Single Story and Storytelling as Power

Storytelling is a form of power because narratives can shape the perception of culture, person, or event. This perception can be positive or negative, but it is rarely complete. In turn, incomplete perceptions or narratives lead to the creation of stereotypes. Finally, stereotypes can shape both how others interact with people they describe, and how these people view themselves. This can create pressure on people to either confirm or reject the stereotypes about them. Regardless of whether these stereotypes are largely positive or negative, such a view creates a risk of making one’s behavior and expectations defined to a large extent by them.

Those affected by negative stereotypes may feel the pressure to do anything in their power to avoid acting by the stereotypes even in minor and benign details. Alternatively, one may feel that others will perceive them as the stereotypical person regardless of what he or she does, and decide not to resist acting against the worst parts of the stereotype. Similarly, positive stereotypes can lead to pressure to conform even if it isn’t possible.

Storytelling has the potential of shaping perceptions, stereotypes, and expectations, including those applied to someone by him or herself. Therefore, by shaping the narrative around a culture, one has the potential to disempower the people from that culture by creating negative or limiting stories about it. However, the same power can be used to the opposite effect. Telling diverse stories that focus on different aspects of culture helps people from both inside and outside of that culture to be perceived, and perceive themselves, as individuals. It can highlight the unique qualities of a culture without focusing on only the positives or only the negatives. In this way, storytelling is a form of power that can oppress or liberate people, depending on how it is used.

A prominent example is a single story about Americans from Asia or those of Asian descent. It applies primarily to those from China but shapes the narrative about other Asian ethnicities. The story paints Asian-Americans as hard-working, disciplined, and talented in mathematics and science. At the same time, it presents these people as overworked, especially as children struggling to meet their overly strict parents’ expectations academically.

Although individually the stereotypes this story creates are mostly positive, it does more to damage and disempowers Asian-Americans than to help them. Most importantly, it creates unreasonably high expectations and standards, which can be difficult or impossible to meet. Thus, this story has an overall negative effect on Asian-Americans as they are perceived as more academically capable than their peers.

One’s achievements can be devalued because of this story, particularly those in areas in which this culture is described to have a talent, science, and mathematics. Actual achievements can be attributed to this natural talent, while expectations tend to be set higher for Asian-American students than their non-Asian peers. These unreasonable expectations can lead to unfair grades or stress and anxiety issues as students struggle to meet them.

Beyond academic fields, such expectations can also color the perception of Americans of Asian descent in social interactions. In general, while the stereotypes are primarily positive, this single-story creates negative pressures on the people they describe. These pressures are both external, as others ascribe them to unrealistic or impossible expectations, and internal, as they may struggle with the meeting, or failing to meet, these expectations.

To break this single story down, I would encourage creating and sharing more diverse stories about people of Asian descent and Asian Americans. Stories that do not highlight these people’s academic achievements, but instead focus on achievements in other fields would be particularly important as they show a different perspective. Similarly, stories that show non-stereotypical qualities of Asian people would help challenge these stereotypes and set more realistic expectations and perceptions. For instance, while martial arts are often attributed to Asian people, other athletic and sports achievements are rarely mentioned.

Therefore, highlighting a sprinter or a weight-lifter would serve to draw attention to other characteristics of the culture in question, and work to dismantle the existing stereotypes. Similarly, telling about non-stereotypical relations within Asian families would work against the “strict parents” stereotype.

Another significant factor in this single story is the conflation of Asian cultures. China and Japan dominate the perception of Asian people but are often treated as a single culture. Therefore, to further break down the single-story, introducing stories about other Asian cultures, as well as drawing attention to the differences between them, can be helpful. North and South Korea, the cultural diversity of Japan, and Hong Kong are all topics that can be interesting but rarely seen in general American perceptions of Asian cultures. To summarize, the most important factor in breaking down single stories is implied in the name — single.

By providing diverse, varied, and multifaceted stories about cultures, people, or events, one can contribute to shaping a balanced perception of them that prevents a warped perception or pervasive stereotypes from forming.

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