On Being Mute: Silence and Its Use Against People of Color

03/28/2016 04:00 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2017

Silence contains power. Whether it is imposed upon someone or chosen to withhold information (and thus exert control), silence - all the things left unsaid - is as telling in its form of communication as the spoken word or writing. What do we erase from our daily language? Who do we exclude? Who or what is not addressed? As we willfully skirt around ideas, or are forced to remain silent, or even are silent without consciously knowing it, silence gives voice to fear and power - for the listener or the person withholding, depending on the circumstances of control.

When my mother attended school for the first time in the mid-1950s, her teachers would not allow her to speak. My mother could only speak Spanish, as this was the language her adopted mother and family and neighbors spoke in North Houston. The Catholic nuns would draw a circle on the chalkboard and any time my mom spoke Spanish she would be punished by having to put her face against the chalkboard, subscribed by the circle. She taught herself English by watching television at home, particularly "I Love Lucy."

Even with ESL and bilingual education part as part of our system now, silencing, as has been used by being enforced upon or by withholding information from minorities, is being used in a different manner.

Now in Texas it is being used to withhold information, particularly by those in our educational system who are responsible for writing and approving textbooks, which purposely exclude experiences and relevant material to minorities and other marginalized groups. Textbook writers, as well as those supporters of standardized testing and its related curriculum, withhold information from students - powerful, life-changing information about heritage, culture, history, including civil rights and the legacy of violence and discrimination against minorities, and more. The majority of the information being pushed by administrators to be taught in the classroom is from one perspective that excludes millions of students. And this applies also in other content areas besides social studies - students who are deemed "at-risk" because of income, refugee or ESL status, mental illness, or learning differences are encouraged to learn from textbooks where reading material is so intellectually watered down that there is nothing to which creative, imaginative and idea-seeking children can hold on. This silence, this exclusion and withholding carries a powerful message for these students, something they certainly understand: You are not worthy of knowing what there is to know. You do not deserve the privilege of knowing this information nor is it relevant to what we need you to be - low-wage workers, invisible yet necessary to our current economic and social infrastructure and environment.

For the short six months I was a first-year public school teacher, I refused, resisted, and argued against using the white-washed and watered down textbooks in my classroom. Every day, I would enter a chaotic room of 25-plus students, some who could barely read, some who couldn't read at all, mostly refugees or Latino, some in abusive homes or poor or so mentally ill they couldn't sit in a desk. I immediately reached for material and assignments that they would recognize as relevant, where they could recognize themselves and feel engaged so that they would be motivated to read, write, and think. By the end of the first semester, the principal, who at first encouraged me to not use textbooks and called the students "his children," told me that I was being taken out of the classroom because of my refusal to conform.

I was silenced by being re-assigned to teach in a utility closet. The principal moved me into a "class" of two African-American students who would constantly speak out in their previous classrooms. Extremely bright but without impulse control, the boys wrote furiously as they competed to write the longest essays. We were hidden inhabitants of the school, literally behind the principal's office. Before I finally quit, I took a picture of the room so I could always remember.

There was a student in my fourth grade class from the Congo, a refugee, who did not speak, at least not to me or out loud in front of the class. She knew curse words in English - the other students told me - but she sat mostly silent in class with her head hidden by a heavy hooded jacket and scribbled on papers. The first time she told a story in class during a creative writing lesson - about how she dropped an ice cream cone on the ground - she shouted out with laughter.

I did not know if she was laughing because she felt free, or because she had felt deep sadness in her self-imposed silence, or both. It was the kind of laughter mixed with sadness and rage, a kind that I could recognize.