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Beyond the single story

The last couple of days have felt like they lasted an eternity. It was hard to get up this morning after a night of restless sleep. I just couldn't stop replaying the evening over and over in my head.

I attended a community event on women, race, and class as part of a broader effort to bring the community together around important issues. Our event was focused on the theme from Chimandada Adichie’s powerful TED talk about the “danger of the single story."

The idea is that when we apply a single story to the people and world around us, when we don’t take the time to see beyond the surface or understand different cultures, we lose part of our humanity and we rob people of their dignity. We begin to see ourselves as separate, and often superior, based on the false narratives that we have read or seen.

After the video played, we began to talk in our small circles about a time when a single story has been used about us, and how often we apply that lens to one another. I could think of countless examples where I immediately made a snap judgment about a person based on something superficial or without knowing their history and story.

Almost immediately, frustration bubbled up from a few of the women of color in the group. What was the point of this? People are struggling to find work and affordable housing in our community. How was this discussion actually going to change anything? Instead of more talking, what action what were we going to take to fix the problems in our community?

The words hit me like a slap in the face and knocked me back a bit. The hopefulness and excitement I carried in to the room suddenly turned to shame for my disconnection to the struggles in our community. As one of the facilitators for our small group, I felt an immense responsibility to make space for the group members to be heard and understood. But, as voices and tension rose, I could sense that this was going to be much more challenging and uncomfortable than I had anticipated. I wanted to defend myself and others in the group. Weren’t we all here because we care? Because we want to make a positive change? Because we want to break the cycles of injustice and intolerance? As a white woman, it felt like anything I said would come across as disingenuous and patronizing, only making things worse.

Our group never did explore the single story concept, and I think we all felt a little relief when it was time to wrap up. Each group reported out their powerful discussions and connections they made to understand one another in a new light.

I hurried out to my car, tears welling up in my eyes. I felt like a failure as a facilitator. I felt disappointment that I had missed out on getting to know the other women in my group. Honestly, I felt a little angry, too. Because, in many ways, it felt like the single story had been applied to me, about who I was as a person and what I must know about racial injustice in this country. It shut down the conversation and kept us disconnected.

The truth is that they were right: we were not going to be able to solve any of the issues our community and country are facing right now in one night. And, that is really frustrating, especially if you are exhausted from experiencing oppression and discrimination every single day.

I realize now that sleep wouldn’t come last night because I was searching for what I could have said or done to take away that pain and the anger, to make everyone feel better, and leave hopeful. I wanted to feel good about it and about my role in creating a positive change in the community. The thing is, there wasn’t something I could have said that would have changed the reality. It wasn't about me. It was simply about making space for those voices and that struggle to be heard and acknowledged. As an ally, even in the midst of uncomfortable resistance, that is our only job.

It was a difficult evening, and yet, I am grateful for what it stirred in me. The good news is that several of us are planning to meet again and keep the discussion going. Because, at the end of the day, until we are willing to keep showing up for uncomfortable conversations and stop looking for the easy solutions or an A for effort, nothing will ever change. There is incredible power in slowing down from our transactional lives to establish relationships, to meet new people and hear stories we might otherwise never know, and re-connect to the thread of humanity that binds us all.

“Stories matter. 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.” - Chimandada Adichie

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