In honor of Black History Month, Episcopal English teacher Lisa Pritchard reflected on single-story stereotypes. She recently encouraged Upper School students in Chapel to create their own life story despite what the world expects from them. She also left them with a charge to tell the story of others and eliminate these preconceived notions. Read more.
When the African Heritage Club first approached me to do a chapel talk on the topic of single-story stereotypes during Black History Month, I was, to say the least, a bit, well, confused. I mean, besides the obvious: not only am I white, but I come from a relatively privileged, middle-class, background. Sure, I’m female, which has resulted in some discrimination over the years, but I haven’t really encountered many instances in my life in which I have been on the receiving end of a negative stereotype. What did I have to contribute to this conversation?
I asked Lauren Reed, co-president of the African Heritage Club what her thought process was and she said that she thought I could be pretty objective – okay, true – and creative – I like to think so. Still, that’s a lot of pressure. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my background as an English teacher is what could serve me here since, as we have learned, it is the prevalence of stories that can be so powerful. And I know stories.
So, I got to thinking. And, while I was initially intimidated and thought I had to come up with this big, powerful piece that covered all of these important angles while also ringing true and allowing you to take away a message that sticks…I couldn’t get it right. Nothing felt authentic. Ultimately, I chose to go with something that is very me. I hope it does justice to the topic and to Black History Month and that the African Heritage Club doesn’t feel I’m being too flippant or that they’ve made a mistake and, if that does happen, it’s not their fault – it’s entirely mine. Either way, I can assure you that I’m being genuine.
In a Ted Talk that we watched in advisory, this statement by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (she’s an amazing author, by the way, you should definitely go read her books) stood out to me: “So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” So, here is the story of the “one thing” or one story that has been told to me over and over again about myself and what I chose to do about it.
Let me begin with one particular story. I went to Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport. One of the graduation requirements is to participate in a May “Module,” usually during your junior or senior year, where you focus intensely for three weeks on a topic outside of your major field of study. I was lucky enough to be able to go on the “Greek and Roman Odyssey” module. During the trip, my fellow students and I had a night off to roam around the plaka in Athens when we encountered an elderly Greek gentleman. He was about five feet high and somewhat hunched over. He stared me up and down – twice – and then asked the question that I have been unable to escape since I was around eight years old. In a thick Greek accent came the single word, “Basketball?”
I shook my head, no, and smiled. He returned the smile and we parted ways.
It never fails. At least fifty percent of the time that I meet someone new, the question inevitably arises, Have I played basketball? No. I’m not very good at it, actually. Well, let me back up. I probably could be good at it if I tried, I’ve just never tried. Why? Because everyone assumes I should be playing basketball just because I’m tall. And that’s why I’ve always chaffed against it. Even when I had the chance to try, I refused. Whether it was to prove everyone wrong or because I wanted to be separate from that image they had created of me in their minds, I don’t know, but basketball just wasn’t ever in the cards for me.
I’ve always been tall. I was the little kid who was too tall for the small rides, but not quite big enough for the adult rides. Who people thought was older than she actually was. Who always had trouble finding pants that were long enough and attractive shoes in my size (still do, sometimes). Who was a head taller in group photographs in the yearbook. Who was always at the back of the line or the back of the class. And who was always pushed to play basketball because I would “obviously be good at it.”
Being tall is not only unavoidable for me, but it is also a part of my identity that I am constantly being reminded about. In high school, by the time I was a sophomore, I was already 5’10” and thought I had stopped growing (I hadn’t – for those of you who don’t know, I’m 6’1”.) I and a handful of students had gone on an arts trip to New York City in February. We had split up at one point and were supposed to meet back at a certain location within half an hour. As we were nearing the rendez-vous point I heard – from a city block away, mind you – “I see Lisa’s head!” Apparently, because my head was above the crowd, it served as a good landmark for the rest of the group.
My friends always yelled at me when I wore heels because I was “tall enough already.” I had trouble finding dates who weren’t intimidated by my height. Once, when I was standing on the small team bus to head to a volleyball game, the back of my neck pressed against the ceiling, my friend Blythe – who was and still is 4’9” – exclaimed, “Seriously? You’re that tall? How is that fair? My entire family can be killed by airbags!”
You can imagine that this type of thing can get old pretty fast. But, as I matured, I slowly learned that the “single-story” of my height that everyone seemed determined to throw in my face could actually become an asset. When I had to give up on ballet because I was too tall for the costumes and had to specially order pointe shoes because they didn’t make them in my size, I regrouped and applied those skills to excelling at sports. When I was nervous giving a speech in front of the school or performing in a play, I looked naturally confident and poised because of my height and soon learned to actually adopt that confidence. And, when many women had to fight to be heard in a crowd of men, I was able to look those men in the eye and command their respect.
Most importantly, though, I learned that I have the ability to change the story. I don’t have to listen to and adapt to the story that is being told to me about me – I can make other people listen to the story I have to tell them about myself. And, once I learned that I could shape that story, I realized I could help shape other people’s stories. Because as someone with that privilege and power, it is my responsibility to speak up for the people who don’t have a voice against the single-story stereotype. I am the one who has to say, “Maybe that’s not true” or “Have you asked that person if that story applies to them?” or “Have you considered this alternative instead?”
So, if you take away nothing else, I want you to remember two things: first, don’t let the story you’re told about yourself limit you. Don’t let the world tell you that because you got that one bad grade on a test you’re a failure or because you came from a different background than everyone else around you, you can’t succeed: write your own story and make everyone else listen to you. Because you matter. Your story matters.
And second, once you’re comfortable with telling your own story, start telling other people’s stories and make sure their perspectives are heard. And this is the part where I am going to get cheesy and preachy, but it’s genuinely how I feel. For those of us who are at an advantage there is an obligation to help those less privileged. We need to be raising each other up, not tearing each other down to make ourselves feel better. Listen to people’s stories and tell them. Spread the word. Eliminate the single-story stereotype. Or, at the very least, make people think about it once in a while. And whether you have to whisper it or yell it or write it or use humor, keep telling it and maybe someone, somewhere will hear it and understand it and they will start to do the same.