the single story effect


I just finished watching this TED talk on the dangers of the “single story” given by a novelist named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. To briefly sum up, she talked about the danger of giving only one side of people. To say only, “They’re poor,” or, “They’re weak,” or “They’re primitive,” over and over until that’s all those people are. Her talk is beautifully delivered with emotional sincerity and a number of wry jokes, and as she spoke, I listened as a fellow novelist.

I grew up surrounded by a smorgasbord of white protagonists to identify with. Many were male, but some were female. Because of my taste in stories, most of the characters I spent my childhood with were Disney princesses, and I saw myself most easily in Belle. I practiced that Reading Without Looking Where the Fuck I’m Going trick for years (…and years…). I saw myself in her because she loved adventure, and she wanted to explore the world, and she loved to read, and she wasn’t afraid to shout back at a beast four times her size (math may not be accurate). However, first and foremost, she looked like me. Brown hair, big eyes, white skin. Boom, done.

When Mulan was released, I loved her, too. I’d just turned eleven, and I still had no idea that the vast majority of Disney heroines were catering to girls like me. Aurora, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Alice, Wendy. The non-Disney ones, too. Nancy Drew, The Babysitters’ Club, Clarissa Explains it All, The Wizard of Oz, Pollyanna, A Little Princess, Labyrinth, The Secret Garden, Anastasia, Harriet the Spy, etc. I wasn’t aware of the racial bias, and I didn’t see Mulan as any different from the other female heroines I loved. The same was true of Jasmine and Pocahontas. My understanding of Mulan, Jasmine, and Pocahontas physically was, “Pretty!” and then pretty much ended there.

Their races didn’t matter to me. They were interesting characters, and that’s all I noticed.

But their races do matter. For every girl who’s ever done what I did when I was a kid and looked for the Disney princess who most resembled her physically, it matters incredibly. It matters so that one day, it won’t matter. A character will be of any race and the audience will love that character based on their personality and their strengths and struggles and…why hasn’t this sunken in yet?

Adichie was born and raised in Nigeria. When she was nineteen years old, she traveled to the States for college. Her white American roommate asked Adichie about tribal music and marveled at Adichie’s ease with English. In Adichie’s own words,

She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way.

Based on countless experiences like Adichie’s, I’ve got to believe we’re only at the very dawn of human existence. Chauvinism, racism, homophobia – when we, as a species, have overturned these problems, then I think we’ll get to the real substance of what it is to be alive: truth, joy, trust, love, etc. As a species we’re still maturing, still growing, still realizing the world we could create. Our prejudices distract us from the truly Good in life.

But we are gradually blending. Centuries ago there were isolated villages, and little by little, those villages are uniting and evolving. Many of us have grown to see each other not as enemies or rivals, but as friends and family.

Take this as an example:

There’s a Japanese performer that I admire. He’s primarily a dancer, but he also sings and acts and travels to Spain and gives lectures at universities and performs for royalty when he has the time. He devotes himself entirely to his craft and is tirelessly determined to improve himself in every possible area, and I easily count him as one my role models. Now, when I first found out about him back in college in New York when I didn’t speak more than five words of Japanese, my interest in him began with, “I like this song,” and ended with, “He has great hair.” I didn’t know anything about his personality or his ambitions or his background, so whenever my friends asked me to describe him, “Japanese” was one of the first adjectives I reached for.

Then I steadily learned more about him. He joined the entertainment industry when he was thirteen. At his audition for the talent agency he belongs to now, the CEO of the company singled him out and complimented his dancing. He appeared on TV shows and in magazines, all while attending high school and barely scraping by enough to graduate. He struggled with the demands and stresses of a job that, in his words, “Created a gap in my heart between who I was and who I was supposed to be.” Over time, he’s shifted from introverted and withdrawn to introverted and confident. He has an insatiable drive to make himself better, stronger, and wiser. He’s a perfectionist, passionately devoted to his craft, and fervently adherent to his own high standards.

So, when anyone asks me to describe him now, “Japanese” isn’t part of the explanation. It is, of course, important that he’s Japanese. His heritage partially determined the way he thinks about himself and the world around him, and it undoubtedly has subconscious and conscious influences on him now. But his heritage had nothing to do with how much I admire him; that was all about him.

(His name is Imai Tsubasa, by the way. Last name first.)


All this has been in my mind as I’ve plotted my books. I have twenty-two novels-to-be in progress. Some have chapters, some are outlines, and some are still only ideas. All of them began with an idea.

And the more I see of the world, the more I think, “Why should my entire cast of characters be white?” Because all that matters is making characters who are whole. Keeping this in mind, I sketch out their personalities first. Their ambitions, their backgrounds. After that, I decide on race.

And I want to make their races clear in the text. Because while race doesn’t matter in my fictional worlds, it matters in reality. Initially, I thought, “I’ll name him Kaito and it’ll be clear he’s Japanese.” However, the world we’re in now is one where a manga character named Akira who lives in Tokyo can and likely will be cast by a white actor and the setting will be changed to Manhattan. We’re in a world where the casting call for Katniss was only open to white actors. A world where Avatar the Last Airbender full stop. So, obviously the race of a non-white character might have to be stated more adamantly.

Of course, I haven’t even finished any of my novels yet. I don’t know what, if any, impact they’ll have on readers. But regardless of the future, I want to be in the habit of going into every book with the intention of inclusion. I want a Japanese female protagonist in one book and a black female protagonist in the next. I want male and female protagonists, and protagonists that identify as both (after all, that’s exactly what one of my favorite books did).

Because race does matter so that one day it won’t.

Last example: Zoe in Firefly. Calm, composed, deadly, sarcastic, and breathlessly badass. …And black. Does it change Zoe’s character one iota if a black actress plays her? No. Inside the fictional world of Firefly, it doesn’t matter that Zoe is black; in our world, it matters a lot.

It matters because there are movies about black slavery. There are movies set in Africa. There are historical movies based on black people. There are roles that specifically call for black actors.

But “female first officer of spaceship ~in the future~” doesn’t specifically call for any race. So why automatically make that character white? You don’t. You give it to an actor who best fits the role and ideally demonstrates some chemistry with the rest of the cast.

I know the gap between us is shrinking, but it hasn’t vanished yet. What will help it do so are stories that tell multiple angles, stories that include as many angles as possible, and stories that avoid one single shape.



(…I’m going to finish the Wolf Children review, I swear.)


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