A story can be a powerful thing. Like water running deep below the surface of the earth, a story can cut hidden channels through our hearts. Our sense of personhood, family, and community are built upon the many layers of stories that have shaped us. We would likely find it hard to distill our complex and rich personhood down to one single story and yet we often do this with others.
I recently watched a poignant TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” given by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. She says, “Show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.” This “single-story-ism”, as she calls it, is what happens when complex human beings and places are reduced to a single narrative. For example, when Africans are depicted solely as pitiable, poor victims of starvation. Or when Muslims are relegated to the one story of extremist or terrorist. Or when “that” part of town is forever labeled as “unsafe”, “blighted” or “hopeless.”
We are more than the one story people might see at first glance --our religion, our career, where we live, our ethnicity, our failures, our successes, our possessions. When we reduce all those stories down to just one, we diminish the fullness of the humanity of the person.
The stories we tell about ourselves and each other not only retell our lives, but they also shape them.
Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City, I heard a single story about Troost Avenue, for example. The single story I heard again and again about Troost was, “Don’t go over there. It’s not safe.”
Without being fully conscious of it, this single story shaped my physical boundaries, sense of safety, and people I associated with. Often, news articles and hearsay fed into and reinforced this single story of “that part of town.”
The Troost story was shared as if it were “common sense.” Sometimes stereotypes are not altogether untrue. However, they are usually woefully incomplete. The single story I had heard about Troost didn’t begin to consider the history of Troost, desperation of those trapped in poverty, or the effects of multi-generational trauma on families. It left out all the resiliency and strength, hopes and strivings of the east side of our city.
The 200 year history of Troost Avenue is made up of many stories, from the Osage Indians on trail to the Missouri River and Rev. Porter’s slave plantation, to Walt Disney’s studio and Jim Crow segregation. The single story stereotype of Troost I heard collapsed all of this history of struggle and strength into a flat, hopeless fragment. Troost became known as the racial and economic dividing line of Kansas City and the single story narrative we told reinforced the distance between us.
Working and living in the Troost corridor and building relationships with our neighbors reveals there is much more than a single story narrative of this place. Each month in our “Venerate” e-newsletter we tell stories of courage that reveal the strengths of those we serve, striving to challenge the single story narrative many still have of Troost. (Subscribe to “Venerate” here)
We recently featured a video with Deron in which he shared how difficult it has been to find work after he got out of jail. He’s worked hard to move beyond the mistakes he had made, but overcoming the single story many have of him is hard. Eventually Deron came to RS and was able to find employment through our social venture, Resolve KC. As we’ve come to know Deron, he has shared his dreams of opening his own restaurant, the lessons he wants to pass on to his children, and the appreciation he has for a community that supported him through adversity.
The single story approach doesn’t see with the eyes of God, who in the Scriptures continually deconstructed the crowd’s single story narrative of prostitutes, thieves, tax collectors, fishermen, pharisees and rich men. We are all more than a single story in the eyes of God.
Let’s challenge ourselves this week to question a single story narrative that we have of someone else. Ask that person to tell you more about themselves. Take time to listen more deeply than normal. Hear each other’s stories without interruption, redaction or reduction. Don’t buy into the single story you may have heard about certain people or places. Remember, a story can be a powerful thing.
By Father Justin Mathews, Executive Director