Volume: 9, Issue: 2


Beyond the Single Story
Элдер, Кэтрин Дж. [about]

KEYWORDS: Racial biography, race, white privilege, systemic racism, culturally responsive teaching, Chimamanda Adichie.

ABSTRACT: As a white female educator I often teach classrooms where there are more students of color than students who are not. My community continues to become more diverse and culturally rich.  As I work to impact and connect with my students, it has been important for me to reflect on my racial journey and build my racial consciousness.  Through the work of Pacific Education Group and my professional learning around being a culturally responsive teacher, I am becoming less color blind and bolder in interrupting unjust systems that promote or perpetuate systemic racism in my school.  This paper is my reflection, racial biography, recounting the moments on my journey where I encountered race and how those experiences shaped who I was and more importantly who I am becoming.

The way we view the world is all too often based on our experiences and the stories, both written and told, that have been shared with us.  They form our beliefs and shape our behaviors.  The view of our world and the people who make up its diverse landscape are often developed in small circles by people who share our circles.  This is how we can inadvertently view the world through a “single story.”  In doing so, we naturally and naively create perceptions, stereotypes, beliefs and bias about those living outside our spheres.  We grow and develop with a narrow lens and instinctively protect those that think and look as ourselves.  We make heartfelt and thoughtful decisions on the wisdom of our narrowmindedness.  I believe living this way as individuals denies oneself a richness of opportunity and experience.  Living this way in democratic educational systems has long-term negative effects on all of humanity.  Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, inspired my thoughts of this subject in her 2009“Danger of a Single Story,” TED Talk. In this talk, Adichie expresses how our limited stories and single perception of people can produce adverse results that are less than true.  “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”  How is it that single stories have played out in my life and in my educational experience?  Where are the opportunities for merging stories to come together so that the single story can be broadened and be a more complete depiction of humanity?  Where in my “whiteness” have I been able to become more racially conscious?  Borrowing the words of Adichie, “in this single story of mine, how was I to find the possibility of others to being similar to me in any way, how was I to find the possible feelings of a connection as human equals?”

My story begins in a small town outside of Dayton, Ohio in the mid 1970s.  For fourteen years, the diversity I saw within my community was shades of white, varied eye color, and hair ranging from blonde to brunette.  There wasn’t a lot of discussion on our differences since most were middle class Americans born with their citizenship rights.  It had been several generations since any of our ancestry had entered this great nation traversing by sea across the Atlantic.  Sure there were differing protestant denominations represented on Sundays and Catholic mass on Saturday, but the truth was most believed in God and that Christ was His son.  This monochromatic society was the norm for me.  Public schools started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance, then we, the students, would sit in our desks neatly lined in rows ready for the teacher to tell us what text page to open, read, and respond.  Our quiet orderly conduct fit the customs of our family culture and we as a system excelled.  Our school district had a reputation for great public schools producing quality college prepared students.  We loved school but, of course, became excited for the breaks from school to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and summer.  In my single story, my sister, brother, and I were raised by two loving parents.  My mom stayed at home constantly improving her domestic skills while my dad went to work.  We sat around the dinner table together at night, taking turns to pray, and sharing the high and low lights of our day.  It was at this table we were reminded that if we worked hard, got As in school and attended college, doors and opportunities would open for us.  This is what I thought every kid did with their family each and every night. I believed this was the norm and my world view was not that much bigger than my small town of about 10,000. My family valued people and spoke no ill of any person because of their race yet I remember very little opportunity to connect with people different than us.  Seldom in my early years did I actually encounter someone that was a different race.  Seeing a black person was so infrequent, that those few times are etched clearly in my mind.  I could explicitly give you details of each encounter. As I kid, I never really thought about the “brown” kids that rode my bus for just a few weeks during tomato picking time. I just knew that was the only time the school checked for lice and Mrs. Brown, the only adult I knew who spoke Spanish, would teach the kids who couldn’t speak English.  The kids always stayed in a small room off the library with her.  I don’t remember them in the cafeteria with us or even sharing the playground.  I never really thought they might want to be friends.  I never considered that we might have similarities.  My single story is that they were different, not really a part of our community. 

Fast forward to my freshman year of high school.  It is the third month of school and it was an exciting time.  I was experiencing the same teachers as my older siblings, making new friends and playing sports.  I knew the cultural and social norms of my school and I fit in with a group that looked very similar to me, to my family.  What possibly could shake this security, this narrow story?

It was a gloomy January morning and, at the age of fourteen, I was climbing the same 52 steps that The Little Rock Nine forged to enter the foreboding front doors of Little Rock Central High School.  I was embarking on what my mom referred to as “an opportunity to expand my horizons” which really meant I was registering for my first day of class in a school very different from the one my family had just left. My dad had accepted a job promotion that moved us from our small, suburban, middle class, all-white town in Ohio to the sprawling, racially complex city of Little Rock, Arkansas. My single story was about to gain a new perspective.  Little did I know, crossing the Mason Dixon Line meant things were going to be different.  I had never spent much time exploring slavery, Civil Rights, and desegregation and most certainly never read about it through any perspective other than the white author of a nationally recognized text book.  For the first time in my life, I was going to experience the effects of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  I was going to attend publically funded schools that were federally mandated to be segregated.  I would raise my hand on the first day of class each semester to represent the number of white females compared to white males, black females, and black males.  I represented a court mandate that stated the school would be racially equal.  Truly for the first time, being white in my school meant I was the minority race.  I discovered the inconveniences of bussing and questioned why “white flight” was in many growing private schools housed in or near many large churches in my new neighborhood.    It was a culture shock.  I had not been taught the historical perspective that shaped the stories that shaped the lives of my new peers.  My story and theirs seemed so different, almost foreign. 

Central High School was a beautiful and large school built in 1927 and was named ‘America’s Most Beautiful High School’ by the American Institute of Architects.  The school sits on two city blocks long and includes three floors with about 150,000 square feet of floor space. At the time of construction this was in a thriving middle class neighborhood primarily white.  When I arrived sixty years later the neighborhood had many broken or boarded up windows, graffiti sprayed over chipping paint, and the school was fenced in with barbed wire and police security.  There were not many white middle class citizens still around.  My single story was full of misperceptions, bias, and fear.  The order and quiet halls that I was accustomed to when transitioning classes became loud and lively places with unfamiliar slang.  I was scared, uncomfortable. I was watching and learning and trying to make sense of “if and where” I belonged.  Where did my story fit into this new story?  

It took time and honestly a transfer to another public school when the next school year started.  It was smaller in size, closer to my home but similar in racial diversity.  For the first time in my life, I had real opportunities to create genuine friendships and relationships with students of color and educators with different cultures and races than my own.   I can look back and better understand what Chimamanda Adichie described when she said, “It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.  Even in Little Rock, even with the majority of the students being black with deep roots rich in Southern history, the story in the history books and shared in class, were from the white man’s perspective.  The textbook pages showed very little people of color.  February, during Black History Month, was different.  It was the month with permission to explore the culture and people of color who made an impact.  We would gather in the school auditorium to hear the words of Martin Luther King and other great influential voices of the Civil Rights Movement to cheering crowds.  How did I begin to destruct my single story? How did I start to change a biased narrative?  I got to know my peers.  We cheered on the nationally ranked basketball team, we rallied together to change the school dress policy, and we joined forces in various clubs to serve our community in different ways.  We celebrated each other’s acceptance letters to college.  We tossed our caps together at graduation and went in many different directions spread from MIT to Pepperdine.  My story’s perspective grew.  I went off to college, received my degree in elementary education and found myself moving across the country to the Pacific Northwest. 

My first six years in education began in a suburb outside of Seattle in the backyard of Microsoft.  My classrooms were full of bright-eyed eager learners.  The school community was in a high socioeconomic neighborhood.  The tech industry was booming and strong recruiting efforts were bringing highly skilled families from all around the world to my community.  Students from Asia and Europe were joining my class.  Families came with multiple languages and navigated English and American culture quickly.  I began to understand the complexity and challenges of what it must be like to immigrate and feel the pulls of assimilation and holding on to cultural traditions.  Students being flexible and malleable quickly learned English and sadly, often gave up using their first one at school.  In order to fit in, they often left their culture and language at the front doors of the school in order to satisfy the cultural norms of their classroom and peers. 

During the last eight years I have had the privilege of working with many first generation immigrants as a Title 1 teacher in the same school district I began my career.  If I was to be honest, the start of this work scared me.  My bias and misconceptions of working in this high poverty school questioned whether I would be able to manage class behavior and teach students whose first language was different than mine.  I would hear from colleagues that the students coming up were challenging in their behavior and way behind in their academics.  I heard words like defiant, lazy, disruptive, and disinterested.  Single stories were labeling these students and drastically effecting our ability to be effective.  I quickly learned a different story.  Never had I met a more eager group to learn and yet the frequency for shut down and refusal of work was more than I had experienced before.  I was confused and unwilling to accept this as defiance.  With more inquiring and listening to students, I learned they weren’t wanting to be defiant, but they were struggling and didn’t want their peers to see their struggle or inadequacy.  This understanding helped to approach my lessons and students differently.  They didn’t need to change, instead we needed to continue to develop trust and work together to ensure success.  These students were smart and they were constantly translating words in their head and back to paper and conversation.  My heart swells with pride as I think about their academic gains and increased self-confidence.   I am so grateful that this group of Hispanic students were not sent to a small room off the library for lessons but an important part of the whole school culture.  They helped to unravel my single story.  These young students were able to bring their culture to the classroom and share their uniqueness with students from many other cultures in the world and me. 

My journey with race is not over as I am far from being an expert on the story of people.  My single story is constantly being expanded as I increase my own racial consciousness and seek to listen and learn about as many different perspectives to both historical and current events.  As an educational leader it is my moral and ethical duty to provide all students an education that fairly depicts the many perspectives around issues that have shaped our nation and world.  I value the growing diversity in my community and provide classrooms where students can come as they are and feel respected and valued for their uniqueness by both their peers and adults in the school. Enlightened and engaged citizens are imperative and the role of the democratic school is to provide equitable, engaging, and intellectually robust curriculum and teaching.  We must lead students in an educational journey that is full of complex ideas with many diverse stories. 


  • Adichie, Chimamanda (July 2009). The Danger of a Single Story [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
  • Costello, B., Wachtel, J., Wachtel, T. (2010) Restorative circle in schools. Bethlehem, PA: National Institute of Restorative Practices.
  • Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • McKnight, D., Versales, L. (August, 2017). Courageous conversation: SP/ELL racial equity. Leadership retreat. Bellevue School District, WA: Pacific Education Group, INC.
  • Pace, J. (2015). The charged classroom: predicaments and possibilities for democratic teaching. New York, NY: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group.
  • Ritchhard, R. (2015). Creating cultures of thinking. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass.
  • Simmons, D. (2015). How students of color confront impostor syndrome. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/dena_simmons_how_students_of_color_confront_impostor_syndrome
  • Singleton, Gl. (2015). Courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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