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Web event #2: Can I speak for you? Can I be silent for you?

Michaela's picture

         I started this class thinking silence was a finite task, one that I would struggle to “complete”, as if that would be even possible. I moved from shallowly thinking it was all about pulling myself out of the noise of modern technology to frustration with the rhetoric of silence as a political statement. Now I’m working more and more toward a knowledge that silence is with me daily, in those ways that I have been wary of, like taking time to be completely silent, but also in what I refrain from saying when I am speaking. Specifically, I have found myself thinking about and responding to Hummingbird’s paper on self-silencing, and our class discussions about who may presume to speak for someone else. Do they have to be of the same background racially? Do their genders (and their perceptions of what that means for their daily life) need to match up? Do they have to be from the same socio-economic class to speak to the privilege or lack thereof that accompanies varied levels of wealth? Can I, as only barely culturally Jewish, even speak to that side of myself as influencing my life? I don’t presume that there will ever be a definitive answer to any of these (although there are definite opinions that I have read and heard expressed, both in class and in readings). I do hope, though, to create a greater understanding of silence as ever-present, especially in my exploration of self-silencing personally in the context of speaking for someone else, as their story may relate to others or me.

            To break down what is a complicated train of thought that even I am only beginning to understand, what I mean by this is: when one is given the burden and the privilege of being trusted with someone else’s otherwise-undisclosed information, where can they allow themselves to take on (I hesitate to say appropriate) that information as it affects and relates to their daily life? To give a general example that won’t break the ties of confidentiality that I’ve created with family and friends, being a part of the Dorm Leadership Team (DLT), I am privy to some information about my frosh that is shared on a need-to-know basis. I create a safe space in my room for people to share what may be troubling them, and promise that, to the best of my ability, I will keep what they say in confidence. Sometimes, though, I don’t feel as though I can take on a student’s issue on my own. In looking to advice from members of another DLT, or from members of my own who have not been a confidant of the student in question, where does my boundary start and end in sharing someone else’s story to try to better help them, and, in some cases, to come to terms with the information for myself? Can I attempt to speak to the experience of an African American student, a gay student or a Muslim student on campus without stepping on toes or offending by taking on a persona different than my own, when my intentions are to fulfill my role as a Customs person and supportive friend/ally to the best of my ability? Can I even venture to offer my own advice or opinion to a student whose experience I have not shared? Or should I instead silence myself on the subject entirely, and, like in our fish bowl exercise, take on the role of solely listening (which I really enjoy doing)?

            In my personal experience and belief, our race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ability do not define us. The whole is more than the sum of the component parts. So my inclination is not to silence myself in those situations where I feel as though a shared humanity is enough to relate to someone, and offer them advice about an area where our experience is not shared. And in speaking to my peers to better aid a student, I would hope that they are sensitive enough to silence themselves in not spreading the word or asking for more details than are offered. Another key would be for them to silence themselves from the judgment that might otherwise be their initial response. This calls for a more respectful framework of thought and true comfort level than the one that most of us (including myself) can lay claim to at the moment. But when the alternative is shutting our selves to the support of someone else, isn’t it well worth the effort to collaborate both with the confider and others that we may look to for assistance? Can we break the silence that surrounds the stigmas and misplaced shame that someone may feel in bringing a specific topic to the table? There are no simple answers, and I don’t mean this to set my reputation as someone who will share your secrets if you tell them to me­­­–that is absolutely not the case. But instead of counter-productively silencing ourselves to avoid taking on someone else’s diverse experiences, I’d rather create a discussion that will foster both sensitivity toward privacy and thoughtful, productive communication with someone who needs it.

            One thing I’m sure I’ll never be able to silence is the inquisitive nature of my thoughts as questions pile up about these multi-faceted issues. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss this in our 360, and to bring it to future thought as my life as a friend, ally, and safe space facilitator continues.