that struck me most was this:

“That is how to create a single story: show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” What stories are told, and how that story becomes the definitive version, depends on power and who has it.

Places and people who have power have multiple stories told about them. This is also a problem in research and writing on physical education, in many cases. We tell and hear single stories of what and who PE is for; who is marginalised; who needs help. The ways of being that are celebrated in sport and PE (those that are newsworthy, receive high grades, normalised) are this single story. People who are “othered” are diminished, their multiple stories hidden so that a singular narrative is heard instead. Within PE, those “othered” groups have consistently been girls, ethnic minority children, fat children and disabled children (also addresses as mutually exclusive groups so that intersections are not examined).

Those who have power in education are those defining the single “authentic” story and recreating education (including PE) in a way that reflects their own way of being, for that is the normalised and expected version of what it means to engage in education (and PE, physical activity and sport). We hear this in the research on who shapes education, PE and sport policy; on who becomes PE teachers; and on how those marginalised or “othered” groups struggle in this situation – they are at risk, the pitiable groups … it’s not working for them.

Bonnie Pang has called telling and hearing multiple stories “listening to the resources of the other” – we might ask “what’s right?” or “what works?” rather than “what’s wrong?” or “how are they marginalised?” to move to strengths-based change in PE.

Adichie says, “the single story robs people of dignity. It emphasises how we are different, not how we are similar.”

Heterogeneity is vital in representing the people about whom we research or for whom we act, but we must be clear that difference (diversity) among us all can also be a mark of similarity: those who have power and hear their own, multiple, experiences reflected back at them are no different to those whose multiple stories are not heard or prioritised.

So for me, Adichie’s talk is 19 minutes of necessary reminder not just for multiple stories, but also for intersectionality. It encapsulates why and how we need to tell and hear about a number of experiences, not least in order for all those stories to shape where we go in the future.

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