Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how labels, stereotypes, and popular narratives can cause damaging misunderstandings in her TED talk, The Danger Of A Single Story. She states:
To create a single story, [to] show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again…that is what they become.
In her speech, she gives specific examples of the labels, stereotypes, and popular narratives that have caused damaging misunderstandings in her life. She speaks about how her former white college roommate maintained a damaging view of Nigerian men as a result of the single story she knew. Then, she offers another example of how she herself maintained a damaging view of Mexicans due to the single story of immigration that pervades mainstream news media. We all have subconsciously internalized negative narratives like Chimamanda’s, that can have permanent damaging effects if they are not reversed with a counter narrative.
Parents, educators, and students alike have the power to construct counter narratives. A counter-narrative is a story that has the power to create a different reality. Notably, counter narratives can intentionally address the labels, stereotypes, and popular narratives that exist in black and brown students’ minds with alternate messaging that motivates and engages students.
A counter narrative can be as simple as changing the statement “I am not good at Math” to “I am improving my Math skills by learning new concepts” to effectively change the focus from the limiting mindset to a mindset that values and appreciates growth in the student’s academic achievement. This counter narrative intentionally addresses the student’s internalized limitations and guides them into believing in their own ability.
While there are many damaging narratives that are reinforced in society and specifically affect black and brown students, one example is black students painted as exclusively successful on a football field or basketball court, and not in the classroom. But the stories like those of Mae C. Jemison, a female African American astronaut, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, can function as counter narratives to the limiting stereotypes that black students face.
At Gateway High School, we champion counter narratives in our commitment to the success of each and every student. We know the power of a counter narrative and we have seen firsthand how it can change the lives of our students in and outside of the classroom.
Uncovering the negative narratives our black and brown students have internalized is key to establishing equitable classroom instruction. Instead of focusing on compliance or conformity, educators need to focus on student-centered instruction and building a classroom that champions counter narratives that connect directly back to black and brown students. These counter narratives that display black and brown people in positions of prominence, generosity, and intelligence must be front and center for every student, no matter the race or ethnicity. This is crucial because every single damaging narrative that our students hear, see, or internalize has lasting staying power. Otherwise, any unaddressed negative narrative has the potential to lower engagement, motivation and efficacy in the classroom.
As educators, it is also important that we note how the traditional educational system can often undervalue contributions from non-dominant cultures. For that reason, teachers must not only to establish culturally responsive classrooms, but also to maintain counter narratives.
Using storytelling to break down stereotypes and racial untruths can be applied outside of the classroom in our daily lives. In terms of how we are at work, at home, or in the community, we can leverage counter narratives to find and amplify our own voices. This technique will provide a path to overcome adversity, make rational decisions, and achieve necessary milestones for success despite any limiting popular opinion. Despite what we see on the news or hear in our own communities, we are not defined by labels. We have the potential to achieve whatever we set our mind to, and counter narratives serve to keep us motivated and engaged.
What we see and believe has a profound effect on what we think we can do, so it’s important to intentionally address what may be holding us back. In doing so, the danger of a single story becomes clear and we are empowered to use the limitless potential that counter narratives bring.
Although it is inevitable that single stories will continue to be present in society, the educators and staff at Gateway High are collectively committed to student progress and well-being throughout their four-year journey. Our programs, teachers, and departments make academics at Gateway stand apart and set students up for post-secondary success. Read more about Gateway programs here.