By Angela Onwuachi-Willig
Featured at The Chronicle
Excerpted from Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia, ed. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. González, and Angela P. Harris, Utah State University Press, 2012).
Silence as Action
As an untenured professor, I learned firsthand about the power of silence by observing the conduct of a senior male colleague of color at the first law school where I worked. I recall my initial surprise at his silence during most faculty meetings, especially given his stature as a highly respected faculty member. His silence stood in stark contrast to the frequent speech of many of our white, male senior colleagues, some of whom voiced their opinions on every matter—repeatedly. I wanted to learn from my colleague’s opinions, but, in the end, I learned more from his silence. As I watched him throughout the year, I understood that his silences were, at least in part, strategic. They gave him a powerful voice when he spoke in public settings. I later learned that he did much of his speaking outside of the public faculty eye—in private.
Through him, I learned that we have to become comfortable enough with silences to know when to read them and nurture them into spoken voice. As the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts said in her article “Paradox of Silence”: “One possibility is that by employing silence, the professor subverts the dominant style of speech in law-school classrooms. By breaking through the fast-paced aggressive banter, typically dominated by white, male students, silence allows less aggressive students of color to compose their thoughts and to participate.” Undoubtedly, silence can be powerful. But when are the silences harmful? And how can such harm be prevented?
The Harmful Effects of Silence
We—female faculty of color—can be silenced in many aspects of our job. We can be silenced through our difficulties in saying no to extra service burdens that involve diversity, especially where we know our voices will not otherwise be represented; or through our shame in talking about the daily biases we face in the classroom, biases that are often invisible to white colleagues; or through our feelings that we are impostors in the academic world. We have to ask ourselves, How can we balance the act of not speaking without losing self and yet speak without losing the game?
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