There are many ways in which voices matter. Talking matters for relationality. Talking matters for norm construction. Talking matters for participation in both. Talking also comes to matter as a major part of making a self. In one sense, silence as refusal is a strategy or practice that uses disengagement (most times temporarily) to improve a relationship or improve a world. It is a manipulation of the configuration of speech and silence within discourse in order to achieve a political end. It is because there are situations in which one's voice matters that such silences can be effective. Of course, silence can be overindulged and lose its potential to make a difference. In other words, one who uses silence too often could render one's silence illegitimate and ignored. Yet, used well, silence as refusal can help subjects negotiate power in everyday life. Beyond this, there are some silent refusals that might not really matter, at least not in the sense that they will directly affect other people, nor the political topography we inhabit. Yet, such silence does matter in the sense that it refuses to be a part of a given self-constitution. Engaging in such refusal does not necessarily entail a conceit on the part of the quiet one. Instead of the conceit that one's voice is so important that going silent will render one that much more powerful, some silent refusals are much more personal practices – working on oneself more than upon others, relationships or the world itself. And, beyond that, some are simply acts of self-denial – forms of purposive self-annihilation.
Such silences entail a more thoroughgoing effort at disengagement. They might ultimately entail a sort of political suicide. What I have in mind is not the presence of words or actions that lead one out of a given engagement in politics. Instead, a deep silence and absence may be an option for those who wish to end a certain kind of political life, including the varied identities of contemporary politics. This sort of self-annihilation is certainly a controversial idea; it is tricky, maybe elusive, and potentially dangerous. However, maybe we should not let such difficulties deter us from examining its potential. Brown draws upon the metaphor of drowning in a pond to think through the implications and promises of using silence as a means of refusing compulsory discursivity. She states, ‘perhaps there are dead or deadening (antilife) things that must be allowed residence in a pond of silence rather than surfaced into discourse if life is to be lived without being claimed by their weight’ (2005, p. 93). There are areas of our selves that we might desire to either keep submerged or commence to submerge. Silence might allow us to be discriminating regarding what parts of our lives we put into discourse. Yet, there is a more comprehensive practice of drowning in silence that seeks to submerge a given being; a being that emerges through a given identity. This might require us to think beyond life and death as purely dichotomous. This also can encourage us to think of the ways in which we, and the things we do and say, have multiple lives and multiple deaths. In doing so, we can revisit whether it is always a loss to allow certain selves we become to drown.
In relinquishing to death some of the lives we live, we may help create and/or perpetuate space for the constitution of other lives, lives for ourselves, and others. This might entail a strong sense of resistance in relation to contemporary hails that offer liberation through talking about what causes us pain. Such confessional practices can certainly help subjects deal with injury; yet, they might also place subjects into a unitary discourse that both regulates pain and recovery, but also excludes those who, for whatever reason, do not come to matter through voicing trauma. Brown continues, ‘If to speak repeatedly of a trauma (which, by definition, carries wordless and even unintelligible content) is a mode of encoding it as identity, it may be the case that drowned things must be consigned to live in a pond of silence in order to make a world – a future – in parameters not fully given by the trauma’ (2005, p. 94). Coming into a new existence, maybe even one that seems promising and liberating, through a trauma narrative might ultimately preclude exploration of ways of being less traumatizing and less confining. In a large way, this is about potential and possibility; there are no guarantees. Nevertheless, there are no guarantees that talking about one's pain will lead to the promise of weight being lifted and lives being transformed from shame to pride. Brown states, ‘When all such experiences are put into discourse – when sexual, emotional, reproductive, and artistic lives are all exhaustively chronicled and thereby subjected to normativizing discourses – might this imperil the experiences of autonomy, creativity, privacy, and bodily integrity so long denied those whose subjugation included, inter alia, sexual violation or other deprivations of privacy?’ (2005, p. 95). Silence provides an alternative, an alternative that does not have to be accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame for not talking.
If we can embrace silence as one way, among many others, to negotiate the meaning surrounding how we become together, it ceases to only be the symptom of a deeper sense of self-hate or the proof of being subjected to repressive silencing. How comforting it might be for those who suffer a variety of violations to their persons to know that allowing whole identities to stay submerged in a pond of silence does not mark them as cowardly? In telling and reactivating subordination, and attaching our self to an identity infused with suffering, we come to pay closer attention to our self. We look for signs that our feelings and behaviors are related to our suffering. We wonder if we are forever broken, wonder if we will gain acceptance and affirmation as we are – this injured self. The point is not to belittle the experience of transcendence that some might accomplish in talking about suffering. The point is that, owing to a saturation of so much of our contemporary approaches to subordination by identity politics that seem wedded to injured selves, it might be wise to reconsider. And, this may allow us to ask different questions as we confront our past subordination and our future selves. What self or selves might we want to kill or extract from discursive life? What selves might we want to subject to a pre-emptive suicide?
In addition to considering whether those in historical positions of subordination should use silence to negotiate identity (de)construction, silent refusal that disengages a self can be a vital way to address privileged identities. Many of us exist along axes of identities. Some of the selves through which one might exist are pervasively imbued with realities of subordination. Yet, the same person can also exist within identity categories that include dominant positionality. Therefore, even those who suffer under discrimination and oppression in one aspect of their being might be able to wield power over others in another. Silence to dismantle such privileged status can be deployed by those whose identities intersect in ways that leave them highly privileged and among those who are only partially privileged. The goal is to use silent refusal as a way to undermine one's own privileged identities.
Regarding race, while white subjects can and do experience identity-based subordination in areas such as class and sex, as whites they are raced with privilege. It is as subjects of white privilege that all whites can use silence as refusal. As whites come to understand and perceive their racial privilege, there are at least two avenues of silence available as they navigate racial politics and identities; both avenues entail negation and death. They can be silent regarding their white privilege, thereby working to perpetuate the negation of under-privileged speakers and their identities. Or, they can begin a long engagement in silences that tend to self-negate. Block de Behar states, ‘Silence is often an efficient instrument of obliteration, and one that leaves no traces’ (1995, p. 9). The obliteration she is referring to is one in which those in positions of domination can engage a ‘tricky’ ‘acknowledgment’ when ‘someone knows, yet he pretends he does not’ (1995, p. 9). Whites who know, yet pretend they do not, are tacitly consenting to the racial contract, and they become directly responsible for white supremacy; this may entail silence, but it is not silent yielding. As an alternative, whites could engage in the obliteration of their whiteness, and open up ways of ‘being’ foreclosed by racial political societies.
Ultimately, a series of difficult choices await whites as they attempt to alleviate the oppressions that accompany a racial political and social context. Lopez points out, ‘Whites’ assistance in this endeavor is particularly crucial, because they exercise the great bulk of the tremendous power necessary to construct and maintain Whiteness’ (1996, p. 188). In a sense, what is called for is a political, economic and social suicide regarding whiteness. Yielding in silence could be one appropriate avenue for challenging whiteness as voice and privilege and political speech. Lopez discusses the verbal denigration needed for the perpetuation of whiteness, stating, ‘Whiteness demands that all Whites denigrate, at least passively, those constructed as non-White. It is only through this iterated denigration, this constant reinforcement by Whites of the lines between “us” and “them”, that the boundaries of Whiteness can be maintained’ (1996, pp. 189–190). The iterated denigration is certainly ripe for insubordinate silence. The Racial Contract depends not only upon ignorance, but also upon repeated speech that upholds discursive constructs that, furthermore, divide personhood from subpersonhood. These choices to dismantle whiteness, and the silences that can help lead the way to a society without whiteness, involve interrupting these iterations, stopping discursive flows, big and small. For instance, as one learns about racism and privilege, understanding that racism exists in multiple layers and forms, one can begin deploying silence to substitute for things such as soft and hard core racist speech, a monopolizing conversational style on race issues, and an out-of-focus consciousness that doesn’t make room for self-conscious racial reflection. For whites, a lack of racial self-consciousness is an enormous barrier to overcoming racism and white privilege, and, one way to avoid self-consciousness is to talk incessantly, and to never listen to criticism.
A deep silence can accompany the choices we make as ‘Whites’, choices away from our white attachments. We can refuse the hail of whiteness by engaging absences – we can be absent at contexts that call us to perpetuate all-white realities. Derrick Bell points out how some discursive regimes are geared toward maintaining a white status quo in academia (1992, pp. 134–146). Visions of ‘qualifications’ can significantly preclude the inclusion of so-called persons of color from a variety of academic positions, including standards of scholarship oriented around more ‘mainstream’ conceptions of knowing and understanding. As noted above, some Critical Race theorists employ narrative and storytelling to illuminate issues of race; yet, these methods, under more traditional approaches, might be deemed ‘soft’ or non-scientific. The exclusion of such epistemic vehicles can then exclude their practitioners from academic jobs that continue to require too narrowly constructed visions of knowledge. To refuse such arrangements we can start by engaging silence – we can stop talking so much about one set of requirements, opening space for dialogue about other approaches, thereby shifting focus and potentially challenging those who walk away from job searches posturing frustration regarding what they perceive as an applicant pool lacking diversity. This is really a silent yielding that can adjust both our field of vision regarding something like a job search and the communities we construct throughout these processes and choices.
To reiterate, part of what privilege has involved in garrulous contemporary settings has been a monopoly over speaking. We have witnessed this surrounding sex, sexuality, race, class and gender. Masculine, white, ‘heterosexual’, wealthy men are privileged speakers. So, to engage insubordinate silence along any of these components of intersectionality is to engage several transformative contestations and participations. First, silence can demonstrate a protest against racism. Such protests can entail: silence instead of an encouraging laughter as a response to a co-worker's racially offensive joke, or an organized silent protest involving duct tape over one's mouth to call attention to oppressive quiescence. These silences can cut off the air (speaking) that gives life (via racist stereotyping) to white supremacy. Block de Behar notes, ‘that only silence can offer a means of avoiding the automatism of language’ (1995, p. 4). Second, silence can act as a democratic yielding. This yielding is insubordinate as it challenges norms that try to dictate who should and should not speak – so, to remain silent as a way to allow the ‘other’ to speak is inherently resistant to a whiteness-speech configuration of power. This is a silence for empowerment and transformation. Finally, silence as a refusal can seek to end one political existence – whiteness – only to open up the possibility of an alternative to a racialized polity for the future. This silence as refusal can involve the following: not claiming a race on the census questionnaire, remaining silent when someone asks for racial identification over the phone or upon a personal ad and not engaging an entire array of racially offensive names, topics, movies, songs, discussions and so on. At an even deeper level, this silence can be an active refusal of aspects, characteristics – white personality traits if you will – that slowly but importantly begin to kill off one's whiteness. For instance, the urge to speak up and out can be refused; the exuding of confidence can be refused; and even the lack of racial self-consciousness can be refused.