Communication Breakdown: How Single Story Labels Contribute to Stereotypes

Have you ever read or heard a story that changed your life?  Most of us have.  What about one that changed your view of another person or country or group?  I know I have.  As humans, it’s surprising at times “…how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.”  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke on the very subject of this in her 2009 TED Talk, The danger of a single story.  I bumped into her talk yesterday while mucking about on the interwebs and spent most of yesterday mulling it over.

After all, how many stories do we tell ourselves in a day?  A month?

Ms. Adichie, as a Nigerian author and story-teller, lives in a similar world to mine in one sphere, as a writer, but in nearly every other sphere our worlds are vastly different.  I’m a United States citizen who’s never seen another country.  She’s a Nigerian citizen who’s traveled the world, including attending college in the United States.  In fact, she mentions the experience in some detail, specifically her roommate’s assumptions of her even before meeting her, purely because she came from Africa.

A life of unrelenting poverty.

Tribal music and no understanding of pop culture.

No idea how to use a stove.

Of course, none of these were true.  However, in the United States, there’s one overwhelmingly common story to accompany the label African, and it includes many of the above assumptions, thus creating a stereotype.

Stories and Labels

In The danger of a single story, the point is a bit different than the one I’ll make today.  Ms. Adichie speaks of how as a child, she read a lot of British and American books, and so when she began writing at around age seven, most of her stories looked exactly like those.  Why?  “Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.”

Her stories had to be, in her mind, about things she could not identify with.

I know that feeling.  I’ve lived it most of my life.  I could sort of sometimes relate to the Disney princess.  More often I related to the prince, but even then only kind of.  Honestly, I’m not all that attracted to white people, or blonds, or, well, most of the acceptable people for someone who looks like me to be attracted to.

Mainstream Christianity and Cultural Mormonism annoy me to death.

I can’t wrap my head around doing something against my principles “for the lulz.”

I enjoy the villains, understanding what makes them tick, their fall from grace, what makes them redeemable or not.

I see myself as mostly man, and a bit woman, and there’s no story for that in popular American culture.  At least, not a story I identify with, and certainly not one that I could find at all when I was in high school.

Skip ahead to today.  I’ve taken on a few labels because the stories surrounding them in our culture today are convenient.  Transman.  Non-binary.  Mormon.  Still, with each of those, we find the same danger.

What is The Single Story?

Simply put?  Nkali and propaganda.

Nkali is a word from Ms. Adichie’s Nigerian language that doesn’t translate well to English.  The noun translates loosely as “to be greater than another.”  Remember, this is a noun, not a verb.  This word is similar to the English word power, but different.

For myself, I am aware I don’t have quite enough context to fully embrace its meaning, but with her use of it in the talk, I don’t believe it’s a far stretch to say that when she uses nkali to describe the danger of the single story, she’s speaking of a concept similar to propaganda.  And frankly, we’re slugging through a lot of that today.

Propaganda today doesn’t take the shape of posters and swastikas.  Now it’s hashtags and YouTube handles, webpage banners and Facebook cover pictures.  Profile pic filters and petitions.  And they are EVERYWHERE on EVERY side.

Today, more than ever, individuals have the power to encourage, uplift, and unify, or discourage, tear down, and divide.  And what better way to do that than the stories attached to labels?

Labels, Stories, and Stereotypes


So what happens when a single story accompanies a label?  A stereotype.  That’s why stereotypes, by their very nature, are incomplete.  A few I can think of off the top of my head.

Black people are more likely to commit crime.

White women love yoga pants.

Africa is poor and at war everywhere.

Mexicans all want to come to the United States and steal the jobs and healthcare.

Gay men are effeminate.

Lesbians are butch.

Trans people want to creep in bathrooms.  (That one seems pretty recent, but I could be wrong.)

I’m not here to tell anyone whether these are right or wrong.  For myself, I’m skeptical.  Here’s why.

I’m not sure why higher melanin level would make someone more likely to commit crimes, and a lower one would make someone more inclined toward yoga pants.

I’ve never been to any country in Africa, so I can’t draw any conclusions, except on the evidence I have, which based on a few TED Talks, is that such a conclusion is based in a calamity-happy media storm that can’t find anything better to report on.  After all, normal life is boring.

I’ve not studied the Mexican side of the immigration debate, but from my understanding of the situation in California, most of this probably comes from what’s happening in the larger cities in Southern California, where media and city officials can’t be trusted, and they have the influence to buy national press time.

Um, how many gay men do you know?  Better question.  How many gay men do you KNOW you know?  (No, don’t start asking your friends if they’re gay.  They’ll tell you if they feel like it.)

See above questions, but switch gay men for lesbians.

I have no desire to “creep” in a bathroom, public or otherwise.  Those things serve one purpose, except for a sliver of the population who never held manners in high regard for one reason or another, and as rare as us trans folk are, the overlap percent is so statistically insignificant, you’re probably more likely to get struck by lightning.

And this is why we have a massive Communication Breakdown.

Is this thing working yet?

We live in a world that encourages us to choose labels for ourselves, not out of the convenience of more quickly describing our situation to a stranger in a suitable context, but out of a need to define ourselves by those labels.  I’m gay.  I’m straight.  I’m trans.  I’m [insert random label here].


Seriously.  Just stop.  I use the terms non-binary transman to describe myself because the concept of mahu doesn’t exist in the U.S. lexicon, and I don’t have time to explain it to every passing stranger I encounter at this point.  Yet mahu is the term that started my journey to understanding my own story and why I couldn’t relate to the stories I was told all my life.  A Polynesian term, if memory serves, though it’s been at least six years since I first encountered the concept.  I took an Anthropology 101 course during summer semester at UWGB.  During that class, the professor introduced us to the fact that many other cultures recognized not just two, but sometimes three or up to five genders.

Wait?  So people existed that didn’t feel like men or women but both?  I could relate to this!

Yet describing that to a culture at large that acknowledges only two dichotomous genders?  That’s a whole different scenario.  And so I use the terms transman and non-binary.  Yet even these labels carry stories with them that will stop some folks cold from reading any of my work.  Stories like:

He’s a sinner.

He’s a freak.

He can’t exist.

Because we live in a world of echo chambers.  We try to find those who argue for the stories we agree with, and cling to them like syrup on waffles.  We need to stop.  We need to open our ears and listen to stories outside of those we understand.

I’ve had to do it my entire life, because I’ll never understand the stories of people attracted to the opposite sex who happily become physically infatuated, end up married, and then figure out how to deeply love each other.

And so, I tell stories I relate to.  Stories I understand.  And somewhere, there are others who will understand, and need those stories, too.  And I’ll continue to enjoy stories I don’t understand, because they bring joy and pleasure to those who do understand them.  But let’s stop equating stories with labels.  Let’s look past the story attached to the label, and communicate as humans.  After all, isn’t that who we are at the end of the day?

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