Being Silent

I’ve been following the backlash from the media coverage of the Steubenville rape case pretty closely. I’ve read all the important articles and blog posts. I’ve read all of my friends’ statuses and comments. I’ve seen my friends’ anger, their commitment to rationalism, and their frustration with patriarchal systems.

I’ve always struggled with what I should be saying about things where I don’t resemble the victim. What should I say about male-on-female rape or sexism or racism? I like to talk about these issues but am I limited to parroting what female, minority, and/or LGBTQ friends and/or scholars say about them?

My friend, Tyler Borchers, pointed me to “Dismantling whiteness: Silent yielding and the potentiality of political suicide” by a professor here at Ohio University named Dr. Jungkunz.

Jungkunz writes:

To reiterate, part of what privilege has involved in garrulous contemporary settings has been a monopoly over speaking. We have witnessed this surrounding sex, sexuality, race, class and gender. Masculine, white, ‘heterosexual’, wealthy men are privileged speakers. So, to engage insubordinate silence along any of these components of intersectionality is to engage several transformative contestations and participations. First, silence can demonstrate a protest against racism. Such protests can entail: silence instead of an encouraging laughter as a response to a co-worker’s racially offensive joke, or an organized silent protest involving duct tape over one’s mouth to call attention to oppressive quiescence. These silences can cut off the air (speaking) that gives life (via racist stereotyping) to white supremacy. Block de Behar notes, ‘that only silence can offer a means of avoiding the automatism of language’ (1995, p. 4). Second, silence can act as a democratic yielding. This yielding is insubordinate as it challenges norms that try to dictate who should and should not speak – so, to remain silent as a way to allow the ‘other’ to speak is inherently resistant to a whiteness-speech configuration of power. This is a silence for empowerment and transformation. Finally, silence as a refusal can seek to end one political existence – whiteness – only to open up the possibility of an alternative to a racialized polity for the future. This silence as refusal can involve the following: not claiming a race on the census questionnaire, remaining silent when someone asks for racial identification over the phone or upon a personal ad and not engaging an entire array of racially offensive names, topics, movies, songs, discussions and so on. At an even deeper level, this silence can be an active refusal of aspects, characteristics – white personality traits if you will – that slowly but importantly begin to kill off one’s whiteness. For instance, the urge to speak up and out can be refused; the exuding of confidence can be refused; and even the lack of racial self-consciousness can be refused.

I am really bad about this. I am really bad about being okay with silence. In fact, I’ve found myself knee-deep in discussions about Steubenville the past couple of days. And every time I get frustrated with one of those discussions, I try to move to a discussion with someone who I know will agree with me. This, I think, is both incredibly prideful and incredibly damaging.

Too often, I start to believe that the only way to affect political action is through speech. Through action. But that’s not true. Often, the way I can be most subversive in my privilege is to yield my voice to oppressed groups. My voice is not unimportant or worthless. It’s just that there is nothing of value my voice can add to the debate. I am not a survivor. I know survivors, but I know them as friends. And I think they are far more qualified to talk about their experiences than I am. My role should be to encourage other non-survivors to listen. To listen. To be silent.

I think of all the times I’ve laughed at a rape joke in the presence of other people. That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve agreed when someone calls a girl a “slut.” That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve been part of a community that encourages people to make decisions about sexual partners while under the influence of alcohol. That’s not alright. Silence would have been better.

Silence is probably better now.

Note: When I typed “silence” into Google to try to find a picture, I most often found pictures of women being silent. Yikes. Then when I typed in “silence man,” I got photos of scantily clad men sneaking up on sleeping women. um wut.

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