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I Choose to be Silent You Don't Make me be Silent

Uninhibited's picture

Young girl covering her mouth with both hands

In questioning who has the power to silence whom, I often reflect on my experience based on my role within my family. I grew up in a very traditional family unit, one that maintains and defends the rules of patriarchy and reinforces the subordinate role of the women and children that exist in it. As a result of these ideals, the silencing of women has never been a foreign concept to me; on the contrary it is what has held the values of my family together. It was the silencing of my mother’s wishes to remain close to her brothers and sisters that resulted in us having to leave the Dominican Republic to pursue the economic opportunities my father wanted. It was the silencing of my aunt that led her to seek government assistance despite the fact that she had graduated from medical school because her husband was uncomfortable with the idea that his wife could be economically independent. It is my own silencing that prevents me from showing my family the opportunities I’ve taken advantage of at Bryn Mawr because they don’t believe that a woman is capable of such success.

As a little girl growing up within this patriarchal structure that boxed me into a narrow definition of what a woman is supposed to be, I had some difficulty finding my voice at Bryn Mawr. Having been silenced all of my life, I didn’t know how to speak about the issues that were important to me, to think out loud, or to disagree. Although I learned how to do all of these things within the context of class, leadership activities, and diversity conversations during my time on this campus, I continue to struggle to find my voice within my silence, especially when I go back home. Most of the time, I feel like I exist within two worlds, one that empowers me and encourages me to use my voice, and another one that silences me and reminds me that using this voice to disagree is rebellious. After all of these years and the knowledge I have accumulated at Bryn Mawr, I still feel silenced. I remember the first and only time I attempted to speak out against something my father had said. The result was him reminding me that I was his daughter and that, as such, I had no right to disagree with him. “If I say the sky is red, you say the sky is red” he told me, and right then, I knew that no college class would prepare me for the feeling of going to college to feel empowered, and still feeling small within my family. I have not attempted to disagree since that morning, at least not in the matter that I speak at Bryn Mawr. Instead I find myself silencing myself in order to keep the peace, and to stop being referred to as the “rebel” of the family.

Why do I continue to conform to being silenced now that I know better?  Why is it that I am still afraid of confrontation even if I know that what I have to say is valid and valuable? As I ask myself this question, I realize that if I am not silenced, then the roles within my family will inevitably shift, and that if this happens, I will have to carry that guilt on my back. I know, like my mother, aunts, and grandmothers knew, that in our family, roles are clearly defined, and that my role of not only a woman but also a daughter, limits my ability to resist being silenced. How then do I find my voice within my family, without feeling as though I have taken the voice and power from others? In thinking about it, I think about roles, and how these roles will inevitable change as I become more independent. Therefore, it is not a matter of if I will stop being silenced by family, but when I stop being silenced. The challenge then will be, to remember that empowerment is not based on keeping others down, and finding my voice should not be another way to reinforce patriarchal ideas in the family. After all, that is what patriarchy is, having one group be “superior” to the other.” I must strive to find a balance between voice and silence. As my favorite poet claims “speak only when it improves upon silence.” After all, silence is not powerlessness when it becomes a choice. 



Anne Dalke's picture

“speak only when it improves upon silence”

(I love that line,'s often used in Quaker Meetings for Worship, to make folks be more reflective about speaking and interrupting the silence...but who said it first? I can't seem to find the author...)

So, Uninhibited--
(what a great name for a course on silence!)

As you already know, your initial posting of silence imaged as the oppression of a young girl had great resonance for our class: Sasha, Sharaai, sara.gladwin and ishin all used it to begin their papers this round, too; you've really generated some heavy lifting/heavy thinking in this dimension!

What strikes me here in your own re-reflecting on the image, and on the experiences it calls to mind, is the sharp binary in your history, what you call the "two worlds" that make up your life: "one that empowers me and encourages me to use my voice, and another one that silences me and reminds me that using this voice to disagree is rebellious." Particularly sharp is your decision, in the latter realm, to silence yourself in order to "keep the peace."

And it's that site, that decision, which animates the final paragraph of your paper, the one where the really hard questions begin to be asked: "How do I find my voice within my family, without feeling as though I have taken the voice and power from others?" (What makes this a closed system, w/ only a limited amount of air time? Why does one person's speaking limit--rather than actually enable--that of others? Mightn't your speaking (for example) model speaking for your sister as well? Enable other, older members of the family to learn to speak in a different way (responsively, rather than authoritatively, in dialogue rather than monologue)?

And (while I'm asking questions!) explain a little more about the title of this essay: "I choose to be silent/You don't make me silent"? Seems that the essay itself is about choosing voice....I don't see it as chosing silence, do you?