TedTalk Review: The Danger of a single story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I came across this TedTalk about four years ago while doing research on identity and purpose for this blog. It then came up again as recommendations from the Ted curation managers for topics ranging from powerful marketing practices to ethical branding messages, and compelling storytelling. I’m prefacing this diverse history because this particular talk covers way more ground than I ever imagined and amazingly to me, each time I’ve watched it, I took away something very different than previous viewings. 

This past week, I found my mind & heart full of questions, concepts, and practices about inclusivity, equality, cultural sensitivity, privilege, and systemic racism. Again this beautiful soul is speaking to me and finding a way to wrap up many of my thoughts. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does cover lots of ground in this talk, and the point that struck me the most is that we, as educators and citizens of the world have a responsibility to question everything. We must not accept any knowledge at face value, because no story is without multiple contexts. Mark Twain said this over a century ago about governments, social groups, religions, and the popular media. The quote: “history is written by the victors”, often attributed to Winston Churchill in the popular media ,but is suspected to be paraphrased from Missouri Sen. George G. Vest’s quote (1891): “history is written by the victors and framed according to the prejudices and bias existing on their side.” Adichie illustrates how these warnings translate across time and cultures and all point to power.

“It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.” 

Along with conversations and readings about privilege, I’ve had the chance to reflect on willful ignorance. In the context of this TedTalk, it is how often I’ve accepted the single story to be the whole story. It’s embarrassing and enlightening at the same time. Like the speaker’s epiphany during her first trip to Mexico, I’ve looked back on my many first cross-cultural experiences. Each one changed me in some way positive, I hope, but more surprisingly was how often I held onto illogical prejudices, to the single story. Well, now I’m aware of it and I like to believe we cannot return to being unaware. 

On a personal note, I ‘m part of a multicultural family and my closest friends are from every background I know. I’m always the minority in the room. They are all part of my experience and my person, and are all on this journey with me. This past year, I’ve had many awareness building conversation with them as I learn to be a better teacher. Together we discuss our personal experiences, our biases, and our ever-growing understandings. Together we listen to many stories and grow from them all. I believe this is the message of this TedTalk: each individual is an ever-growing collection of stories and where they come from offers an exponential richness of additional stories. No person, much less any group of people should ever be diminished to a single story. We all lose out when accepting the single story. I can’t wait until the next time this amazing video finds me again. I wonder what new context it will illuminate. 

2 thoughts on “Acknowledging the principle of “nkali” and embracing its warnings to build a better classroom

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