Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

(why are titles required?)

jo's picture

Silence feels a whole lot more complicated than it did when I wrote my first paper on the images of protest that Esty used to represent silence, and the difference between my feelings and thoughts about silence now and the image I posted three weeks ago of the moonrise, my image of silence, is huge. Over the summer, because I was alone in a country where I did not speak the language fluently, I became accustomed to silence, and though I hated and feared it at first, I grew to appreciate it, even need it to some degree. That, I suppose, is where the calm, peaceful image of space comes from.

Since then, I’ve begun to see silence everywhere and nowhere, to relish breaks in conversations or class discussions even as my skin crawls from the discomfort, to take out my headphones as I walk so that I can better hear the silence and noise of my mind. There are so many ways to conceptualize silence and so many judgments to be made; is it good or bad? A privilege or oppression? A presence or an absence? I have come to see that it is all of these things and more, though I’ve yet to show whether or not I can articulate my feelings. “How would you now visualize-and-vocalize silence?” The visualization is not so hard, but the vocalizing, the explanation, being coherent…that’s where I often stumble and retreat to silence.

This has happened to me on many occasions, when the words have not come, the explanation has felt like too much, and I choose silence over expression, over a possible mistake. Over the past week, an overwhelming one in our class discussions, this has happened to me several times, so I’ve been thinking a lot about why this happens and what I want to do (if anything) to change. We talked in class (a discussion that spun off of one of my posts) about the permanency of words, if speaking makes them less permanent than writing, and why we often fear that permanency. It can be a scary thing to have your opinion heard, to take a stand about something, to admit that you feel strongly or to make a decision. I suppose this is because we don’t have enough confidence or trust in ourselves – I don’t have enough trust in myself (I don’t want to speak for anyone else). I have beliefs, some of them strong, and I also have uncertainties, questions, inner conflict.

In contrast, Rigoberta Menchu says words that she wants to be heard, that she needs to be permanent. Ann brought up this quote from I, Rigoberta Menchu in class: “Rigoberta has chosen words as her weapon and I have tried to give her words the permanency of print.” This quote struck me when I heard it and has stayed with me as I read this woman’s story. I immediately knew that, the reason for our different viewpoints is that she has conviction, where I do not. Where does this come from, and why can’t I find it? Through reading about her life, I saw the many differences between us and the reasons she would have for her conviction. I, a white woman from a middle/working-class American family, have never experienced anything close to the kind of struggle and oppression that was a standard of living for Rigoberta, an indigenous woman from a poor family in Guatemala. I didn’t survive genocide and lose family members in the process. I was born and raised within the culture of power, so to have my needs met I never have to worry about being heard or listened to. Though I may often choose silence, there are no great consequences. For Rigoberta Menchu, choosing silence means accepting oppression.

Here I have begun to address some of what I struggle with when thinking about my white privilege. Though I know the suffering of the world is far from my fault, I often can’t help but feel terrible when I think about it. To quote a song by one of my favorite musicians, Brett Dennen: “I wonder how so many can be in so much pain while others don’t seem to feel a thing. And then I curse my whiteness and I get so damn depressed, in a world of suffering why should I be so blessed?”

So I’ve been thinking about my privilege in relation to my silence, and the silence of others. The first paper I wrote about silence as protest comes from a place of privilege (which is unavoidable, as I wrote it). I’d like to explain the context of the march in the story I told in that paper. It was with a group called the Earth Quaker Action Team whose main campaign is targeting PNC Bank for their financing of mountaintop removal coal mining. This is an issue of environmental justice, as I mentioned, but also of social justice, because this destructive practice takes place largely in Appalachia where it is a huge health threat to the people living nearby. Outside of Appalachia, not many people know much about mountaintop removal, not many know that these people are suffering because they don’t have a voice, because they are silenced by the huge coal companies who are profiting from them. So, with this group, I have learned to use my voice to ‘shine light’ on this situation, essentially tried to use my voice to represent theirs. As well intentioned as this is, I still find it somewhat problematic. I have never been to this place, never seen the damage with my own eyes, and never personally been asked for help from an Appalachian. True, I work with groups who know that these people want allies and need support and I think it is important to use my privilege for good (whatever that means).

I don't know how coherent I've managed to be in this paper, since my thoughts are still so jumbled and undecided, but I hope at least this is accessible enough that people can get a bit of a picture of where I am with silence and privilege. You'll see its still quite rocky at this point, but I've begun to accept that, and I'm trying to snuggle into these rocks as best as I can because I'm tired and I know it's gonna be a long night.