“Were you silent, or were you silenced?”
I can hear and see Oprah Winfrey loud and clear in my head. I laugh at all the memes that use this statement. However, looking past the humor and lightheartedness this statement has taken on, this quote had me reflecting on my own personal encounters.
Was I silent, or was I silenced?
When I introduced myself as Smarani, pronounced as SMUH-ruh-nee, I was often met with, “Nice to meet you, smuh-RAH-nee,” or, “Do you have a nickname?” Sometimes, folks tell me, “That’s too hard, I’ll just point at you when I need you.” Wanting nothing more than to fit in at my predominantly white public schools, I stopped correcting them from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. I let it happen. I became “smuh-RAH-nee.” I stayed silent.
My freshman year of college, I found myself intertwined in a predominantly white friend group. In this eight-ish person friend group, only I and one other girl weren’t white, so it took me a while to be comfortable sharing my experiences. However, every time I did try to share my experiences, it felt as though I was talking to a wall. For example, I shared how, growing up, people used to stare at my bindi on my forehead rather than my eyes when I was speaking. No one wants someone constantly staring at the middle of your forehead like your bindi has magical powers. I shared how uncomfortable those individuals in the past have made me feel and how it continues to happen. I even mentioned how I now have the courage to call people out for these actions. Instead of support, in response I always received, “Well I’m sure it wasn’t their intention, so don’t worry about it,” and “Damn, that sucks.” It felt like no one cared.
Race is never a light subject to talk about, so the idea of having difficult conversations with a brand new friend group was already keeping me up at night. I slowly opened up to my friends and became more vulnerable and comfortable in sharing my opinions, but they responded with comments like, “Well, I don’t know about that,” and, “I’m a woman, so I understand.”
One specific conversation I remember vividly happened at Bursley Dining Hall. A friend and I were sharing a couple of our experiences at dinner. It was a heavy conversation, and we could tell the rest of the group felt somewhat uncomfortable. Before we were able to continue on, there was a natural lull in our conversation, and one of my friends asked, “So do y’all wanna hear a fun fact about hentai?”
Yes. You read that right.
Of course, everyone burst into laughter, myself included. However, I was naive to think that the conversation would shift back to what we were originally talking about — race. It didn’t. The only thing our friends remember from that conversation was nothing about our experiences growing up in predominantly white areas, but a fun fact about hentai.
After that incident, it felt weird to even try and talk about race again with my friends. I mean, God knew what other fun facts would be coming my way if I tried to talk about my experiences again. I closed myself off. I stopped sharing. I became silent.
Throughout my life, I faced multiple encounters of harassment and emotional manipulation by men that I trusted and men that I called my friends. It took months for me to come clean to others about each encounter, and every time I did — I was met with the same dismissal.
“You never have to see him again, so don’t worry about it.”
“Okay, well he didn’t do anything to me, so he’s still my friend.”
“Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t have been out.”
I was silenced.
I felt like it was better just to not tell anyone than to deal with this constant apathy. More confrontations followed during my time here at the University of Michigan, and I felt as though I couldn’t tell anyone. I stayed silent.
A huge part of me feels as though it’s my fault. It was my own volition to stop correcting people on the pronunciation of my name. It was my choice to close myself off to my friends. I was the one that decided not to share my encounters with anyone until months after the situation. I started thinking about it more and more, though, talking about my experiences with trusted adults and with new friends that I’ve made. After countless late-night conversations, I realized what I needed to do: I need to stop asking myself this question. I need to stop being silent. And I shouldn’t let anyone silence me.
If someone mispronounces my name, I shouldn’t let them. They don’t get a nickname, nor do they just get to point at me when they need me. They get SMUH-ruh-nee. And they should learn to pronounce that.
If someone tries to steer away from a tough conversation, I should steer it right back, without feeling the need to make everyone comfortable. Not only do I have plenty of fun facts to share about my culture, but I also have honest experiences that anyone with a sense of respect for me and my community would love to hear about.
If someone tells me I “shouldn’t have been out,” I must simply learn to ignore them. Me going outside to hang out with my friends isn’t an open invitation for someone to follow or disrespect me in any way, shape or form.
So maybe if Oprah Winfrey ever interviews me and asks, “Were you silent, or were you silenced?,” I can say: “Neither.”
MiC Columnist Smarani Komanduri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.