Ethnic stereotyping and the danger of a single story

Home Focus Ethnic stereotyping and the danger of a single story

One positive take away from Covid-19 is that it has “forced” us to stand together as Namibians. Apart from when the Brave Warriors are playing (for those who love soccer), I have never seen Namibians stand together like we are right now in the face of coronavirus. 

That is an ironic twist of fate that it had to take a pandemic to “force” us to unite. In the late 90s, someone published an opinion poll in The Namibian newspaper that had been conducted randomly on Unam students. The opinion poll was basically about what these students thought about “other ethnic groups”. 

What most of these students – who were supposed to be more progressive than their parents – had to say about “other ethnic groups” was shocking, to say the least. The interesting thing about that opinion poll was that there was not a single positive thing that one group had to say about the other group. I am not sure that things have changed much since then.
In very simple terms, stereotyping can be described as a fixed, over-generalised belief about a particular group. The question is, what exactly is a single story in a socio-cultural contet? 
A negative single story, in this context, is when we have a negative opinion or prejudice against another group, based only on one storyline. 

For example, we may have had a negative experience with a member of a certain ethnic group and we then conclude that members of that ethnic group are all like that. 
What we think about other ethnic groups could (in certain instances) perhaps be true. Granted that it is perhaps true, my next question is, is that “negative characteristic” the only thing we can use to classify that group?  The respected Nigerian writer Ngozi Adichie has this to say about stereotyping: “The danger of single stories is not that they are not true but it is because they are incomplete.” 

And a single story can be complete if we add other stories to the equation – if we are objective enough, not all those stories are likely to be negative. In the words of Paulo Freire, more often than not ‘…we close ourselves into circles of certainty from which we cannot escape; and we make our truth. We consider anything that is not our truth a lie, and in the end, the reality is imprisoned.’

The famous German philosopher, Martin Heidegger once remarked: “…Man today is in flight from thinking. But part of that flight is that man will neither see nor admit it.” In Namibia, because of our recent colonial history, we tend to “flee” from discussing race and ethnicity. 

However, the irony is that we discuss these issues in whispers, especially when we are with “one of our own”. 
A few years back I asked a San government cleaner about his work? His response was as follows: “…my female supervisor is very bad!” I asked him why he was saying that. His response was: “I stayed away from work for only three days and she was angry with me!” 

Our immediate reaction would be: “San people are lazy and irresponsible!” The point is, for someone who comes from a hunter-gatherer culture, time – as we perhaps know it – is not significant.  
When a traditional San man is following the footprints of an antelope, he would only consider going back home after he has either killed the antelope or when he fails to track it down; and time is not a factor here. Who says our modern definition of time is the only correct one? I submit that more than 90% of Namibians are not aware that there are more than five San sub-ethnic groups in Namibia who speak different dialects. 

We tend to think they are one large language group. That in itself is part of the single-story dilemma just like the notion that is common in the US of regarding Africa as one country where we all speak one language called “African”. 
The case of the San people is just but one example and I, for one, cannot claim to speak with authority on their behalf. 
To claim to be an “expert” in telling someone’s else story is also tantamount to patronage, which is also part of the problem. If unbeknown to me, I have perhaps fallen into that trap (through this piece) then I would be the first to tender my apology. 
Both racism and ethnic prejudice are primarily premised on the notion of a single story. Therefore, in conclusion, I want to end with this beautiful quote from Adichie: “There is never a single story about any group.”