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The issue of equality and tolerance has been of high importance in our society for several decades. After centuries of discrimination and alienation between the communities of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, after hundreds of years of wars based on religion and nationality, modern society has slowly started coming to senses and questioning the validity and fairness of all kinds of socially established official and unofficial of differences between people.
After the physical equality of humans has been proved by science that stated that on the inside, all of us undergo exactly the same processes, society has raised a question concerning the features that compose social division into “us” and “them.” Such features include gender, health condition, age, sexual orientation, religion, culture, nationality, and ethnicity. This paper focuses on the discussion of social stereotypes based on ethnicity, nationality, and culture maintained all around the world. The issue of stereotypes and prejudice has been explored by a number of writers and scholars, they are depicted in a variety of literary works, and also they are spoken about at public gatherings of all kinds.
This paper will discuss the speech delivered by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer who explains the danger of a phenomenon she refers to as “a single story” and explores this speech in correlation with the problems described in several course readings such as “A Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid, “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, “Orientalism” by Edward Said, “Reel Bad Arabs” by Jack Shaheen, and “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling.
Speech of Chimamanda Adichie
In her address at TEDx, Chimamanda Adichie brings up the question of perspectives individuals tend to have on the world and people around and how these perspectives tend to become limited due to lack of information and knowledge. Adichie introduces the audience to her own story and how people often judge her based on her ethnicity and their insufficient idea about the country she comes from. Adichie speaks from the perspective of a non-western individual, which is rather rare in the contemporary world. Truly, the North American and European mass media have such huge popularity in the world that society tends to acquire a very one-sided perspective on a variety of events and phenomena.
This happening is especially unpleasant and often harmful to the communities, which automatically become the objects of stereotypes. Yet, this fact does not mean that the stereotypes in our society have only one direction and come from the former colonists towards the colonized nations resulting in the disregard and ignorance towards the latter. On the contrary, stereotypes are a universal tendency; they exist in every society and have all kinds of vectors. Adichie confirms this observation is sharing her own experiences of judging people according to her incomplete knowledge about them, such as the one with the poor house boy in Nigeria or Mexican people.
Adichie also notes that she feels annoyed when ignorant perspectives generalize non-western cultures and nations, referring to Africa as just one country. The same tendency is observed in relation to the communities of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe. The saddest part is that the representatives of generalized cultures get used to this happening and start to live up to the stereotypes. Adichie’s way to describe the mechanism and the cause of stereotypes is called “a single story,” which represents just one feature or aspect of a particular individual, community, or nation that becomes popular and starts to be taken as the main characteristic of this individual, community or nation. “Single story” as a concept will be explored further in this paper in reference to the issues of prejudice and stereotype based on ethnicity explored in the works covered in the course.
“A Small Place”
“A Small Place” by Jamaica Kincaid is probably the clearest reflection of Adichie’s “single story” concept. “A Small Place” as a novel is composed of two different perspectives on life in Antigua. For better impact, the author begins with the perspective of tourists who see the country as a resort place, beautiful, picturesque, and carefree. People taking a vacation tend to see just one side of a country they visit.
Normally, such resort places as Antigua resemble paradise, and having spent a week or two there, the tourist start to wish to stay and live there forever. Not many tourists take an interest in the culture of the resort country, its economy, the quality of life of the native population. In fact, tourists barely ever visit the places where the native population dwells; instead, they enjoy the beach, luxurious hotels, restaurants, and other entertainment places.
The second story told by the author is an eye-opener for the reader as it educates them about the true life of the native Antiguans disguised under the shining décor of a resort. As a former colony, the country has cultural identity problems struggling to re-gain its own authenticity as a state. The issue is amplified by the fact the Antigua’s main industry is tourism, which means that to survive, the native population is to serve and entertain the newcomers, mostly of white origin. Such imbalance recreates the atmosphere of slavery and positions the natives as the colonized group of perceived inferiors re-telling the single-story once again.
“Things Fall Apart”
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” is another reflection of Adichie’s speech in which she suggests that if the communities were more familiar with the background stories of the colonized nations such as the Nigerians or the American Indigenous people, these nations would not be perceived as violent, aggressive and wild. “Things Fall Apart” paints a picture of life in Nigeria before the arrival of colonists and the promotion of Christianity.
Okonkwo, the main protagonist who fits perfectly into the pre-colonial society of his village and eventually becomes one of the most respected and admired members of his community, has trouble finding his place in the new Nigeria ruled by the white government and converted to Christianity. The process was gradual and inevitable for the rest of the village dwellers, one by one, they adjusted to the new built of their society and to the presence of the colonists, whereas for Okonkwo, the change was drastic. He opposes the newcomers and even tried to organize a rebellion to win his village back, but he was powerless against the white domination established all around the world.
Okonkwo witnesses two stories, and they do not fit together in his idea of the motherland. Even though Okonkwo is obsessed with his masculinity, he is not a rebellious character by nature; he obeyed the laws of his people regardless of their harshness. He agreed to participate in the murder of his adopted son, and he did not protest against his exile. The presence of the newcomers dictating their new rules was what triggered his aggression and disobedience. The story of Okonkwo is in tune with the stories of all the colonized nations that oppose the colonization and become labeled as wild and aggressive people who need to be taught how to be “civilized.”
Edward Said’s “Orientalism” targets misrepresentations such as the story of Okonkwo mentioned above. “Orientalism” is the author’s comment on the division of the world into West and East. Said emphasizes that the concept of orientalism is mainly a one-sided political perspective of European and American researchers on the non-western cultures that initially positions them as “others.” This work is in tune with Adichie’s point of view, especially when she mentions that a single story is designed to point out the differences between different nations instead of underlining their similarities.
The author views orientalism as the source of misinterpretation of the cultures and people of Asia and the Middle East. Such perspective facilitates misunderstandings and prejudice against them in western societies and serves as the basis for conflict. The single-story told by the western orientalists about the nations they referred to as “eastern” picture them as despotic, sly, unreliable, and sneaky. Oriental men are believed to be intimidating, violent, and dominant, while women are oppressed and powerless.
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The promotion of the latter single story creates a lot of issues in the contemporary world and serves for western “interventions” into the societies of the east that are considered improper, old-fashioned, and generally wrong. Somehow, the perspective that the western way of living is the only right one and must be accepted all over the world just would not go away.
“Reel Bad Arabs”
In his book called “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” Jack Shaheen points out another single story that has been told by the American film industry for decades, and that develops and maintains the negative stereotype about Arabs positioning them as aggressive and dangerous people fond of war and violence. The single-story Hollywood re-tells time after time has led to a simple but extremely harmful association. Just like Adichie, who heard just one story about the house boy, perceived him and his family only as poor, the whole world’s society now perceives Arabs mainly as villains.
Of course, they have a variety of other traits – they are filthy rich but do not know the value of money due to low intellect, they disrespect women and are obsessed with American blondes whom they constantly kidnap, Arabs have harems, wear turbans, fly magic carpets and have an extremely inhumane legal system where one may be mutilated or executed for the smallest deeds. Shaheen points out that Hollywood’s single story is based on observations and myths about Arabs made by the first colonist’s hundreds of years ago, and as a result, Arab society is depicted as barbaric and extremely old-fashioned.
“The White Man’s Burden”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem titled “The White man’s Burden” is a typical example of a single story for a European conqueror. The author speaks from the point of view of the colonizer describing the colonized nations as the ones in need of guidance and help, and the colonizers – like the generous carriers of civilization with all its virtues such as peace, freedom, prosperity, health, and comfort. The colonized people are portrayed as sullen, ungrateful, violent, and overall too stupid to understand the kindness of their liberators. While depicting the newly-caught people as narrow-minded, the author himself omits the opposing point of view completely.
In this poem, colonization is viewed strictly as a mission of white men as benefactors for the poor non-white wildlings living in horrible conditions. The author bitterly mentions that for some unknown reason, the colonized nations reject the generous help provided to the Europeans, trying to cast them out of their lands and refusing to understand all the positive aspects of having a white master.
Interestingly, Kipling sounds outraged by the fact that this huge sacrifice of the white people is not appreciated. Yet, the author fails to explain why the white men are forcing the “happy life” on the other nations. He also fails to assume that such a massive protest of the native people against their “benefactors” must be based on some logical reasons. Kipling disregards the other side of the coin only because he is also under the impression of a single story, the story of a generous white man and an ungrateful “half devil, half child.”
The issue brought up by Chimamanda Adichie in her TEDx speech concerns the power of prejudice and stereotypes, which come from the limited perspective and insufficient knowledge of one community about the others. This issue can be found in a variety of literary works and films, and it is discussed by many scholars as it is recognized as a very powerful basis for conflicts in our society.