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Web Event 2: Representing Uninhibited

Sarah's picture

One issue I’ve really been struggling with in class is the question of “who is allowed to represent who?”  I contemplated this in my post after reading the article by Dimitriadis in our class on Silence, and during our discussions of Anna Deveare Smith’s acting in our class on Voice.  In jhunter’s reply to my post, she raised some important points about who has the authority to speak for whom, and how characteristics beyond race and culture may impact this authority.  I want to push back on this idea though, and demonstrate why I believe race and culture alone are such important factors.  I want to display this by attempting to represent Uninhibited’s paper, which she titled “I Choose to be Silent You Don’t Make Me Silent”.

            Uninhibited and I grew up in the same town (although she was born in the Dominican Republic).  Though we have never actually discussed how much money our father’s make, I believe we are of a somewhat similar socioeconomic status, at least in simple terms of finances and what is deemed “working class” in America.  Both of us are currently being raised by a single father and both of us have experienced the death of our mother’s.  We met in December of 2008 when we were chosen to be members of Bryn Mawr Posse 9.  We are both interested in social justice issues.   We are close friends.  I believe it is safe to say we have a good amount in common. 

Given all of these things, however, it still makes me uncomfortable to try to represent Uninhibited’s story of silence.  It is uncomfortable on the surface level for obvious reasons; this paper will be public and I do not wish to misrepresent her, especially because she is a close friend.  But to say it is uncomfortable for that reason alone would neglect the foremost reason why it is uncomfortable and would thus avoid a possibility to go a little beyond my comfort zone.  So I’ll say it bluntly: it is uncomfortable for me to represent Uninhibited’s silence because I am white and she is Latina.  Because of this difference I worry about several things: I worry about exploiting my friend, misrepresenting her culture, and possibly misunderstanding her story altogether.  To try to avoid this, I have asked Uninihibited’s permission to write this paper and asked her to read it before I posted publicly.  Because she is a friend, I felt comfortable enough to do that, and I also feel comfortable enough to write honestly, though it doesn’t mean writing this doesn’t make me nervous.

            In representing Uninhibited’s story, I would begin first with how I know I see her in terms of silence and vocalization.  This is not something she did specifically in her paper, although it is hinted at when she discusses the “two worlds” she lives in, at home and at college.  Uninhibited’s voice is one that is that is worth listening too.  She is intellectual, caring, honest, and, at times, silly.  She is also a very private person, and sometimes choices to be silent.  Uninhibited and I have occasionally discussed the way that Bryn Mawr represents (and possibly attempts to exploit) her: having her be a featured student on the website, asking her to participate in panels or be the speaker at key events.  Although part of the motive in constantly asking on Uninhibited to do these things maybe problematic, I cannot think of a single person who deserves these honors more.  People admire Uninhibited and feel inspired by her words.  Sometimes you meet someone who just has those “go getter” qualities, someone you look at and go “She’s going places in life”- this is an essential piece of how I view Uninhibited. 

            Though I don’t feel my description of Uninhibited quite does her justice, I know that is the easy part of this representation.  As I now attempt to represent her words, her story, I struggle.  I would describe Uninhibited’s family as a traditional Latino/a family, in which patriarchy is still very prominent, and given that the generation of women before her (her mother and aunt) were silence by men, it is not surprising that Uninhibited faced the same experience.  (That’s just one sentence and I’m already worried about generalizations/wording/language/etc.)   I hesitate from describing Uninhibited as oppressed, but would say that she grew up in an oppressive environment.  And then I question this: is using the phrase “oppressive environment” a more flowery gentle way of saying “oppressed”?  What scares me about saying oppressed? Do I not want to label someone as oppressed because I feel that is their own choice, or am I, as a white person, afraid to acknowledge oppression? On the other hand, is it because I grew up in a home with a lot of gender equality that I feel this is oppressive?  How can I decide if I a culture that I don’t belong to is oppressive? But if I am scared to recognize oppression because I don’t want to insult culture, am I letting oppression continue? But I digress, and try to continue in representing Uninhibited’s silence. 

            The most striking part of her story to me was she tried to speak out against her father: “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…”.  Reading this seemed illogical to me; although all parents say things they don’t mean to their children sometimes, given what Uninhibited wrote, it seemed this was not a statement uttered out of anger, but deeply rooted in his ideas of parenting.  In discussing this part of the story, I would choose to represent this as a focal moment, and if I was being dramatic I may call this a “turning point” in Uninhibited’s life.  But that is the problem with representing someone else: although this may have been an defining moment in Uninhibited’s experience with silence (she did choose to future it in her writing, after all), it may have also been just one of the several examples she could have used...or maybe in assuming that, I am overestimating her father’s dominance over the family. 

            I representing Uninhibited, I would conclude by at least mentioning the tight personal bonds between her family, ones I have occasionally felt jealous of.  Although she grew up in a patriarchal family, her family members deeply care for one another.  Uninhibited would do anything for her younger sister, and I think a tight knit family unit is also an important aspect of a traditional Latino/a family.  Although again, to continue to question and explore, I’m not sure if I would include this part simply because I believe it is important, or because I am nervous about representing her family in negative light.  I would probably also conclude on a happy note, about how I believe Uninhibited has really, for the most part, found her voice while at college, but that’s easy for me (as a white person) to assume.  I may see her talking eloquently in class, or hear about her interviews with high power places of employment, but only Uninhibited could really represent how much she has found her voice in both worlds she exists in.  However, given that she writes “Therefore, it is not a matter of if I will stop being silenced by family, but when I stop being silenced,” I feel somewhat comfortable in my representation of her discovering her voice.

            In thinking about how successfully or unsuccessfully I have represented Uninhibited, I am only left with more questions.  Given that I am white, and that I can’t change that, should I just “get over it”?  Or given that I am white, is it important that I recognize the boundaries of who I can and can’t represent? And if I can’t represent someone, does that stop me from understand them? I think being an ally to subordinate groups you don’t personally identify with is important, but it seems unfair to deem myself an ally; that should be a title given to you, not one that you give to yourself.  And realistically, if most social scientists currently doing research and representing subordinate groups are part of the dominant groups, how can we work within the confines of the world we live? How can we represent others? Is asking questions like these a step in the right direction?