Every human is an artist. And this is the main art that we have: the creation of our story.- Miguel Angel Ruiz
Long before Beyoncé began sampling Chimamanda Adichie, I was hip to her brilliance–consuming her novels and listening to her vintage “Danger of a Single Story” TED Talk.
Adichie blew minds when she said:“the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
One of her other points gets overlooked. “Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.”
I would like to explore how these overlapping narratives interact with a power structure and dominant cultural narratives that are deeply intertwined with our story of self.
Everyone knows that the victor gets the spoils, but they also get to write the story of what happened (often leaving out their own transgressions).
This is why in the United States and so many other colonized spaces, the country’s history begins with European contact rather than with the thousands years of civilization and traditions among the indigenous people.
This is also why I sometimes feel that in the U.S. we’re stuck on the issue of slavery. Why else would “12 Years a Slave” like “Gone with the Wind” garner so many Oscar nominations?
It is relevant to African Americans’ overall narrative, but not our whole story.
As the great journalist, Walter Cronkite said, “In seeking truth you have to get both sides of a story.”
Stories told and untold, are BOTH important, because they reflect and create a nation’s prevailing understanding of its truth.
In fact, one way I like to think about privilege is: those who have it must learn to listen; while for those who do not have it, must learn to tell their counter-narratives.
There are not always receptive audiences for the stories of the marginalized.
Far too often, those in power silence counter-narratives by telling stories about the marginalized that harken to the pre-set dominant paradigm.
Here are three examples.
(1) The national narrative says that our best and brightest are attending top notch colleges. Statistics tell us another story. According to Forbes, “…while poor kids are underrepresented on elite campuses, the wealthiest kids are overrepresented. At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.”
(2) The national narrative says that the poor choose to be poor, because of their questionable life decisions. Every once in a while you’ll have articles like the these in the New York Times railing against the systemic challenges that low-income families face. But more often than not, you have stories like this one. The Washington Post decided to tell a story about poverty in the nation and used a black woman, living in an urban environment, who is the third generation of unmarried women on welfare to tell the story.
It is important to point out that both stories have black people as the main protagonist.
These articles reinforce the national narrative that says: being poor equals being black, or to be poor is to be black.
(3) There are also “dominant stories” that are shaped by regional norms, like the prevailing sentiment in south in the mid-west that to not be married by 30 makes you an “old maid.”
We’re molded by these stories.
The “dominant” discourse can be written by the media, by opinion leaders, but also by our communities and family members.
It is the grown man preparing for his 50th high school reunion, who is eager to prove that he’s made something of himself.
It is the daughter who is committed to showing her mother that her past mistakes are just that–in the past.
This is why repairing relationships in families or in our nation have to start from a place of unpacking meta-narratives.
In our interpersonal relationships we create dangerous story spirals that become self-reinforcing. He NEVER listens. She ALWAYS doubts my ability to get things done.
In our political sphere, we unintentionally encourage a culture of hypocrisy, because people often have to deny their shortcomings to be elected.
The Economist recently ran a parody that highlighted this issue.
We should be asking ourselves how can we still have high standards of conduct and ethics for our leaders and ourselves, but AUTHENTICALLY be ourselves.
Because as much as we are standing on the shoulder of giants; we are metastasizing generations of anxiety, fear and unmet needs.
Our reconciliation as a country, as communities and families is about restoration and harmony in juxtaposition. It is about overcoming the stories projected on you and mapping your own narrative in a wider discussion.
We must learn to re-write our stories, not only to re-define who we are, but also to re-imagine the country we envision and expect for ourselves.