The close-minded traveler: How to open your mind and understand the broader contexts

In Chinua Achebe’s Image of Africa, Achebe introduces us to the idea of the traveler with a closed mind. The metaphor can, of course, be taken literally into meaning that a traveler who does not embrace the culture of the society they visit—a metaphor that has real value—but it should be taken deeper, into a meaning and understanding that affects all of us. A traveler with a closed mind will only be able to talk about their own cultures and will not be able to understand or learn the cultures of other societies. The significance of this is simply that as supportive and socially aware human beings, we must accept, value, and understand our fellow humans in order to thrive and build a community where everyone can live comfortably and happy. Essentially, the quote reflects that we must understand the larger contexts of the world and how it functions to leave that self-centered bubble. In order to do this, we must apply the sociological imagination to everything we observe. The close-minded traveler must use their sociological imagination to understand concepts about society that have developed over time to make society the way it is now.
So, what is the sociological imagination, and how can it be used to heighten our understanding of society? One of our first readings in class elaborates on it. C. Wright Mills describes it in his essay, The Promise: “The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to consider how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions” (Mills 1959). The sociological imagination, put simply, is our ability to look at a society, see how it functions, and understand how it was built to work that way. Using the sociological imagination, we can understand why poverty exists in a larger context, why racial tensions arise, or why there is a disparity of wealth. This is important for learning how to improve these communities and make life better for people who live under these disparities, and to acknowledge and appreciate communities who are simply different from your own culture. In order to acknowledge and appreciate other cultures, we must use the sociological imagination to understand the history and contexts.
To me, the sociological imagination—which, to be fair, is a new concept for me, but one that I’ve embraced—means realizing and recognizing that my life experiences are not the end-all-be-all of life experiences on Earth. Everyone has their fair share of problems in life that they must carry out and push past. Some are worse than me, some better, and all completely different. To me, understanding and using the sociological imagination means understanding how these differences came to be, acknowledging that they are different and that that’s okay, and working how to make life better for those who have a worse off place in time than me. Using the sociological imagination is all about learning and knowing your history, contexts, and reframing the way you look at the world. It is a skill that is incredibly important and valuable in a day and age where solutions need to be found quickly. To bring the discussion back to Achebe’s quote, however, the sociological imagination is, I believe, the most relevant tool for analyzing a closed mind and understanding how close-minded people can open their minds, see the bigger picture, and help others.
A large aspect of the “closed mind” is an inability to accept or understand the Other. A major example of this is the racial tension between white people and people of color. There are countless stereotypes that have been perpetrated through time and stay to this day. White people have been raised in society and have been given negative controlling images: stereotypes that are inherent in society’s image of a type of person. A “traveler with a closed mind” would accept these stereotypes blindly, without trying to question the consequences of such negative images. Someone with a closed mind would fail to understand the broader social context behind these stereotypes, thus perpetrating the systematic boundaries that people of color are forced to exist in in our society.
In “’Your momma is day-glow white’: questioning the politics of racial identity, loyalty and obligation” by Shantel Buggs, Buggs notes this idea. She explains: “It is due to these real consequences of race that racialized social structures exist… Bonilla-Silva (2013) conceives of western racial structures as the totality of social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege; these structures lead to a racial ideology that promotes racially based frameworks that explain, justify or in some instances, challenge the status quo” (Buggs 2017). So, by the stereotypes and actions executed against people of color for hundreds of years, these social constructs continue to reinforce these ideas in society. A traveler with a closed mind fails to acknowledge this, and thus continues the cycle of controlling images and ignorance. By opening your mind and seeking out the knowledge and historical contexts, you open your ability to understand and become more sensitive to other cultures, rather than simply going for your own self-interests.
Another example of this is white people using the guise of “colorblindness” to ignore the important facets of people of color’s culture and the difficulties they may face in society. Colorblindness, in this way, becomes a form of “color- and power-evasiveness,” as Frankenburg explains (1993). By ignoring or putting aside the matter of race, white individuals essentially use their power as white people in society to take advantage of their power by not having to worry about the issues that people of color face. Frankenburg notes that this action of “dodging” thinking about color is very ineffective, because it suggests that not noticing a person’s color is a good thing to do, which inherently marks nonwhiteness as “bad in and of itself” (Frankenburg 1993).
Of course, this brings us back to the idea of the Other. For there to be a disparity of success or ability to thrive in society, there must be hegemonic power structures in place. Close-minded individuals would only acknowledge their own culture, or as Karl Marx posits, the dominant ideology of the ruling class. The close-minded individual is embedded in these hegemonic norms would be unable to examine cultures outside of their own, because they feel that they belong. However, the cultures labeled as Other refuse the norm, which labels them as “deviant” to the hegemony. In the examples I provided before, particularly the women in Frankenburg’s White Women, Race Matters¸ the white women are ignorant of the cultures of people of color, and frame them as simply “people,” ignoring their distinctly different cultures and instead whitewashing them. They are unable to see people of color as having their own important and unique culture, different than the hegemonic norm of white culture, because they are so engrained in it. A close-minded traveler, like these women, would fail to see the importance of acknowledging these Other cultures as not deviant, but simply different: equally as beautiful and wonderful and valid as humans, but having a different background and culture. Acknowledging the differences of these cultures is an important part of opening your mind and supporting other cultures and not bringing them down.
The concept that the close-minded traveler is stuck in can also be defined as the “single story,” a concept thought of and popularized by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist and speaker. Adichie explains that if we hear only one story about a person or community’s culture, we risk misunderstanding and judging them, rather than hearing all sides and understanding all stories. It is my belief—and, I think, Adichie’s as well—that most ignorance about other cultures is simply caused by a lack of information and illumination. If a close-minded traveler visited a foreign country and had only heard negative stereotypes about the people living there, they would of course have a major misunderstanding about the people and the culture. However, if the close-minded traveler used their sociological imagination to discover the history, traditions, and culture of the people, they would perhaps be more understanding, accepting, and eager to learn and visit.
Ultimately, it is important to note that the single story applies to all parts of our lives. Everything, along with gender, race, and even knowledge, is socially constructed. All these concepts arise from humanity throughout history, as we have created communities and tried to stabilize our societies. Knowledge has been passed around from community to community and is essentially just part of a social network of a pool of knowledge. Knowledge is created in society and changes in different cultures from day to day. It is continuously replaced and shuffled around by all groups of people, as our experiences redefine each fact and each discovery. Our languages, our science, our literature, our art, and even our sociology changes every day and is created by us. We learn continuously and this knowledge is constantly recreated. So, it is essentially impossible for someone to know everything. That is why the close-minded traveler, or any traveler, must always seek out new knowledge and learn about other cultures.
This is the essence of the sociological imagination: seeking out knowledge and learning about other cultures and striving to know the historical contexts. A traveler with an open mind would walk into a foreign country and learn about their history, their culture, and speak not about their own culture, but stay quiet and learn about the culture they are enveloped in. As we can see, Achebe’s quote encompasses this idea.
Mills, C. Wright. (1959) The promise. Sociological Imagination, Oxford University Press, USA, 1959.
Shantel Gabrieal Buggs (2017) ‘Your momma is day-glow white’: questioning the politics of racial identity, loyalty and obligation, Identities, 24:4, 379-397.
Ruth Frankenburg (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2009, July). Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story [Video file]. Retrieved from