Macalester: are we silenced?

By Ihotu Ali

I once heard a great quote, wrote it in my journal and on my Facebook profile, and promptly forgot the message it espoused… until a few days ago.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2003, as a freshman in college, I read this and was inspired. I imagined that I could become the kind of woman who would never allow herself to be silenced, at least when things truly mattered, and I committed myself to being an advocate, a voice, and a firm arm for all the issues, fears, and frustrations that never found their way into discussions in the “mainstream.” I left that first college to arrive at a particularly outspoken and impassioned school, where I thought I would blossom into that powerful advocate inspired by Dr. King.
Three years later, now in my senior year at Macalester, I am older, wiser, and more efficient at time managing, balancing work and play, and looking forward to graduate school, jobs, and an illustrious “real” life. But I am often silent. I realized this as I reconnected with Dr. King’s words and remembered the youth, naïvete, and idealism I had had three years ago. Three years ago, I thought it would be easy to be not silent.
But what does it mean to be not silent? Our college certainly doesn’t have a reputation for silence. Campaigning vigorously for John Kennedy, protesting the end of Need Blind Admissions, attending immigrant rights rallies and supporting campus fair trade coffee—these are not acts of being silent. In fact, one could argue that Macalester is among the least silent colleges in the nation. Cheap, smart hotties with a conscience, and a quick tongue, you could say.
I could never dispute the fact that these issues do very much matter. Yet I get the sense there are other issues for which we don’t exercise our quick tongues. And for many of the issues on which we are not silent, there is always one side, one opposing perspective which is vigorously silenced. My understanding of Macalester is that we like to speak in terms of right and wrong, black and white, and left and right. Of course this is a generalization, but there is a distinctly “right” and “wrong” way to talk about the United Nations, the Iraq War, Wal-Mart, St. Thomas students, American race relations, “marginalized people,” and more. How often do we nuance these debates? How often do we debate, and how much of our talk is simply corroborating the same idea? Is this a form of silencing? Do we dare consider ourselves “silent?”

I, personally, have rationalized being silent: I’ve worried about jeopardizing relationships, I’ve said I was too tired (or too busy) for a debate, I’ve doubted my ability to speak intelligently on an issue, or been concerned about gaining a “reputation.” All excuses. We all make excuses, and we all fear attracting labels – conservative, liberal, feminist, racist, or “closed-minded” in some way or another – but we must take care that our avoidance of these labels does not muddle our opinions on those things that do matter. At a school like Macalester, where every theory has a backlash and every statement a rebuttal, it’s easy to double- and triple-question yourself and come up giving the easy answer that you know everyone wants to say and be said. But I challenge myself, as well as all other Mac students, to say not what wants to be heard, but what needs to be said, unapologetically. Sometimes the status quo is right and sometimes being an advocate is not simply upsetting the mainstream (or, at a place like Mac, reviling the mainstream), but rather seeing both sides and the nuances in between, and standing firm in the small silenced area of gray which you believe to be right. No wavering.