In July 2009, Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,to articulate to an educated audience how stereotypical judgments are dangerous because they are incomplete. She bases her argument, that listening to only one perception of a group of people unfairly simplifies the reality of that group’s lives, using a series of anecdotes. Many of these anecdotes come from her own life experiences, for example how she only read European literature as a young child, prompting her early writing to be of more European influence rather than of her own origin (Adichie, 1:44); how she perceived her house boy’s family to only be poor and nothing else until she was was invited to dinner at her house boy’s home (3:43); and how her college roommate expected Adichie, because of her last name and appearance, not to speak English and expected her to listen to tribal music (4:13).
Her speech is moving, funny, logically concise and clearly gets the message across by tapping into the audience’s historical and political contexts, invoking her own credibility as a Nigerian writer, and utilizinga combination of comedy and sympathy. In her speech, Adichie uses these rhetorical strategies to profess her message of inclusion to her audience,to boost her audience’s trust in her, and to educate her audience as well as entertain.
Now, before delving into exactly how Adichie used these strategies to propel her argument, it must be noted what was happening in the world as she delivered her speech. the Israeli offensive on the Gaza strip that left 1,330 Palestinians dead, US air attacks in Afghanistan, and a confrontation between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs that left 200 dead (news24.com). The audience scarcely needed Adichie to tell them that all over the world disagreements and misunderstandings have led to war. By speaking right at this time of crisis, Adichie took advantage of well known, contemporary issues to stress the importance of understanding each other’s whole stories, not just the single stories that paint negative pictures of someone or of a group of people. Speaking before an audience who are troubled or possibly even affected by such violence, Adichie employs a discreet yet effective use of pathos in order to garner her audience’s attention and contextualize the importance of her central idea.
Adichie also uses several examples of intimate humor to capture her audience’s attention and keep them engaged. For example, Adichie jokes about her college roommate’s reaction to Adichie’s African origin, how she “asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey” (4:13). By poking fun at her roommate’s obviously untrue assumption, that all Nigerians listen to tribal music, Adichie has her audience agreeing with her that reducing something as simple as her music preference can result in something both out-of-touch and ridiculous. To further prove her point, Adichie describes another personal encounter with one of her students, who after reading her novel, assumed that all Nigerian men are physical abusers. Adichie recites her response to the student, paralleling the student’s assumption by telling them that after reading the novel, American Psycho, “it was such a shame that all young Americans were serial murderers” (11:10). By showing the audience just how ridiculous single-story perceptions can be, such as how the assumption that all Nigerian men are abusive is equal to assuming that all American teenagers are serial killers, Adichie makes her audience understand just how easy it is to participate in a single story and just how damaging the effect might be to an audience that does not immediately recognize the fallacy of that reductive point of view. The unanimous laughter from the audience following both of these recounts is an indication of the audience’s conditioning to Adichie’s already valid viewpoint, showcasing her wonderful use of humor as a persuasive tool tied to the inherent logos already exhibited from these personal examples.
Adichie does not only call upon humor to prove her point. Adichie also appeals to the audience’s sense of sympathy and pity by exposing her own single-story assumptions that she had made in the past towards Mexicans. She describes her shame in assuming that all Mexicans were “the abject immigrant” as she walks down Guadalajara and notices that Mexicans are happy, normal and working people just like the rest of us (8:54). As racism towards Mexicans has been extremely prevalent in the United States, every member of the audience can recall the oversimplified and offensive assumptions about Mexicans that Adichie refers to, extending Adichie’s sense of shame to the audience and silencing them as she speaks.
Adichie exudes a similar, humbling tone at an earlier point in the speech when she analyzes exactly why her university roommate had so many pre-existing convictions regarding Africans. She describes how, in the context of her roommate’s single-story towards her, “there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals” (4:49). Adichie uses her roommate’s flawed perception to extend her own fault of a “single story” to the general population: everyone is at fault for reducing such groups of people to very basic assumptions like how every African needs the help and pity of wealthier Western cultures. This prompts the necessity for a new way of thinking about such ethnic groups, such as her own multifaceted perspective which she is professing throughout her talk.
Adichie uses not only pathos but also ethos to support her argument. As a Nigerian born writer who has experienced the effects of stereotyping and prejudice just by moving to the United States, Adichie’s credibility cannot be denied. She more than anyone would be able to escape the bounds of a “single story” and be able to see people more wholly. Adichie begins to establish this credibility with her audience, a credibility which drives the audience to trust her argument by telling of her experience when she wrote as a child. After she explains her European literature influences, the ironic contrast between the literature she wrote with apples and snows and the environment she actually lived in with mangos and no snow, Adichie proceeds to say, “What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children” (1:44). Adichie is essentially using some of her earliest memories as a writer to point out that she too was prone to adhere to a single narrative and that , shattering those single-story prejudices can only happen if access to other narratives is provided.
Adichie also further establishes her credibility by challenging the notion that all writers must come from troubled backgrounds to write meaningful literature. She admits that she herself did not have much of a troubled childhood at all and was quite happy, confessing only a few troubling events such as the death of her grandparents in refugee camps, of her cousin in a plane crash, and her own upbringing under a repressive military government. However, she insists that she chooses not to forget about all of the positive aspects of her childhood or to let these negative events define who she is (12:57). This honesty and humility makes her seem more like an actual person who can be listened to and who gives correct, down-to-earth information, boosting her credibility with her audience.
By appealing to the audience’s sense of humor, sympathy, pity, and even shame, as well as establishing herself as an extremely credible speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie effectively convinces her audience that we should pay attention to the whole story of a person, not just a surface-level stereotype. Adichie’s “Danger of a Single Story” presents audience members and listeners with one of many approaches to difficult topics that can be used to win over naysayers: invoke one’s own weaknesses, discoveries, and strengths and employ humor and sincerity throughout. With more speakers like Adichie, who engage such inspiring ideas and such effective skills in persuasion, the world can be turned into a more inclusive and racially accepting place.