On Being Silenced

by Heather Shea Gasser

In the past two days, I received two different pieces that discuss the effects of silencing. Please take a moment to read the Feminist Wire article Feminists We Love: Dr. Kristie Dotson and the New York Times piece Speaking While Female.

The arrival of these two articles in my inbox also coincides with my preparation for a Higher Ed Live show that I’m hosting on the topic of Confronting Racism on Campus, during which I plan to ask the following question of the panelists:

“As a white person engaging in this conversation [about Ferguson], I know that silence by some white people inhibits authentic dialogue with one another and with our students. How can we assist those who may feel unable to engage, for whatever reason, race being one, to enter this important dialogue? How can we draw in those who either choose not to contribute or are silent because they fear saying the wrong thing? And, how can we ensure that white people understand the implications of choosing NOT to enter into a conversation in which they need to participate?”

As a response to my proposed question, one of the panelists made the remark that perhaps some individuals are coerced into being silent. He wrote in an email “I can’t help by wonder how many of our colleagues are stifled….how can we help those who may feel/be professionally, politically or socially strong-armed?”

It’s possible that sometimes people actively choose silence. Sometimes they remain silent because they literally don’t know what to say or that they fear saying the wrong thing. Others stay silent out of personal safety, where speaking might create a hostility into which they are not willing or able to enter for fear of their own security. Yet, I and the authors of the articles mentioned above are not talking about making the choice to be silent but rather having our voiced stifled into silence.

These articles and this discussion about silence leads me to the questions: If a tool of our collective liberation is our VOICE, why are we remaining silent? And, how can we ensure the voices of all are heard?

I log this topic into the Feminists in Student Affairs blog space because I believe the imposition of silencing is a tactic of the white, heteronormative patriarchy that we need to actively create awareness around and directly fight against. We must do this to both liberate those who feel silenced as well as to direct attention toward those who, because of privilege, actively silence others. Our collective liberation moving forward, I believe, depends on attention to who is speaking and whose voices are heard.

I’ll add to this conversation some additional personal perspectives from my own experience:

  • When I was the director of the Women’s Center and deciding upon a position to take and statement to make on campus after a troubling incident occurred, I was asked by a male authority figure, “How big of a deal do you want to make this?”
  • I have felt “rendered inarticulate” (phrase coined by Dotson in her interview with Feminist Wire) after suffering a medical incident in which my cognitive functioning was temporarily impaired, but had long-term implications for my ability to speak coherently and, ultimately, my perception of myself.
  • I have observed in meetings and other spaces when open dialogue occurs certain voices dominating airspace. And, I’ve thought to myself “maybe I’m talking too much. I should be quiet for the next period so others can speak” leading me to wonder how others experience my silence or if those who dominate consider those who are not speaking.
  • In a personal context, I have, on occasion been made to feel that my opinions, my feelings, my desires, and my needs do not matter as much as my children’s or my family’s. A socialized gender roles as wife and mother preempt my voice.

Whether silencing occurred by socialization, via authority, through social context, or by self-imposition… in each of these instances, silence is used as a form of control, oppression, and manipulation. As someone who as experienced silencing, has actively silenced herself, and has witnessed others being silenced, I have had enough. And, I think this form of oppression needs to be voiced and openly discussed.

Where do these messages of silence as a form of oppression begin? How much is rooted in deep seeded race and gender roles to which we have been actively socialized? Why are some voices enabled and heard in different ways than others? How are we creating cultures where women or other underrepresented groups are either explicitly or implicitly silenced? If we are sitting at the table and don’t feel able to speak or notice others who aren’t contributing, what can we do? And, if we are in a place of privilege within a group or have some level of authority, do we intentionally track who speaks and invite those who aren’t contributing to the conversation?

Perhaps I’ve raised more questions that I have provided answers. Let’s continue the conversation and break the silence. How have you been personally or professionally silenced? What can we do to counteract this within our spheres of control?



4 thoughts on “On Being Silenced

  1. For me as an introvert, I am often silent not because I don’t have a thought on the issue at hand, but because I am still processing it. So as an introverted female sometimes I feel doubly looked over because of my time-to-process and assumptions based on my gender.
    Fortunately, this is something I recognize and am working on. I have been fortunate to have mentors who have helped me to become more comfortable articulating my thoughts before they are fully formulated.

  2. Yes, I have just been silenced by my parents. I’m in my 30s and they apparently believe I am a loose cannon that cannot be trusted to speak. Suddenly my decision to confide in a close friend about the hurtful actions of another friend is ‘slander’ and ‘will get me into trouble’ and I ‘never learn’ and that ‘we’re trying to protect you’. I’m only confiding the truth, and seeking moral support so I feel less alone in handling the situation, and I’m not lying about the person at all so how can it be slander? But this isn’t the point. It’s the silencing of me, the remark from my mother, ‘I told you when you were a little girl your mouth would get you hung’. I’ve been silenced from childhood it seems. No wonder I have lacked in confidence, and been afraid to go out there and have agency, because I’m told my speech causes harm. But objectively, it doesn’t. I have good friends, I’m regarded as a pleasant person to be round, often asked for advice and counsel, very self aware – nothing in my physical reality supports their view of me as this terrible motormouth who says too much and causes trouble. I’m, like, the total opposite of that. I know they’re messing with my head, even if they don’t realise it, but I noticed it lowered my self esteem for a moment, made me question myself, sent me back to being that young girl again, and that made me sad. Finding your website helped me come out of that state, so thank you 🙂

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