IDENTITY AND “THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY”-(BY NANI AJAH)

It was a typical Wednesday afternoon in Calabar, Nigeria. The weather was scorching hot and the power was out so being cooped up inside my JSS3 (9th grade) classroom was not helping. A few of my friends and I started a game of tag, chasing one another around the room and I climbed some desks to avoid getting tagged. After the game, a male classmate came to me and asked, “Why were you climbing over the desks? Don’t you know that you are a girl?” I simply gave him a puzzled look and walked away. As the exuberant child that I was, I tried to climb a small tree but fell off. My mother, after cleaning my bruises, scolded me saying, “I don’t want you climbing trees and getting bruised, don’t you know that you are a girl and that a woman should not have too many scars?” I knew I was a girl, I had no doubt about it, but it had never occurred to me that being a girl meant not climbing desks or not climbing trees or avoiding things as random as scars, especially at the expense of fun.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, she talks about the detriments that come from viewing some people or some places as one sided rather than multifaceted. This logic applies to how society views identity. The danger of the single story about identity is that society feels pressure to try to define what each of our identities should mean or not mean or how they should be expressed or not expressed. Trying to restrict identity or define people’s identity for them does not work because any identity, like people and places, is multifaceted and could mean a number of different things to different people. Like Adichie, I identify as an African woman and I do not think there is a single correct way to be African or to be a woman.

Muldoon conceives identity as the “fundamental defining characteristic of an individual or group” and identity formation could be understood as either a process of self-realization or one of self-differentiation”. Prior to reading him, I would have agreed more with the concept of self-realization and authenticity due to pop culture’s use of the word “real” as a positive descriptive adjective.

According to the self-realization view, the extent to which individuals deviate from who they really are (i.e. being fake) indicates a failure in identity formation and would be viewed by many people I know as a negative. Another scholar; Connolly makes a valid point for self-differentiation. He implies that “. . . the choices, accidents, and circumstances that make us one kind of person rather than another” are more important. Connolly also tries to discredit both the possibility and desirability of an authentic self, saying that it denies the differences that self relies on for its distinctness; this I disagree with. I believe that self-realization and self-differentiation can coexist to form a better process of identity formation.

The set of readings that resonated with me the most was that on Feminism and Gender/ Gender Identity. As the anecdotes in my introduction, Nigeria is not quite the place where feminism thrives because gender roles are engrained deep in the culture. However, perhaps because I am the first-born child in my family and much was expected of me, I saw no reason why I could not be as good as the next person in just about anything and so, I was a feminist. Although I did not always know the word or its meaning, I think I have always been a feminist. Feminism was never a conscious political stance for me; it was just always a part of me. I knew that I thought about gender roles and gender expectations in a different way than most people around me did.

Western culture views gender as a binary. One problem with this is that not even biological anatomy fits into two rigid boxes. Another, as Healey opines, is that “a binary concept still fails to capture the rich variation that exists. She also says that gender is produced by the intersection of three dimensions: Gender biology or sex, gender identity and gender expression. The first is determined at birth and the second can be reconciled within one’s self. This reconciliation happens as either the self-fulfilling prophecy of gender-stereotyped expectations that make children grow up to fit in the molds that society has created for them or the opposite or the continuum of possibilities in between. The third is more subject to scrutiny because it deals with how others perceive you in response to how you express your gender. I identify as cis gender, my biological gender is female and so is my gender identity. However, I view gender as being fluid because it is a social construct and as society changes, the gender norms, roles and expectations, especially concerning gender expression, should change as well. Adichie maintains that it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. In most societies today where men have most of the power, they can use their male privilege to enforce single stories about feminine identity and gender roles. In my experience, most people who have “advised” me on how to be more feminine and told me that what I was wearing or how I was speaking was unfeminine have been men. Healy perfectly captures my gender expression by saying that others identify with a gender, but express their gender in ways that differ from stereotypical presentations. Contrary to these men’s opinions, I disagree with the notion that climbing desks, wearing button down shirts, loud, forthright expression of opinions and other un-stereotypical presentations do not point to a female gender expression.

Reconciling my ethnicity with my racial identity is something I never had to do until I came to the United States. In fact, I never thought of myself in racial terms, I was just Nigerian. I assumed that the term black was reserved for Americans of African descent probably because they did not know the exact country they came from. It never really occurred to me that people could and would refer to me as black in the U.S. Africans tried (and still try) to separate themselves from the notion of blackness despite anti-black racism and injustices that were happening in the African and Afro-Caribbean communities. I think this is an attempt by Africans to form our own identity via self-differentiation. Just as African Americans did not choose to be called black, neither did the people of Africa name their land Africa. However, we have come to cherish this African identity. Despite the single story of Africa being one of catastrophe, Africans believe that with our best efforts, we can bring other stories of Africa to light; stories of hard work and education and by so doing, define our African identity positively. New Africans and other black foreigners still relished an assumed detachment from the black experience. I think this is because it is difficult for Africans to claim an identity that we do not think applies to us, an identity we do not think we can control or define.

There is no accurate single story about any identity. My gender identity, racial and ethnic identity, like that of every person, are multifaceted and the variations and the various aspects of our identities should not be restricted but celebrated. In the words of Adichie, when we reject the single story, we regain a kind of paradise.

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