When the “voiceless” speak

(In response to the disruption of a Bernie Sanders campaign rally by Black Lives Matter activists in Seattle this week.)

A phrase I dislike: ‘giving voice to the voiceless.’ I don’t like this because no one is voiceless. Everyone has a voice. When students write that phrase in their papers, I flag it, and comment ‘everyone has a voice’. It may be very quiet, it may speak in a language that you don’t understand, it may stammer and stutter and use words in a way that the hearer is not used to, but the voice is there. And, let’s be real: the ‘voiceless’ are people who are not listened to, not seen, people who are ignored, discounted and pushed away.

Using multiple, diverse voices as part of an organizing strategy is a useful tactic. I believe it is critically important for men to talk about sexism, for straight people to talk about heterosexism, for white people to talk about white supremacy and racism. It makes sense for those with more social power, those who have access to the halls of power, as it were, to take advantage of their placement in the hierarchy and use it for the purpose of dismantling it. This best happens in the context of community and under the leadership of the marginalized because we know best what sexism/heterosexism/white supremacy is doing to us. It is a matter of urgency. It is life or death. The problem with the notion of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ is that the one who is giving mediates, talks over and often changes the message of the so-called voiceless.

When so-called allies (I prefer the term ‘currently operating in solidarity with’ see Mia McKenzie/Black Girl Dangerous post ‘No More Allies‘) are more interested in policing tone and tactics than dismantling systems of oppression, it’s easy to see why giving voice to the voiceless is so attractive. It’s easier to shout down and/or distance yourself from the people society has already decided are a problem. It’s much harder work to figure out what being in solidarity means by actually being in community and conversation (you know, speaking and listening) with marginalized folk. Insisting that dissent be polite, withdrawing support for a movement because you don’t understand and/or agree with tactics sends a message – deep, substantial change not desired.

ROJ App IconAlthough I’m mostly talking about organizing strategy here, I’m also talking about everyday life… the days when you decide you are not going to go out of your way to appease whiteness, maleness, straightness.

And yes, we know it can get us killed. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

One thought on “When the “voiceless” speak”

  1. Good points. “Giving voice to the voiceless” sounds poetic but it’s intrue. People in any category of privilege need to give not a voice but an ear to the unheard. (As a start.)

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