On Mizzou, Yale, Amherst, and on Silence

I am someone who has strong feelings about the first amendment. I believe it’s an inalienable right that guarantees one’s right to speak, to express, to believe, and to act upon that belief. I am also someone who does not believe that Erika Christakis’ letter on the Halloween costume was intended to erase the validity of the entire contingent that is Yale students of color. While her delivery could’ve been better executed, I believe that the crux of her message lies in a hopeful belief that as a community, they would be able “to exercise self-censure” and facilitate a discourse about what they collectively believe is appropriate and what is not: the subject of cultural appropriation is at times not so black and white, especially when it comes to the performative space in which role-play and costumes fall in. I believe that it was poor form of this young lady to resort to screaming at Nicholas Christakis, as I believe screaming rarely establishes its intended goals, and in fact adversely allows people to dismiss the incident as a college student’s tantrum over minutiae. I believe that it was also poor form of this group of Mizzou protesters to treat Tim Tai in such a way. Their reaction to a lone college student journalist exercising what he repeatedly tried to convey as his rights, felt hostile, irrational, and may I even say, quite ironically, violent.

As I watched Mizzou, Yale, and then Amherst unfold before me many miles away, I’ve been grappling with the inner struggle in trying to articulate why I feel the way I do. Despite the fact that I harbor these beliefs about the aforementioned incidents, something in me stops me from ever dismissing them as manifestations of irrational anger, or the whining of an overly sensitive, overly politically correct millennial generation. These incidents of “poor form,” are poor in form precisely because this happens to be the only form of expression they could resort to that people have bothered to pay attention to. These outbursts are poor in form, because they are outbursts seeping from an age-old wound that has been suppressed, and silenced, and ignored for so long that the niceties have festered into something that cannot remain nice. The poor form is a desperate plea for the blind to see the thousand-and-one layers of pain beneath the wound. The poor form urges the deaf to hear the thousand-and-one silences that have gone unspoken for each outburst. The poor form resorts to the raw and ugly as the world has caused them to believe it will not be heard or seen otherwise.

Every day, students of color on some college campus face the choice of whether to display what would be deemed as poor form. Most times, they defer to silence rather than explaining themselves, to avoid awkwardness or alienation, or in fear of being ousted as “the angry one.” Even when surrounded by more supportive of their peers, they resort to silence because it is tiresome as hell. It is tiresome enough to day and night carry with their bodies the burden of suppositions, stigmas, stereotypes they never asked to carry. It is exhausting to fight the politicized body to reclaim a sense of self and carve out their own stories. It becomes exasperating but also depressingly routine to ponder every time: how much of my story can they take before they become uncomfortable, run away, or worse, take the words out of my mouth, and re-construct it so it becomes easier for them to digest? Sometimes, they consider pushing back against the discomfort, the escape, the stolen storytelling. But something tells them, to speak out against such petty little incidences would be of poor form, right?

So they remain silent.

The small and big instances of silence repeat themselves every day, causing students of color to question again and again: What did I do wrong? Do I belong here? Am I enough? Are we enough?

You would think that these things wouldn’t happen in elite institutions of learning, such as Amherst, or Yale, or Missouri, or elsewhere. But they do. Even within my safest communities and social circles during my time at Amherst, I’ve witnessed more than enough of these daily transgressions to understand the weight behind the silence. My beloved a capella group is known for its “soulful” sound that lends heavily from our “diverse” membership, which is my attempt at euphemism for “we often have more black people than white people in the group.” I have met and befriended so many strong, confident women of different backgrounds through the nurturing safe-space that was my singing group. But even within these safe spaces where I have harbored the best of friendships, I have also witnessed my intelligent, beautiful, young ladies of color resort to silence time and time again.

One of my best friends from the group used to tell me that she often gets the comment that she “doesn’t talk like a black person.” She said it with a laugh, as if she wanted to silence the weight of the subject matter with dark humor. Maybe she did it to protect me from the full blow of the many, many things the statement concealed. I could not laugh back.

I recall another incident in which another girl came back from a long weekend home with long, flowing braids instead of her shorter natural hair. People flocked to her and asked if they could touch her hair, their well-intentioned ill-mannered fingers already touching and pulling at her silent locks. Then they told her she looked like some well-known black figure, whose name escapes me. But it doesn’t matter, because it wouldn’t have mattered whichever name they decided to throw in that blank. I gave her a horrified look that was half disbelief and half apology on behalf of the unknowing contingent of people who were now making jokes about some African queen. She looked back at me silently. It was a look that said, It’s okay, I’m used to this. It was also a look that said, I’m done being tired, so let me be silent. Not many months after the incident, she left the school for another, citing irreconcilable differences and a search for a better fit. I daresay she was also searching for a place where she could be less silent and less tired.

So back to the first amendment. I am still a strong believer of the first amendment and the freedom of speech, and everything it allows us to do. But when an act cloaked in freedom of speech is one of the many factors that silences a population time and time again and erases the validity of their personhood, you realize that the debate is much bigger than someone’s right to be potentially offensive or not. And when a few imperfect, emotional, at times caustic outbursts catch the attention of the media and become an opportune moment for people to brush off the movement as a juvenile tantrum, you must realize it is an attempt to yet again silence a population that has been pleading for so long to be listened to. Instead of dismissing these incidents in Mizzou, Yale and beyond as one-off incidents of good intent perceived wrong, or dismissing these incidents as justified under the freedom of speech, or dismissing these incidents as angry people overreacting in “poor form” — it’s about time we started listening. To the silence, and the noise. To the poor form, and what lies beneath it.