Allyship as Humility
by Navan Govender (he/they)
In 2009 Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, a prolific Nigerian writer, presented a TED Global talk entitled The Danger of A Single Story. In this, Adichie explores how storytelling is fundamental to public imagination. Stories in their various forms shape the way we think about ourselves and each other, and the relationships possible in-between. The danger, then, comes from a single story being (re)told about a people and how that single story limits our imagination of what might be possible. This includes what human relations, what interactions, and what (in)dignities might be possible.
Adichie illustrates this with a story of her own:
[My roommate] had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
Stories as well as language more broadly are intrinsically connected to power and ideology – that is, relationships and value systems. In any work that serves to build a more socially just and equitable society, taking heed of how stories work, who constructs them, whose interests they serve, and how they might be reshaped and retold is critical. How we participate in storytelling, as they are constructed and consumed, is therefore also critical.
This begs the question of allyship. In this matrix of storytelling, what might the role of an ally be? Perhaps an ally is one who knows when to pause and re-evaluate their own stories, listening and learning from the stories of others. The danger of a single story might then be understood as the danger of a single perspective.
If we regard the multiple positions and perspectives we each inhabit (from (a)gender and (a)sexual identity, to race/ethnic and cultural identity, to identities of (dis)ability and neuro(a)typicality, and so on) as fundamentally limited, we might realise the necessity of plurality. That is, we need each other, our differences and similarities, to be able to see beyond a single perspective or a single story. The limit of our own perspective, and the humility required to recognise this, might then be followed by the humility needed to listen and learn from those who live beyond those limits.
This is not easy work, but it is vital for building a more socially just future…