Don't Tell Or Believe A Single Story

new story
new story

I was a graduate student at Brandeis University and grades had just come out. A classmate walked over to me. "I never thought a Mexican would beat me in economics," he said. This was an intelligent, white American man who grew up in a family of diplomats and traveled the world. I asked why he was surprised. Nonchalantly, he responded that the only Mexicans he knew were the ones who painted his parents' house in Virginia. I neither laughed nor was offended. I was confused. I knew he did not intend to be racist or spiteful; I simply could not understand why someone like him would say something like that.

Now I do. It was an example of what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story--what happens when the same (typically negative) one-dimensional story about a people or place gets repeated, leading listeners, with no first-hand knowledge of the subject, to formulate or adopt stereotypes and incomplete truths as a result.

My classmate's words had a strange effect on me: I was suddenly very conscious of being Mexican. I became more cautious of speaking Spanish in front of others and found myself subconsciously keeping my ethnicity under wraps. As I realized that others probably viewed me poorly simply because I was Mexican, school, the place that had felt so comfortable and safe, did not feel so comfortable any more. Without understanding it, I was experiencing "misrecognition," a concept coined by social psychologists Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam referring to the experience of "having others misperceive or deny a valued identity." Misrecognition is largely the result of formulating notions about a group of people or a place by exposure to the same single story. Misrecognition often leads to resentment and distrust and exacerbates divisions between groups.

Many years have passed since that classroom episode, and I am now settled in the Boston area. My son is a Bostonian (and a Red Sox fan!) and I am on the path to becoming a U.S. citizen. I work for a U.S. organization and represent U.S. interests abroad implementing U.S.-government-funded programs. I have made the U.S. my home and I am proud to be an active member of my community. Though my attempts to underplay my nationality dissipated long ago, I find that my old classmate's words have lately come back to me as I read the news and watch the TV.

The political discourse of this year's presidential election is characterized by single stories. These single stories are dramatically changing group dynamics in the U.S. and abroad, widening gaps amongst already polarized communities and ethnicities. We all know the single stories about Muslims and Mexicans that have been circulating this election cycle. These stories are concerning enough, but more worrisome are the consequences that result from their repetition.

An example is the misrecognition of the Muslim community, and the rejection, fear and suspicion they are feeling from many in power. This is precisely what violent extremist groups are expecting, wrote Foreign Policy editor, David Rothkopf after the Paris attacks last November: "...overreaction is precisely the wrong response to terrorism. And it's exactly what terrorists want...It does the work of the terrorists for the terrorists."

Neuroscience and social psychology have studied the brains and social dynamics of people in contexts of conflict. Their findings suggest that one person's ability to empathize and communicate with another is severely affected, not only by the content of their message, but also by whether the other person is part of their same or another group.

Misrecognition accentuates divisions among groups, hindering the ability to communicate and empathize. When those in power (militaries, police, politicians) foster misrecognition, they are promoting division, which makes them aggressors instead of protectors in the eyes of the oppressed. Extremist groups take advantage of this, recruiting the disillusioned. They also try to draw aggression and fear out of powerful people, and plenty take the bait. This makes it easier for extremist groups to portray violence as both appealing and justifiable.

Terrorism feeds off this kind of polarization, which feeds off single stories.

How to combat the danger of a single story? In our classrooms, workplaces, and public events, perhaps we might move closer to people whom we usually run away from. By doing so, we may learn that we have more in common than expected. As we open a small window for interaction, we can move from single stories to multi-dimensional understanding, appreciating more complete truths about others.

I know that being a Mexican does not mean being a criminal or a day laborer. I also know that being a Muslim does not mean being a threat. The power to influence public opinion does not rest only with political leaders or reality TV celebrities. The power to influence and share truth resides in each one of us. It is in my power to tell more complete, human and multifaceted stories about others, including other Mexicans like myself, and influence perception and opinion. It is in our collective power to combat beliefs perpetrated by single stories. Let us recognize and exercise that power together.