Adichie’s Single Story of West Virginia?

Poor KidsChimamanda Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story” is my all-time favorite Ted Talk. As a middle class Nigerian whose professor once told her that her stories were not “authentically African” because the characters weren’t poor and starving, she shares with honesty and humor the stereotypes she had to overcome to be published in the United States. She concludes

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete….I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.

Because I have admired Adichie for so long, I felt I’d been kicked in the gut when I got to Chapter 38 of her latest novel, Americanah. I put the book away, unable to pick it up again for weeks after I read a passage in which her main character, Ifemelu, writes a blog post about white privilege that begins with this single story:

So this guy said to Professor Hunk, “White privilege is nonsense. How can I be privileged? I grew up fucking poor in West Virginia. I’m an Appalachian hick. My family is on welfare.” Right. But privilege is always relative to something else. Now imagine someone like him, as poor and as fucked up, and then make that person black.

The character goes on to write that her professor boyfriend explains, “Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never been a barrier.” At the end of the blog she includes a test for White Privilege, based on an actual essay written in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh, a professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesley.

In her essay McIntosh listed statements that resulted from her own quest to think about privileges she enjoyed as a white person that were not true for people of color. (e.g., “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”)

As a liberal who moved to the suburbs of our nation’s capital shortly before this essay was written, I firmly believe that the questions Professor McIntosh raised are important ones. So why hasn’t the national conversation about race changed in the past 25 years?

The New Yorker, which first gave voice to Adichie, published an interview with Peggy McIntosh last May. McIntosh made an interesting observation about the effect of raising questions about privilege in her Women’s Studies seminars:

I noticed that, three years in a row, men and women in the seminar who had been real colleagues and friends for the first several months had a kind of intellectual and emotional falling out. There was an uncomfortable feeling at the end…

Raising questions about privilege is important, but at some point we must move beyond the single story of white privilege it creates. If the conversation stops with making us uncomfortable, little is gained.

Like Adichie’s character, I “grew up fucking poor in West Virginia.” But race does exist for me, even though it’s never been a barrier in my life. While growing up poor and white in West Virginia is my story, it is not the single story of Appalachia. My second grade teacher was a black man, more educated and well-off than my father, a coal miner with a fifth grade education. Like Adichie’s mother, my mom reminded me nearly every day that there were others in worse circumstances. I had classmates who were poor and black who faced twice the obstacles I faced.

Though Adichie is black, she grew up in Nigeria with a family that could afford servants. By her own admission, she did not understand the circumstances of their house boy Fide’s family and was quite surprised when she visited his village to learn that his brother created beautiful baskets. Does that mean that poverty doesn’t exist for Adichie because it has never been a barrier to her?

So when someone as renowned as Adichie writes a character who dismisses a poor West Virginian as an “Appalachian hick,” I wonder whether we should have a test of class privilege like the one she invokes for white privilege in her novel. I wonder how those of a more privileged class, like Adichie, would answer questions like these:

  1. Have you ever worn a dress to school that your mom sewed by hand from a feed sack?
  2. Have you ever shivered in the cold at the bus stop because you have only one thin winter coat, handed down from your older sibling?
  3. Have you ever left the table hungry because you knew your mom wouldn’t eat her dinner until you said that you were full?
  4. Have you ever told your teacher you weren’t interested in a school activity because you didn’t want to admit that you couldn’t afford the fee?
  5. Have you ever waited until everyone you knew had left the grocery store because you didn’t want them to see you use food stamps to pay for the milk your mother sent you to buy?
  6. Have you ever taken a zero on a school assignment that required a computer with Internet access because you had to get home to babysit your siblings while your single mom worked at her minimum wage job?

When Adichie so handily dismisses those who would answer Yes to these questions and others like them, she essentially ends, as she said in her Ted Talk, any “possibility of a connection as human equals.”

It is for precisely this reason that such questions often end conversation or elicit angry responses rather than leading to dialogue. In fact, the New Yorker interview with Professor McIntosh appeared to be a response to Princeton student Tal Fortgang’s essay “Checking My Privilege.” Fortgang, frustrated by his professors’ admonishments to check his privilege after stating his opinions, outlines his heritage as the descendant of Jews who fled Poland before World War II and concludes

That’s the problem with calling someone out for the “privilege” which you assume has defined their narrative. You don’t know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are….Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color.

Fortgang’s essay created a firestorm rather than a conversation, and it ended in the same predictable choosing of sides. McIntosh mentions his fury in the interview and concludes, “The key thing is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other.”

If we stop fighting each other and end the conversation, we’ve gained nothing in our quest for equality. It is counter productive to presume, as Adichie’s Professor Hunk did, that gender or race or poverty doesn’t exist for a person for whom it hasn’t been a barrier.

Conservatives who insist that hard work overcomes all odds do, indeed, need to check their privilege. But well-meaning liberals who dismiss the accomplishments of others need to check their prejudices, too.

A true dialogue about race will not happen until all of us are able to check our defensiveness at the door. Dialogue requires both sides to listen, both sides to hear. As long as either side listens only to object, we will remain mired in conflict instead of engaging in dialogue.

In the spirit of moving forward, I picked up Americanah a few days ago and finished the story. I’m glad I did. It was a story worth reading. But for now, the shine has worn off Adichie’s Ted Talk for me.

And so, Ms. Adichie, before you write another Appalachian into a story, I invite you to travel with me through the hills and valleys of southern West Virginia to hear some of their stories. I’m certain that some people will confirm your stereotype. But I’m also fairly certain that you’ll regret that scene that robbed Appalachians of their dignity by creating your single story of them.

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