Saturday 25 April 2015

Star Wars, stereotypes and single stories: Thoughts on John Boyega/Telegraph saga

In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the bestselling Nigerian writer, delivered a TED talk to what seemed like an attentive audience in Oxford about the danger of the single story. In her talk, she narrated various examples of people who had been unwittingly robbed of their true identity through an incomplete telling of their story. Drawing on her own experience, as well as that of others, Chimamanda eloquently presented a case against the patronising pity that often results from an incomplete understanding of people’s stories and the plethora of circumstances that make them who they are.

I believe that talk has been a powerful tool for myself and many others in the journey towards a better understanding of what make the world the place it is. A lot of progress has been made on this journey but the piece on British actor, John Boyega published in The Telegraph on Saturday, 25 April is a sign that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Boyega, 22 years old from South East London, will be playing a major role in the latest installment of the Star Wars series, something he has received a lot of praise (and criticism) for. He has also been hailed as the next Chiwetel Ejiofor and one of the best young British actors around.

The article, entitled “Star Wars: John Boyega, the boy from Peckham who stormed Hollywood” tells the story of Boyega’s assumed rough childhood and the loathsome circumstances he must have navigated to get to where he is today. It was full of repeated references to gang violence, drugs and even a mention of Damilola Taylor. To be fair to the writer (Camilla Turner), the piece reads like it was intended as a positive “rags-to-riches” story but the reality is that it is laden with assumptions, it perpetuates a narrative that many people have worked hard to dispel for many years and it is full of the unwittingly patronising pity mentioned earlier.

If you Google “statistics about inner city”, all you will get is a steady stream of stories about crime, poverty and violence. But as someone who has lived in the “inner city” I can assure you that there is more to it than that.

From this point, it would be easy to write a piece about poor journalism, a media agenda and all that but I strongly believe that this is not the case here. I believe Camilla is a victim of assimilating a single story of the inner city in the same way most of us have.

The story of inner city deprivation is one that we are all familiar with. It is enshrined in movies, art and literature as a permanent fixture of people’s daily lives. While this is not inaccurate, it is in no way the entire picture and that part of the story needs to be told if we are to move on from where we find ourselves.

Anyone with any associations with the inner city will testify that the stories are as varied as any other people group you will find. As much as you will find the drug dealers and gang members, you will also find entrepreneurs, career professionals of all sorts, volunteers and all variety of people. These people are just a part of the inner city as anyone else and to forget about that would be criminal.

I am not asking that we ignore the everyday realities of living in the inner city. What i am asking for is a balance in the realities we acknowledge and celebrate. We must reject the allure of subscribing to a single story about anything because, in doing so, we do not only rob people of their identity, we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to fully appreciate what makes our world the fascinating place that it is.

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