In most feminist discourse, voice is equated with power and freedom. On the other hand, silence has long been a tool of oppression and is seen both as its equivalent and as the opposite of voice. What this binary ignores is the multi-layered and complex nature of both voice and silence. Silence is also a form of resistance and a necessary part of reflection, introspection, and change.
I used to be very outspoken. Every belief and opinion had to be expressed—loudly. I do not prioritize keeping peace over standing up for yourself, others, or your values, but I caused some unnecessary conflict. I failed to realize that in speaking my truth, I was leaving no room for listening to others who also had good ideas and meaningful experiences. Being preoccupied with what you have to say leaves little room to listen to others and no one learns anything new.
Especially in people from dominant groups, silence is necessary for growth. Once, I sat beside a boy in an informal end-of-semester meal with our Black history class. This boy continuously invalidated experiences, advocated for finding objective “truth” through statistical and mathematical analysis, and questioned the credibility of stories of people with no “credible” evidence. We spent nearly an hour talking to him about why different stories are valid, why truth changes depending on perspective, and why stories that cannot be translated into numbers are valid. He did not understand and continued to interrupt everyone to go on about why we were wrong. At one point, when he kept talking over me, I shouted, “for fuck sake, would you just listen?!” He stopped talking but did not start listening.
This boy was in a powerful position—a native English-speaking cis-hetero male in a prestigious Canadian university. Additionally, a number of women of color were explaining and justifying themselves to a man of more privilege than them. It would have served him well to stop and listen to the many women around him telling him how traditional ways of thinking about truth and validity had been harmful. Then, in silence, he could have contemplated what was said, what it meant for him, and what it meant about the world he was a part of. Silence is important not only to create space for other people to talk, but also for them to pause and reflect on their own beliefs and worlds. This does not mean being quiet and thinking of your rebuttal—silence is listening attentively and giving importance to what other people have to say. If the people we are talking to aren’t listening, then what does voice achieve?
I had a friend who is no longer my friend. He would ask me to lay out the most vulnerable aspects of my life with little regard for the position he was putting me in. He wanted to satisfy his curiosity and I, with the belief that voice is power and he is a friend, told him things I did not want to.
Using one’s voice doesn’t always mean others will listen, particularly when others feel entitled to our answers—as if our existence is confined to a learning opportunity so we are obliged to assuage their curiosity and answer. In a study, Dalia Rodriguez taught a class called “Constructing Identity: Race, Class, and Gender,” where some students expressed their frustration with the white students who just couldn’t seem to understand the reality of students of color. Some students chose to speak up, but others decided to not participate or entertain the ignorance of their white peers; their silence became their resistance. Silence in the face of violating questions and probing analysis becomes a clear display of agency, of creating a boundary and limiting what parts of you other people have access to. Silence becomes a reclamation of agency and of voice; it means I have the choice to not waste my voice.
On the last day of our friendship, my friend ranted about how I made him want to be honest and how I made him mean, how I was a burden, how he was tired of caring for me.
That he didn’t like who he really was is not my fault. That he is a mean person is not my fault. There was no making him happy, so I made a decision: No more justification. No more explanations.
All I said to him was, “Leave.”
Silence and voice are not opposites, but they are both complex and multi-layered. Silence can also be refusal, resistance, and boundary-setting, just as it can be a place for reflection and growth.
So be angry, yell, and scream as you must. But when you are heartbroken, when you are exhausted, when you are scared, and even when you are angry—it’s also a valid choice to remain silent. Stay quiet if you need to, stay quiet if you want to. You are neither weak nor powerless. Your silence and how you use it is your choice.
And then, when you are ready, speak.