This blog is based on the work of Spring Associate, Elizabeth Seja Min.
As changemakers we often find ourselves focusing on the damage left behind by centuries of displacement, exploitation and division. The trauma of the past, installed for generations, still sits within us in the present. This trauma can manifest in different ways, such as feeling the loss of connection to a language, culture or place. It also shows up when we subscribe to one particular story — a dominant narrative of understanding our world, ourselves and the people different from ourselves.
It is safe to say that most of us are impacted by a colonization mindset, imposing upon us “a single way of knowing, a single regime of noticing, a single apparatus of meaning-making.” For example the notion that humans are separate from nature, that male bodies are superior to other bodies, that wealth is measured in terms of numbers and money, and that more money equals more success and happiness. Reclaiming our true selves and humanity is to decolonize our mind from the notion that things are fixed and separate, and by noticing the multiple. It’s about recognizing that our realities and identities are actually permeable and emergent, an ever changing and developing part of building community, dignity, pride and love for who we are.
Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that to create a single story, you “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become… How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person… They make one story become the only story.”
Adichie points out that the single story creates stereotypes which are untrue and incomplete by showing us just one perspective. Both Adichie and the philosopher Bayo Akomolafe have spoken about how the dominant culture sees Africa as a “single story of catastrophe” or one “with feverish dances, painted faces, exotic tribes.” If you reduce people to one story, you emphasize their differences rather than similarities and take away their humanity as a consequence.
The single story still shows up today in our systems, policies, movements and in sectors like philanthropy. Man made systems of oppression with roots in colonialism, like capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy, thrive by perpetuating the single story. The single story determines whose opinion matters, who makes decisions, and who gets to control wealth. It maintains the status quo of one group’s domination over another: “my God over yours,” “white skin over darker hues,” “male over other gender identities.” Colonization buries us in these binaries and keeps us fighting against each other.
When we cannot break from what the single story has ingrained in us, we can end up internalizing it, operating within it and even maintaining its boundaries, limiting what we can see and imagine as possible for the future. We may not recognize the value of our own knowledge or that of our ancestors because we grow up seeing the world through the lenses of the colonizers or dominant culture. As Akomolafe wrote, the single story has “come to define how we see.”
So how do we as changemakers — as descendants of colonizers, the colonized, the forcibly displanted — heal the colonial traumas of the past and the present? How do we, in the present, look at the past so we can plan for the future and take responsibility for what it will look like?
Many stories matter
Activist and author Edgar Villanueva wrote that there’s one kind of medicine that everyone has access to: our stories. Whether they be personal, collaborative, organizational, or from ancient wisdom, stories are what can create cracks between the concrete slabs of the status quo. They can show us that we are so much more than the identities installed to keep us locked in place.
“Stories matter,” wrote Adichie. “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
You may be asking yourself, “Do I have stories to share? Are they worth listening to?” Villanueva writes, “You might be telling yourself that your story is too ordinary, but I can’t emphasize enough how meaningful it is to come out and stand in the light so others can see you take heart and take courage. Stories of our lives actually carry the seeds of potential for changing complicated systems like supremacy and patriarchy… As some [Indigenous] elders say, ‘Those who know the stories are the healers.’”
Radical listening and having uncomfortable conversations with people with different histories, and from different communities is healing work. When we can take in, understand and acknowledge the history and trauma of others, we are going to be more respectful of that history and shift our thinking to a way that’s inclusive of different perspectives. This healing work and repairing of relationships is a fundamental aspect of justice and is from where change will sprout.
What medicine do you bring to break away from the single story?