The other day, I was watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk “The danger of a single story” where she describes the effects that labels have on the way we see and think about the world, and especially about ourselves and others.
As many storytellers Adichie draws inspiration from her own experience as a Black female Nigerian writer to weave through her argument. She explains how she has often been boxed into stereotypes, along with boxing others in stereotypes, resulting in locking people in what she refers to as “a single story”.
Adichie explains how the unintended consequence of a single story is that it creates, and reinforces unconscious biases that inform our global perspectives along with our own narratives. Because of single stories we build expectations of how things “should” be for us and for people around us. Based on stereotypes, they basically make us believe in what we’ve been conditioned to think.
I grew up in a middle-class family at the heart of Beau-Bassin. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, although it had its rocky moments with less than perfect family dynamics. That didn’t make me unique in any way. I grew up with the idea that I was perfectly average, and that women around me were different iterations of the same average-ness. My mother and aunts have always been very loving and caring during my upbringing, going above and beyond what was required of them to make us feel safe – even when it was not the easiest thing to do. Still, I don’t remember any woman like us, read: “Creole”, in positions of power and leadership within the society I grew up in. They probably existed but it wasn’t a common occurrence.
Creating a single story is actually pretty straight forward: show a people as one thing, as one thing only, over and over again and that’s what they become. In my case, I grew up seeing women like me occupying roles in society like that of housewives, mothers and/or that of white-collar office employees, at best.
In my mind, I was to follow the same path: get a university degree, bag a white-collar job that would provide for a decent salary and health insurance (that was very important), and hopefully obtain a car allowance. I would “grow” as an employee within that company for as long as possible, or until I would find something that paid better and offered more benefits. Then, I would maybe be allowed to dream of having my own place, find myself a nice husband and have babies! The idea of becoming an entrepreneur was considered “too risky”. Working for those who own the means of production was part of my single story and of my single future.
That single story was flipped on its head when I was awarded the State scholarship after finishing high school. I must say that before being a “laureate”, I didn’t consciously identify as someone that could become a laureate. I knew nothing of prestigious universities and didn’t know how to choose one. I never looked into it as my father made it clear that he didn’t have the means to send me abroad for studies. I could now afford to study in an international university, thanks to the State scholarship, but was overwhelmed when having to pick a course and a university. Through the unconscious bias I held, I had never seen myself as part of the elite. My single story had entrapped me in a world where someone like me could not be part of a prestigious academic body. My understanding of what was achievable for a middle-class Creole girl demanded revamping: a mental shift.
Adichie adds the question of power when she discusses the danger of the single narrative. In the case of the Creole female, power is at play through the marked absence of strong female Creole leaders. The image of that woman is often flattened into something that is quintessentially average and invisible, especially when it comes to participating in public discourses.
I learned that I was breaking my single story when I heard that people found it surprising that I, a Creole girl from a Loreto College, could get the State Scholarship. Their unconscious bias led them to entertain the idea of what a laureate should be like, what school she should attend, and what ethnic group she should belong to. There was a dissonance between their single – and definitive – story of a laureate and that of a Creole girl. Single stories, and stereotypes, are, as Adichie contends, incomplete stories that rob people of dignity and make our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.
I am grateful to see that Creole women are increasingly challenging their single story. Because when we do not see the full spectrum of our stories, we allow others to tell them for us. They decide how our stories are told, when they are told, who tells them and how many times they tell them. Power is the ability to tell the story of another person, and to make it their definitive story. In Mauritius, stories are constructed, shaped and reproduced through implicit bias along ethnic lines. Those are at the root of microaggressions.
While this story is part of who I am, it shows how one’s experience can be rendered incomplete. My feeling of incompleteness, as I realize now, doesn’t arrive in the wake of becoming a State scholar. It only reveals a resting hum under every “average” moment of my life. From the moment my school teacher didn’t believe that I could get into a star-school to that time one of my relatives alluded to the fact that I could only aspire to having a nice car if I married a rich man. Those don’t feel like a stinging shock or as a surprise. They instead uncover the lingering understanding that I am “incomplete” and “lesser than”.
As Creole women, we hold intersectional subjectivities that often entrap us in definitive stories. Those in turn become stereotypes that become our single stories to the world. They are the stories that we tell ourselves, and that thicken the glass ceiling over our heads.
The metaphor of the glass ceiling has often been used by feminist to make references to the invisible barrier that prevents women to rise beyond a certain level in a hierarchy, especially within the workplace. So, if one starts the story of the glass ceiling over Creole women’s heads without that of racism and sexism in the Mauritian society, they are likely to reproduce that incomplete story. Similarly, if one starts the story about racism and sexism within our society without addressing the colonial creation of Mauritius, we are left with yet another incomplete story.
Unless we are ready to confront the ideologies that have historically created and reproduced those single stories, there is not enough #Love that will take away the weight of the glass ceiling that society, and ourselves, have placed upon us.
I have been offered a seat at The London School of Economics (LSE) for An MSc in Media and Communications starting in September. Of course, some will say that this proves that the glass ceiling is breaking. But it is not so straightforward; the glass ceiling is a multi-faceted beast that needs to be handled from different angles.
Upon being accepted at LSE, I should have been elated. And I was for a whole minute before I realised that I had to find the funds to complete this year of study in London. We can all agree that education is a tool for emancipation, but what happens when one manages to shatter the first level of the glass ceiling only to meet another hurdle: finances?
Placing all the weight of transcending one’s circumstances solely on the individual is a reiteration of the single story. Individual efforts are certainly the catalyst in reaching for more, but structural and financial support is what keeps the momentum going. What trying to get to LSE is teaching me is that success comes first through dismantling our own unconscious biases, the single story we have of ourselves, but also through strong systemic support. As much as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes an entire society, and its institutions, to support individual success and make dents in the glass ceiling.
Higher education is a question of social, racial and economic justice. It is a right and not a privilege reserved to the wealthy, or to those who can take up education loans – yes, the eligibility to those also holds other barriers, like the access to assets as guarantees. Virtual hugs, heart emojis and overzealous uses of #diversity #inclusivity #unityindiversity will not offer real, practical, chances for talented, yet penniless, individuals to disrupt the status quo.
Challenging single stories through honest and heartfelt conversations and through practical, economy-driven, initiatives are how we start to dismantle single stories and glass ceilings. Not through emojis or hashtags.