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A racist restaurant and the danger of the single story

A Chinese restaurant in Nairobi was operating a blatantly racist admission policy. It was exposed. Kenyans were understandably outraged. Sensing the the collective anger, the authorities took action. The restaurant is now closed, and the owner faces charges in court.

Will we now live happily ever after? I suspect not. Life is never that simple.

As we froth at the mouth against that restaurant owner’s obnoxious and bone-headed justifications, a few uncomfortable questions may occur to us.

For example, for how long was the policy barring Africans from entering the restaurant in force? How was it allowed to do this for so long? Why did the staff members play ball in demeaning their own race? And what about those “favoured” Africans who were reportedly allowed in? Why were they compliant in their own degradation?

And what happened next? A group of “protestors” stormed the premises. Were they there to make a noble point about tolerance? So they said, but many of them ended up looting the restaurant. So much for higher-order motives…

It is correct that the restaurant faces punishment. The modern world has no place for the ignorant attitudes of generations past. But let us not imagine that we are not ourselves guilty of intolerance and ignorance. It’s a funny thing, racism. We see it sharply and painfully when it is exhibited against us, but not at all when we ourselves are doing it to others.

That exceptional writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, did a TED talk about what she termed the “single story.” This talk is required viewing in the leadership programme that I run. It skewers Westerners’ tendency to reduce Africans to just a single story. That story is invariably about hardship, disease, strife, poverty, wildlife. The other human elements of every story – kindness, resilience, relationships – are missing. Africans are reduced to one-dimensional people to be feared or pitied.

Chimamanda exposes these limp narratives with humour and panache. And those of us who live in the continent applaud enthusiastically.

But wait, is the single story just about “them” doing it to “us?” What happens when the shoe is on the other foot?

What did so many Kenyans do to the Somali people in our midst last year? We reduced them to a single story. In the wake of horrific terrorist attacks, we created a single narrative about every Somali around us. That narrative was about militant Islam, enemies within, Sharia law. Somalis were rounded up, deported, abused. It did not matter who fell into the net of our intolerance – we knew the single story about “these people.” We stopped seeing them as innocent mothers holding fragile babies; the single story – “terrorist sympathiser!” – took over.

What will we now do about the Chinese people amongst us? Will the single story of “investor” be replaced by the single story of “racist?” And will we be just as sweeping in applying it to all and sundry?

As I have written before, bigotry is the result of cognition failure. It is the inevitable recourse of the weak mind. The lazy thinker focuses on the single story and makes it the only story. A single incident or anecdote is sufficient to draw comprehensive conclusions about an entire tribe or race. The leap from the particular to the general is quick and confident.

Single stories have bedevilled us for aeons. We are unable to develop as a collective because we are in the grip of single stories about everyone other than ourselves. We fail to see the human being before us because we are looking only for the stereotypical character in the single story that we so stridently hold to be the absolute truth.

A question we should all answer: which single stories are we holding on to?

Postscript:

Since writing the piece above, I have been stunned by the emergence of yet another single story: the one surrounding the wave of xenophobic attacks against foreigners in South Africa. There are so many flawed ideas contained within this “foreigners bad” story: that immigrants take jobs, rather than create them; that South Africa does not need Africa; that violence against innocents is understandable because of poverty. This in a nation that fought the single story of apartheid for so long, with the help of the very people now being seen as a scourge…

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