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Beware of the Single Story

Henry Baynham Essay Joint Winner 2021 - Milind Khashu (Lower Sixth)

The Oxford English dictionary describes a stereotype as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”1. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Almost all of us stereotype, whether it be consciously or subconsciously, in one way or another, on a daily basis.

Have we not all fallen victim to believing the single story that charitable organisations spread, say about places like Africa, in their television commercials or fundraising promos? They are widely used to describe topics ranging from genders to racial groups and socioeconomic classes, and even the participants of different sports and activities. To a large extent, many of these prejudices and close-minded perspectives become ingrained in our psyche, through repetitive programming. Society trains us to think this way. However, it is important that we, on one hand, acknowledge the reasons for this stereotyping behaviour, and, on the other, understand its potential harmful implications and explore and overcome these as individuals, and as a society.

Stereotypes are not all unrealistic fabrications of one’s imagination, however. Many are, to a degree, based on the truth; an incomplete truth, but, still, a truth.2 For example, even though not every child in India is impoverished and malnourished, 385 million3 are. This aspect of truth is what makes many of these stereotypes so believable, even if they are only valid for a fraction of a population.

A lot of stereotyping, at an individual level, is done subconsciously and quickly, as, from an experience and evolutionary perspective, it actually confers some benefit. Stereotyping allows us to respond more rapidly and effectively to potentially dangerous situations, because we have had similar experiences before, and, in fact, helps us to potentially predict the behaviours of different peoples and animals and react accordingly. Therefore, utilising stereotypes could be beneficial to survival. As Yale psychologist Paul Bloom highlights, “You don’t ask a toddler for directions, you don’t ask a very old person to help you move a sofa, and that’s because you stereotype.” 2

On the other hand, in our modern-day society, stereotyping also leads to prejudice and discrimination. As we all know, this is still, unfortunately, a very prevalent and grave problem in our society, as was shown by the recent events that led to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM)4 movement.  An example of a single story which has prompted people to have racist views towards black people is the statistic that they comprise ‘only 13% of the American population, but (generally) commit around 50% of the murders (homicides)’. This is many Americans’ single story of black people, and, as such, may lead them to believe that all black people are dangerous. Though this data is officially correct 5, 6, 7, 8, it, by no means, suggests that every single black person that someone will come across will be a threat to their safety – this is a blatantly absurd notion. It is a mere generalisation which is incomplete and dangerous.

It is also interesting that stereotyping, to some extent, is happening even through those who are voicing their concern about the stereotyping of black Americans, and their racial profiling by the police. The single story that they are trying to highlight is that white police officers are racist. Although some, or even many, white police officers may well be racist, and may have unlawfully killed members of the African American community, this does not mean that every white police officer is. Many, most likely the majority, are not. As a society it is important for us to understand and appreciate this. 

The propagation of single stories is a key strategy employed by many within global media these days. Whether this is to construct a more emotive story (to promote viewership and ratings), or to promulgate their particular agenda (political or otherwise), it does not serve us well.

To avoid falling prey to these ‘single stories’, or ‘stereotyped narratives’, we must try not to believe everything we read or hear. We should research into matters ourselves, so as to make sure that the information we are receiving has not been swayed. The media may withhold information or word it in such a fashion that we are coerced into believing a false narrative.  This is how many stereotypes/single stories may start or spread. Our duty, as responsible citizens, is to stop it in its tracks. We should question it intelligently and make up our own minds.

It is also important to understand that not all single stories are propagated by dark forces or corrupt minds, or for ulterior motives. For example, even very well-meaning charities sometimes promote single stories. There have been many examples of faux charities spawning out of real ones 9, solely serving the purpose of dispelling these stereotypes. One such example is that of RadiAid. Its main goal is to “promote a more nuanced image on countries in the global south than is usually portrayed in the media and by some charitable organisations and fundraising initiatives”. 10 Moreover, in addition to the media, charities also highlight and put forth extremely emotive images and employ many literary techniques in their advertisements, to tell a single story. For example, they only seem to show the malnourished and impoverished children in Africa, and not the millionaires11 driving around the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, in their limousines. Since these pathos-invoking pictures are all that we see, it is the single story we hold in our mind. One may think that the people of these nations would be grateful to receive such aid, but, as can be inferred by the RadiAid spoof video 12, they can find the well-intentioned pity of ‘heroic westerners’ somewhat “patronising” 10. This is because this single story, though true for some unfortunate members of their country, is not true for many of them. It might make them feel as though ‘western people’ think that they are weak and incapable of looking after themselves; which is not productive for either party. In this essay on the ails of stereotyping, you have just found me projecting a single story about ‘western people’!

Single stories are ubiquitous. While stereotyping serves us functionally in some ways, the incomplete nature of the stereotypes brought forth by single stories is dangerous on multiple levels. They pose a threat to equality, safety and a just culture, by serving to attack the eminently desirable philosophy of individualism. While single stories are often popularised by the media and charitable organisations, and, despite the evident altruism of these latter agencies, they are, in many ways, more harmful than beneficial. We all need to learn to avoid falling prey to their ‘inviting clutches’

References and Bibliography:

1Definition of stereotype

2Stereotype accuracy: A Displeasing Truth (Noam Shpancer Ph.D.)

330% of very poor children live in India: Unicef

4Black Lives Matter website

5Homicide victims by Race and Sex

6Homicide trends in the United States

7FBI: Expanded Homicide Data Table 6

8Homicide Fact Sheet (NCVRW)

9RadiAid and other such ‘faux charities’


11Millionaires and Billionaires in Africa

12Radi-Aid Spoof Video

Other Sources

Katz, D., & Braly, K. (1933). Racial stereotypes of one hundred college students. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28, 280-290.

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological science, 10(1), 80-83.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.


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