Understanding Cultures of Silence in Academia: Restoring the Complexity of Silence in Spaces Centere

In academia, we are constantly surrounded by a myriad of voices – they are creating white noise in our small-group discussions, ringing in our lecture halls, waiting for us on the bookshelves and popping up when we type anything using the all-knowing Google (Scholar) search engine. In such a loud, question(ing)-driven context, both the existence and importance of silence are not acknowledged nearly enough. The truth is, silent spaces in academia spread beyond the quiet classrooms in which we take tests with the recognizable “SILENCE, EXAMINATION IN PROGRESS” sign hanging at the entrance.

Silence in academia is a multifaceted phenomenon: it can be a much-needed space for reflection and information processing, but it can also be toxic, isolating, complicit, conspiratorial and oppressive. When we talk about silence in our learning spaces, the goal is often to become comfortable with it and to use it constructively. However, in a social justice context, silence needs to be recognized and studied as an oppressive practice of privilege suggesting complicity in a flawed system that is harmful to many.

When I recently chatted with a friend about the tangible, omnipresent culture(s) of silence at our university, he jokingly said: “Aren’t you all supposed to be the loud ones? Academic curiosity shouldn’t allow for silence to exist.”

“Oh, but it does,” I replied, before he even managed to finish his witty comment.

In fact, it’s the nature of academia that allows for this culture to grow and persist in a (not always, but at times) harmful and selective manner. We choose what questions to ask, what to shed light on and what to leave behind. We get to choose – or others have the power to make the choice for us– and we coexist in spaces with all these people where we all keep quiet about certain things.

The truth is, we are not only choosing to narrow down our paper topics and avoid certain issues (in essence being silent on the matter); we are also humans employed in settings where we fear repercussions for speaking up on tangible social problems. Failing to understand this – that keeping quiet is an option, not a requirement – is in and of itself a layer of privilege. In reality, we tend to leave speaking up to those who are directly affected by the fact that most of our spaces are created for and centered around whiteness.

To restructure and re-center this whiteness requires us to talk about issues such as the challenges black and brown bodies and minds face in our classrooms, the practice of talking over and fact-checking women, the stereotyping and lumping together of international students, mental health struggles among our diverse-but-not-included student body and the needs of first-generation students, among others. Even more so, we are challenged to talk about intersectionality – such as the struggle of black women from conflict and post-conflict areas and LGBTQ students from first-generation, low-income families.

But we are not ready for these conversations.

We are uncomfortable.

We are unequipped and lack the right vocabulary.

We don’t have the right policies and protections in place.

We don’t have the resources.

We talk over those whose voices try to explain their lived experiences.

We also have the option to – seemingly harmlessly – shut down and keep quiet. We have the privilege to do so. In practicing this privilege, we fail to attend protests, to condemn certain actions and lack thereof, to loudly stand with the oppressed groups and to be their allies. More importantly, we tend to claim we are allies to make ourselves feel better as we stand in silence, hiding in our privilege, expecting those who rightfully have their guard up to simply know we care about them.

So, to my curious readers who have stuck with me throughout this messy, brainstormed attempt to scratch the surface of the meaning of silence in the world in which I work and exist, take two things away with you. First, we need more literature on (and more recognition of) the complexity and persistence of silence in academia. But more importantly, we need you to be louder, to show your support for and dedication to social justice frameworks in your offices and classrooms, to wear statement shirts, to push for on-the-ground changes, to shut down harmful conversations and to recognize and understand selective silence in your immediate spaces. We need you to acknowledge racism, microaggressions and sexism at your workplace, in your home and in your classroom and to have difficult conversations. The failure to do these things is not simply indifference; it’s a statement. It’s selective. It’s a privileged choice.

Neira Kadic, originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a United World College in Mostar alumna and a University of Oklahoma graduate holding a BA in International Area Studies. She is currently pursuing her MA degree in International Development at the University of Oklahoma. Her research interests revolve around digital activism in Latin America.