On the Margins, Between the Lines: The silent voices of Stanford

Opinion by Jamie Solomon
Oct. 12, 2011, 12:28 a.m.


On the Margins, Between the Lines: The silent voices of StanfordOne of the reasons I chose to write a column for The Stanford Daily is that too often I feel that my voice has been silenced at Stanford, so the idea of having a platform where I can openly say what I think without being interrupted or overpowered by dissenting opinions is appealing (albeit scary). This may seem like a bold statement to make, especially if you know me, because I am someone who freely shares my opinions with others. However, I do not always act this way; I’m often quiet in new situations until I’ve gained a feel for the space and people and have an idea of the ways in which I’m allowed to behave. In spaces like the classroom or with people that I’m not that close to, I’m frequently pretty quiet even if there’s a lot running through my mind. In those situations it’s not that I don’t have a lot to say, it’s just that my opinions are not as welcome and are less likely to be listened to.

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to the feeling of staying quiet even when you have things to say. I want to use this column to explore this — not as an artifact of my individual personality (which in many cases it is), but as part of a larger process that happens on this campus. The process of silencing others is subtle and often not apparent to those who do not experience it or who are perpetrating it. I want to talk about how this has happened to me to try to raise awareness of how it happens and to encourage students to think about how they may be minimizing the voices of others.

My experience is mostly related to my gender, and although people’s voices are silenced on campus for a variety of reasons, I can only share my personal experiences. It doesn’t happen through people telling me that I’m a stupid girl with nothing useful to say; instead, I’ve been told that my opinions are not as welcome with subtle messages sent through social pressures, compounded experiences and societal expectations.

I’ve been in numerous classes in which, during group presentations, the men overrun the presentations and, when taking questions afterwards, the guys in the group always seem to have something to say in response. I become drowned out in their rush to answer and can’t get a word in.

When people raise their hand and talk in lecture, they are judged. Because of this, I don’t often speak up in class (nobody likes being judged, but women are taught to place a higher premium on likability.) So unless I’m aware that lots of other people also share my question, I’m not that likely to raise my hand and ask it. Instead, I go talk to the teacher after class.

At lunchtime conversations with members of my dorm, I’ve often had the ideas that I bring up vehemently argued down. I don’t like arguing (and women are censured when they are aggressive) so I would much rather give up to avoid an argument than stick it out to convince everyone that I am right.

I’ve been in groups where I make a suggestion for how to proceed and it flies by under the radar. A few minutes later a guy will make the same suggestion and the group will take it up and begin discussing it. This is not an experience that is unique to me; sociology papers have been written on this phenomenon.

So yes, in a very literal sense, no one is silencing me because I am the one choosing to keep quiet; I am being passive when I could be assertive, I am deferring to others, and I am neglecting to speak up. However, I am not making this choice in a vacuum. I am penalized — judged, looked down upon, talked about and ignored — when I speak too loudly or monopolize conversations, fight for my place and my voice to be heard.

So what do we do about this?

I’ve been following much of the news about the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of the things that I’ve found most intriguing is the participants’ use of an idea called the “progressive stack.” When people have opinions to voice, they get in line (the “stack”) and wait to talk; however, in a progressive stack, people do not speak in a first-come, first-served basis; people get to speak in an order that amplifies the voices of traditionally marginalized populations. Women and minorities are moved to the front and men, especially white men, are asked to wait before they can speak.

This is an idea that Stanford could use a little more of. There are lots of events and organizations in which encouraging members of marginalized populations to speak up more would add to the ability of the organization to serve all of its members. In terms of our daily interactions and lives, this cannot be literally implemented, but it is still a valuable concept to keep in mind. By trying to “progressively stack” our daily interactions and directing our attention to members of marginalized populations more often, maybe we can find ways to listen better to those being ignored.

Want to make sure that you hear Jamie’s voice? Then be sure to email her at jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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