Throughout my past eight years of engaging in social justice, I’ve been drawn to people who have uncanny ideas. Ideas that peace and unity can exist. Dreams that Heaven can indeed be experienced on this planet. People who are unafraid to raise hell and create peace in every single breath.
But often times, in these circles, a buzz phrase kept coming up: “Being a voice for the voiceless.” This phrase is used in many circles, from large Christian NGOs to CNN. It likely means something different to each person. When it comes from voices in the faith community, it’s often rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and defend all those who have been passed over” -Proverbs 3:18.
While I never believed in being a voice for the voiceless, I’ve had my fair share of ethnocentrism. As I boarded a plane for South Africa in 2007 on a service learning trip, I asked the white woman sitting in front of me what she’d be doing in Africa, as though everyone on the plane was going for a visit like me. “I live there,” she replied, flatly. “Oh.” I nodded, suddenly aware that I was projecting my view of Africa as a place where black people lived, forgetting entirely the ugly history of colonialism and apartheid. Because I had what writer Chimamanda Adichie would call a “single story” view of Africa, with a dash of do-goodism naivete.
But behind our do-goodism and voice-for-the-voiceless-ism is a something much harder: checking the place of privilege we’ve come from to be in a position that we can speak for issues without having to experience these issues firsthand perhaps because of where we live, the education we’ve had, the safety we experience, the family we come from, the healthcare we receive.
When we accept speaking for people as a solution to complicated issues like poverty, health, and human rights, we avoid having to ask ourselves hard questions: “If some people’s voices aren’t being heard, WHY aren’t they being heard?” “I am being heard. WHY am I being heard while others are not?” These questions can lead us to uncomfortable things like understanding our power or privilege.
Everytime we label an entire demographic as voiceless, we strip such individuals of their dignity, robbing them of the privilege of being heard. We re-iterate a message of powerlessness, as though to say, “You are voiceless. No one can hear you. No one is listening to you. They might listen to me though. Let me talk instead.” We accept our tongue as an acceptable transaction. We accept our voice, intonation, and inflection as a more suitable microphone while viewing others’ voices as taken away, incapable of talking, much like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, not by poverty, but by power.
Power, as defined by Chimamanda Adichie, is “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
She continues, “That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Instead of speaking for people, using our own words and interpretations of people’s struggles and joys, we can do something so much more beautiful. We can create platforms for more people to tell their stories. Or better yet, we can simply listen. Because sometimes we’ve done so much talking that it’s difficult to decipher what information has truly come from the people affected, or if we’re hearing someone else’s interpretation of others’ experiences. We can share the stories we’ve been given permission to share- not our story of someone else’s story that you may or may not have received permission to re-tell. We can share people’s photos- not our photos of “poor people” in branded catalogs with captions like “voiceless” and “poor.” Photos that some of us aren’t as familiar with—like the stories of forgiveness in Rwanda. We can offer people new ways to see themselves: not as poor, not as voiceless, not as victims, but as strong and tenacious, as victors, as having a voice. And with that voice we can teach each other how to use it for speaking up about love and equality and for building each other up until our hands meet the hands of all our brothers and sisters and know, deep in our core, that each person is being seen as a unique, loved individual, no more, but certainly no less.