Freshmen year, I took a post-colonial literature course that opened my eyes to a world of beautiful difference in fiction. The class focused on books that were produced by authors outside of the traditional English cannon that had dominated my high school curriculum. It looked at writers who hailed from states that were the products of colonialism and the impact that this experience had on their writing. Now that I’m a senior, I still consider it one of the best courses I’ve taken at Duke because of the way it forced me to confront different perspectives. We examined the impact of a post-Apartheid South Africa from the viewpoint of a white professor and fractious Nigeria from that of an expatriate. These novels gripped me and invited me to consider a world outside of the bounds I was comfortable with and understood. One of the most memorable moments came from viewing a video by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “The Dangers of a Single Story.”
Born and raised in Nigeria, Adichie is a now a prominent author who has published a number of award-winning books. In her talk, she spoke of the impact Western literature had on her early consciousness and conception of self. She detailed her attempts at writing stories early in her childhood based on the English literature that she had access to. These stories invariably featured ginger beer and snow, things that were completely foreign to subtropical Nigeria and her own experiences as a child. The single story of Western literature had painted a picture that was impossible for Adichie to empathize with or internalize as her own. The characters were all white and frequently talked about the weather. Thankfully, Adichie was able to access her own narrative through the burgeoning genre of African literature. Yet the danger of the single story concept followed her to America where her first college roommate assumed that English was her second language and that she was deserving of pity just because she was from Africa—assumptions that were completely incorrect, yet not unfounded by the standards of mainstream society. These encounters were all poignant reminders of the importance of not automatically accepting a single viewpoint. The talk was incredibly moving, and I make a point of re-watching it every year. I feel that its theme is incredibly salient today and worthy of discussion.
We are all in danger of subscribing to a single story at times, and that’s a dangerous thing. Misconceptions and latent racism contribute to an environment in which people feel unwelcome. This occurs on several levels at Duke. And whether it’s the labeling of greeks as unintelligent or other social or ethnic groups as possessing specific characteristics, it’s a habit we should try to break.
It’s a discouraging reality that too often plagues the discourse about everything ranging from academic majors to social circles. It also has the unintended consequence of perpetuating the stereotypes we seek to address. Yet, as Duke students, we are also the subjects of this single story in the same way that we perpetuate it amongst ourselves. Just look at the common stereotype of Duke students being arrogant, upper-middle class Caucasians who care more about basketball than academics. Obviously, this isn’t true of every single student and, yet, that perception persists. The problem then is a wider one that perhaps defies an easy solution. Yet, there is a way for us to move past the single story and into the wider world of human experiences. At the end of her talk, Adichie extols the audience to read everything that they can possibly get their hands on. It’s through reading and the digestion of the internal dialogue and world of another person that we are able to try to empathize and move past the single viewpoint.
There is a danger in understanding Duke as a monolithic place devoid of diversity. It encourages us to gloss over problems and simplify people into easily defined boxes. We are all guilty of sticking to our own social circles and overlooking the plethora of people that exist at this University. Never again in our lives will we be surrounded by such differentness and sameness. Different in the sense that we are all born into separate identities and cultural backgrounds. Same in the notion that we are all students in pursuit of a liberal arts education and the understanding that comes from it. This can be a very special place. Embrace it and the opportunity it presents to move past the danger of a single world.
Colin Scott is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday.