This feature, on the learning and unlearning of silence, is the third of our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. In July, we’ll explore the fragility of the western traveler. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.
For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part three: It’s time to turn up the volume when interrupting cultural silence.
Silence is never synonymous with justice, especially considering that most of us first learn how to keep secrets and value silence when we are still children.
In fact, there is something particularly awful about the cloak of silence draped atop various phenomena in modern society. Rape, exploitation, homicide, and even slavery thrive just beneath the veneer of our suburban communities and sprawling cityscapes as we work tirelessly to convince ourselves that, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But what, from the vantage point of children, is the material difference between silence and a secret? How do they learn to evaluate them as good or bad when they can simultaneously be both? And when do we, as adults, unlearn that relationship if we have gotten it wrong?
In a 1993 New York Times article, a collection of child psychologists encouraged parents not to “tell your children anything you don’t want them to share,” but to still ask themselves if the information they are keeping “has any direct bearing on [their] children’s lives.”
But what if the thing you don’t want children to share has a direct bearing on their lives? What if that bearing on their lives is so material that it will shape the ways they move throughout the world until they enter the grave?
It is this conundrum that has so many of us Americanized, individuality-championing adult people fucked up. The problem recreates itself when we choose silence instead of actually doing something to free ourselves and others.
Alex Tizon, the slaver’s child, and the secrets of American life
The tenuous and contingent nature of silence emerged in the June 2017 cover story for The Atlantic, “My Family’s Slave,” published posthumously by Filipino American reporter Alex Tizon. In the piece, Tizon grapples with the fact that his first-generation Filipino American family enslaved a woman named Eudocia Tomas Pulido. They called her “Lola,” or “grandmother” in Tagalog.
Through the lengthy, braided narrative, Tizon recounts his perspective as a slave owner’s child and accomplice in the entrapment of a poor, “unschooled” woman whose need for shelter as a young girl rendered her chattel for the remainder of her life.
Tizon’s narrative highlights many complex features of the physical exploitation of women, from the gendered forms of abuse elderly women experience at the hands of caretakers and loved ones to the dubious nature of caretaking for the children of others. For Tizon, Pulido was at once property and mother. The thin line between these roles was masked only by the silence that enabled them in the first place.
The story—which wasn’t Tizon’s to tell—has been scrutinized for its narcissistic self-distancing from the institution of slavery. Perplexingly, he offers cultural justifications for Pulido’s illegal entrapment and amoral enslavement, effectively dehumanizing her with his seemingly deliberate decision to ignore the complicated hierarchy of culpability in his family.
Fundamentally, this account depicts the ways that silence not only valorizes those who actively harm and exploit others, but also almost always has the deepest effects on the most vulnerable—in this case, women and children. Tizon explains that the family “never talked about Lola.” He continues, “Our secret went to the core of who we were and, at least for us kids, who we wanted to be.”
While this line seems innocuous, or maybe even slightly melodramatic, it cuts to the core of the complex nature of silence and its embeddedness in our purported “American Way.” Tizon, a child of immigrants, was conditioned into a fairytale from the start, one that imagined America as a land of opportunity and endless economic possibilities. And even after arriving in the United States, when Tizon’s family was confronted with financial instability, the harsh realities of working-class life, and the unending pressure placed on immigrant families for everyday survival, the children knew that a secret had to be kept if they were ever to achieve what was promised.
Tizon unexpectedly passed away in his sleep in March 2017; he had been working on the story for years, even after he lied to the Seattle Times six years ago when they asked him for comments for Pulido’s obituary. Unfortunately, Tizon’s account shows us how silence can be a tool even for those who are unwillingly subjected to it.
Jameis Winston and our fame-industrial complex
While Tizon’s experiences with silence and secrecy in adolescence were strictly implicit and avoided by those around him, those with elevated social positions and platforms wield power over societal narratives and public perception of their actions, making their commitment to silencing those they abuse all the more consequential.
A few months ago, star quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Jameis Winston told mostly Black girls at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida, to “sit down” while he talked to the boys. He then explained to the boys—who he said were strong and could “do anything” they put their minds to—that “ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle.” Winston later said he “used a poor word choice,” but I don’t believe they inaccurately conveyed Winston’s (and many other men’s) beliefs about women and their relationship to men.
In 2012, Winston was accused of rape by a fellow Florida State University (FSU) student, Erica Kinsman. The school took more than a year to properly investigate the case, and when they finally did, it essentially was to protect Winston’s promising football career. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2013.
Kinsman filed a Title IX civil suit in January 2015, alleging that FSU neglected to address her case in order to protect Winston and the football program. (Just a month earlier, FSU cleared Winston of violating student conduct codes.) Kinsman also filed a lawsuit against Winston in April 2015. In the suit, Kinsman claimed that, after reporting the rape to police, both the police authorities and Florida State failed to question Winston until nearly two weeks after the assault despite knowledge of video evidence.
The story is documented via firsthand accounts in the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground. Sadly, a later deposition suggests that there were actually two students who came forward to accuse Winston of sexual assault.
In January 2016, news broke that Kinsman’s case against FSU was settled outside of court. Winston’s career and reputation remained relatively untouched, insulated by the layers of money, prestige, and patriarchy surrounding his athletic promise.
A simple question might be: why is someone like Jameis Winston even talking to children at a school? Some might wonder why accusations from two women wouldn’t be enough to discourage school administrators and teachers from propping him up as a possibility model for young Black people. But maybe that’s the rub. Winston stood in front of children telling boys to be strong and girls to be silent, conditioning boys and grooming girls into a dangerous cycle of sexual exploitation.
Winston has never been convicted of anything. Thousands of abusers never have been, and since only six in 1000 perpetrators end up incarcerated, the overwhelming majority of them never will be. This is in part due to the shame we heap upon victims of sexual violence (no matter their gender) and our regrettable commitment to patriarchy, a commitment that abusers, like Winston, know how to exploit.
We watched Bill Cosby fighting to hide the testimonies of dozens of women who accused him of drugging and sexually assaulting them while simultaneously joking to his fans that people “have to be careful about drinking around [him].” Cosby has been a prominent figure of Black fatherhood for generations through his role on The Cosby Show and producer credit for spin-off A Different World.
Cosby remains a prominent figure in the news after years of litigation—which he successfully hid from public sight for decades. In the wake of his recent mistrial, the 79-year-old’s entertainment legacy has effectively overshadowed the egregious acts he is accused of.
Winston and Cosby are just two members of a substantial cohort of male celebrities in the United States—including Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, R. Kelly, and Casey Affleck—who have relied upon the cloak of silence to preserve their public status while harming women in the process.
This is not random.
“Surviving childhood” in the silence of domestic abuse
Not all abusers get away. Sometimes silence is broken and exposed as the most fragile of things when someone steps forward with enough courage to end it.
On July 28, 2016, police reported that 14-year-old Bresha Meadows had used her father’s gun to shoot him in the head as he slept on the couch in their family’s home. The young girl’s mother, Brandi Meadows, immediately called Bresha a “hero,” stating that her deceased husband, Jonathan Meadows, had subjected her and her children to years of torture and abuse.
Brandi’s claims, though corroborated by a 2011 report and her fleeing the relationship with her three children in tow, have been contested by her deceased husband’s family. Back then, she wrote in the report, “In the 17 years of our marriage he has cut me, broke my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes. I believe my nose was broken.” She continued, “If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.”
Despite Brandi’s firsthand accounts and actions to protect herself and her children, Jonathan’s sister, Lena Cooper, told the Huffington Post, “it is not normal for a child to kill her father.”
Other relatives have also reached out to news outlets to refute Bresha’s and Brandi’s claims of abuse. Jonathan’s brother, James Blount, told reporters flatly, “This had nothing to do with abuse.” Cooper added to the conspiracy, calling Bresha’s actions “calculated.”
Many of us in the victim-advocacy community adhere to a strict code: always believe the victim. Yet, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways Cooper and Blount, in no uncertain terms, felt compelled to undermine and essentially gaslight Bresha and her mother’s accounts of abuse. Abuse that, according to them, made the house a “nightmare.” In their attempts to venerate him, Meadows’s family simultaneously demanded compliance from a girl who clearly believed that her life was in danger at the hands of her father.
It isn’t “normal” to kill one’s father. In fact, experts say that parricide is extremely rare, constituting just about 1 percent of homicides in the United States each year. Further, they suggest that five conditions typically exist in a household where a child commits parricide: 1) extreme dysfunction 2) a pattern of family violence 3) escalation of violence 4) the youth becoming more exposed to the tensions in the home and 5) easy access to a firearm. These are the very conditions Bresha and Brandi described—conditions reportedly caused by the deceased.
News outlets tell of a young girl who had “started cutting herself and running away from home.” A girl who didn’t sound like a calculated killer, but instead a child trying to bear the weight of a secret shame and pain that she had no power to end, manage, or eradicate. Medical studies estimate that “3.3 million to 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence in their home” with nearly 900,000 children described as “maltreated.”
Now, as Meadows’s family awaits her arrival home following her acceptance of a plea deal, the silence around her mental state and the experiences that led her to shoot her father remain hidden, still fragile and out of the reach of justice.
Being silent when you’re a #FastTailedGirl…
One of the earliest things a man told me about my body was that I had “childbearing hips.” I was 11 years old and had no idea what he meant, but the boys nearby did as they chuckled, looking at my body to confirm the comments. I didn’t think to tell anyone about it; the added pressure of deflecting embarrassment and performing sexual maturity in that moment rendered me completely silent.
Repeatedly, these experiences with older men from my neighborhood or my church—which always took place in the presence of boys my age—taught me that young girls and women were objects for consumption. Not only that, they had specific roles to play in society as compared to their male peers. Girls would speak up only to have their male peers “check” them for having an attitude, or hurl sexist threats and slurs at them as punishment. Reflecting on the 2014 death of Mary Spears, a 27-year-old Black woman in Detroit who was shot and killed after denying a man’s advances, we learn that sometimes these women are even murdered for not remaining silent and compliant with male wishes.
These conditions thrive on silence. They are masked behind the veil of gender normativity that conditions children of all genders to perform sexuality under the watchful eye of abusers and violent predators.
I carried this silence with me into my teenage years.
I was sexually assaulted when I was seventeen. As a basketball coach and trusted member of my community, my abuser spent months befriending me, giving me rides to the mall or a friend’s house, and listening to me complain about my parents. Later, he began sexualizing me. He told me how young women should behave, what men wanted from us, and even what kind of panties I should wear. This was what I would later learn was called “grooming,” a systematic process wherein abusers target and isolate their victims before sexually assaulting them.
When my abuser assaulted me—using my first sexual experience with the opposite sex to his gratification—he promised me trips and fancy dinners. He gave me money, and suggested that in order to keep receiving these gifts I would have to enter into sexual relationships with his friends. That quickly, I became an unwilling participant in sexual exploitation, coercive human trafficking, and what would turn into several months of abuse and a decade-long struggle with sexual anxiety, shame, and trauma.
My abuser required my silence, a request I obliged for the next ten years of my life. Though at the time I didn’t have the language to articulate the invisible gag keeping me from speaking, I later found that other Black women were working through those barriers, putting theories to my thoughts.
In 2013, Chicago activists and writers Mikki Kendall and Jamie Nesbitt Golden coined #FastTailedGirls to highlight the myriad ways that young Black girls, especially those who have been and are susceptible to abuse, are socialized as hypersexual through consistent forms of sexual harassment and patriarchal gender norms as early as elementary school. They detailed how these girls are often pressured or harassed into silence by Black male community members, who use physical and public intimidation to force them into silence. To avoid the shame and embarrassment, or from fear of being disbelieved, many young women keep it to themselves.
This phenomenon is what permitted former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw to sexually assault at least 13 women living in the poorest area of the city. He coerced their silence by threatening them with arrest or fines. This blatant exploitation and abuse of power within law enforcement is not new, and definitely not isolated—officers in New Jersey and Oakland, California, were recently found to be preying on and stalking women for sex, undoubtedly utilizing silence to continue the abuse.
The silence commanded by patriarchal systems that are predicated on the exploitation of women and children who are also poor, disabled, or queer is so intertwined with American life that most fail to even see it. We normalize it. We live with it. And, sometimes, we have it shoved down our throats as we endure unwanted sexual touches, molestation, rape, and other bodily violence at the hands of men and authorities in our own communities.
Connecting the dots
The same thread draws through each of these narratives: Too often, we are willing to take silence over justice. And, our acceptance of that fate rests like a boulder on the backs of children, women, and poor folks in America.
If Tizon’s account tells us anything at all, it is that in our hapless endeavor to value the right kinds of families—meaning those who perform Americanness (read: whiteness) to some Stepford-adjacent standard—we are willing to overlook just about anything, even an enslaved woman whose life was essentially taken by a wealthier family. That is the American Way.
Once the American Dream is actualized, the dubious contract of trading justice for silence becomes all the more treacherous.
Until we vociferously scrutinize and disrupt our reliance upon arbitrary markers like athleticism, wealth, or attractiveness to define the “good guys,” we will continue to witness the ongoing pattern of abusers hoisting up Heisman trophies, signing book deals, leading megachurches, hosting comedy specials, and even occupying the White House. These men will continue to be the role models chosen to infiltrate schools, deliver fiery sermons, and groom our children into the very system that puts us all at risk.
For young girls like Bresha Meadows and the girl I once was, our cultural commitments to keeping this country’s dirty secrets—including the systematic exploitation of the poor, the pervasiveness of rape and the culture associated with it, and the ransom we pay in the form of our bodies so that entertainers and athletes can keep their trophies—represent the heaviest of prices to pay for survival in the United States.
This is the double-edged nature of silence: it is overwhelming and consuming enough to virtually erase grave discretions and moral crimes from public scrutiny. Simultaneously, it only takes one word to be broken.
It also takes courage.
In 2014, writer and social worker Feminista Jones created #YouOkSis to catalogue the conversations about street harassment many Black women were having on social media. The goal was to break free from the social norms that compel Black women to hide their experiences of harm and misogynoir within Black communities, often at the hands of other Black men. This conversation is taboo because it undermines calls for blind racial solidarity, calls that frequently mean Black women’s needs for autonomy, self-actualization, and equity will be ignored.
Most poignant though, the hashtag itself reflects the ways that three words—“You OK sis?”—can and have been the literal difference between life or death for those in danger. This shows how, so often, we are the ones who have to save ourselves. It shows how silence can be troubled, broken, dismantled, and dissolved if only we have the audacity to do or say something about it. If we are to achieve justice, it will first require that we make our pain plain—working through the silence and the secrets and the chains we carry with us.
Silence is incredibly fragile. Yes.
But we are incredibly resilient.
Check in next month for the next piece in our series on the fragility of the western traveler.