The privilege of telling your own story

When I came to Emerson from Hawaii nearly three years ago, I didn’t know a lot about city life in the Northeast. I quickly discovered how to adapt, though: to jaywalk, to memorize the multicolored subway lines. I learned to walk down the street and avoid eye contact with the homeless asking for spare change, to prevent more pleas I’d probably ignore. Soon, and without much thought, I let the jangling plastic cups fade into Boston’s soundscape, their owners disappearing into the urban terrain.

Following the script of our society at large, I found myself accepting the default position of regarding people on the street with some pity, but mostly suspicion. Subconsciously, I assimilated the simplistic narrative that our mainstream culture has defined on their behalf — that more likely than not, the loose coins they request would go toward vice. Rather than affording each person an individual identity, I generalized after a glance.

This is what the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the danger of a single story — having but one way of imagining people and places, such that it becomes impossible to think of them any other way. Single stories, she said in a TED Talk, prevent us from forming “a connection as human equals.”  And it is privilege that allows us to view others through such narrow lenses.

Stories are important. They have long been our fundamental unit of culture, and perhaps, as the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall argues, the critical factor that sets us apart from other animals. From the ancient creation legends to the 2013 documentary Stories We Tell, we and untold past generations have used narrative to gain an understanding of the world around us. In particular, we at this school view storytelling as  so significant that we spend thousands of dollars and years of our time studying the craft, whether through screenplays, manuscripts, or advertisements.

But the most important story we can tell is our own. Far from a quixotic college application prompt, we work every day to define and refine our personal narratives, and we understand others, in a large part, based on how we interpret their stories. It’s why many of us spend so much time poring over our resumes, composing witty Twitter bios, and finding the ideal selfie angles — we want everything to fit neatly into the frameworks we have been assembling for ourselves.

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Yet being able to tell one’s story, and to have others listen, is a privilege. It is one many of us at Emerson enjoy, and we exercise it daily. We are fortunate to have the power to make even the smallest choices — the clothes we wear, the coffee we buy, the clubs we join — fit into our narratives. We accept, for the most part, the stories that our peers and mentors present; we assume their narratives are multifaceted, deliberately constructed, and interesting. Look down the socioeconomic strata or across our borders, though, and that acceptance inevitably wanes. It becomes easier to pigeonhole people into unidimensional stories.

It is this cultural instinct — to be satisfied with a singular representation — that turns stop and frisk into racial profiling, caricatures female leaders on influential magazine covers, and paints undocumented immigrants as unrepentant job stealers. It leads to dismissing Colombians as drug dealers, Canadians as boring, and Chinese as overachievers. Single stories make it easy, even at Emerson, to ignore the servers that provide our food, the security guards that tap our IDs, and the maintenance workers that clean up our rooms. Content with the narrative that their blue-collar position somehow makes them inferior, we don’t have to think beyond their uniforms, to consider the families they raise or the struggles they have had to overcome.

“Power,” said Adichie, “is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

As we prepare at Emerson to become those with the power to shape the world’s narratives, we have a responsibility to look beyond our culture’s single stories. Too often, we allow stories about others to become definitive by default, not necessarily by choice but by accepting longstanding institutional biases.

What we experience in our daily lives informs what we create, and to view others through limited perspectives today can only lead to simplistic representations in the future. We should learn to give everyone a chance to define their own narrative — and to listen to what they say.

“The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity,” Adiechie said. “It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

The truth is that everybody we encounter, from the street to the classroom, has a complex story. If we look past the single story, our understanding of the world — the patchwork of narratives we are constantly weaving — can only be richer.