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Listen to My Silence

My voice was lost, drowning in the silence that engulfed me.

It was the night of the State of the Union. I decided to stay in and watch President Donald Trump’s address to Congress from the comfort of my dorm, anticipating the toll that it would surely take on my mental health. I also feared the insensitivity inherent in the discourse of my fellow students. Certain students actively dominate conversations on this campus, frequently speaking over the silence of marginalized students.

As an undocumented immigrant living in a time of uncertainty, I had no other option but to watch the State of the Union to remain updated on the state of my future.

I watched as Trump used the victims of MS-13 gang violence to sell his racist agenda, unrightfully demonizing the lives of all 11.3 million undocumented immigrants to increase anti-immigrant sentiment. I watched as he explained his immigration plan, which would increase security at the border, cut legal migration, and impede my parents from ever becoming citizens of the country they call home. I watched as the camera panned to show a room full of politicians who have failed to act and vote on immigration reform, despite promises made on both sides of the aisle.

Afterwards, a few friends and roommates expressed their frustration with the president’s remarks. While I shared their sentiments, I lacked the energy to participate in a conversation so directly intertwined with my existence. They kept speaking, but the conversation had already ended. They were talking about me, to me, but not with me. They entered and left the conversation, not noticing my lack of participation. Some people do not have the privilege of continually engaging in political discourse without sacrificing their own sanity.

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Having my life at the center of national debate is invasive and emotionally draining. Imagine constantly being exposed to politicians or fellow peers debating your humanity every time you log into Facebook or enter your common room. Imagine having to defend yourself again and again, explaining why you and your family deserve not to be separated and deported. It is exhausting. I am exhausted.

This is not to question or doubt the sincerity of those participating in these conversations but merely to address a bigger issue. As Harvard students, we have been taught to constantly engage and contribute to conversation. Sometimes, however, it is best to simply listen.

This incident was not the first time I had felt suffocated by my own silence on this campus. During section, in Annenberg Hall, and over dinner with my advisor, I have been exposed to conversations that highlight a cultural insensitivity to the very real and visceral experiences that some of us have to endure. I have entered these spaces and have been expected to discuss topics that directly impact me, yet my more privileged classmates (most of whom have only ever read about these issues) are the ones that dominate the conversation. Unlike them, I am the one that must live with the daily implications of the issues we discuss.

There are better ways to express sympathy than readily offering a lukewarm opinion on the politics of my life. This constant need to speak up is seemingly inherent to the type of students that wind up at a place like Harvard. However, constant engagement is harmful to campus dialogue. It discriminates against people from marginalized communities, as it becomes mentally taxing for them to continually convey their lived experience in order to provide a “diverse perspective.”

I resort to silence because speaking up leads to the exhaustive work of educating my peers, a task that has repeatedly fallen on the backs of people of color on this campus.

There are emotions so complex, engrained by trauma and constant exposure, that make it nearly impossible to contribute to a conversation in an articulate manner. My silence is justified, but it wouldn’t have been necessary if maybe those around me had tried it. Somewhere in their silence exists the room for me to engage—if I choose to do so.

People should be as willing and ready to listen as they are to engage. Taking up too much space in a conversation that is so personally connected with someone’s identity subconsciously oppresses them by invalidating their experiences. Instead, Harvard students should be making space for marginalized people to speak up.

Rather than expecting the oppressed to be responsible for their education, the silence of those affected should be a lesson in and of itself. The political climate might change, but the sentiment remains the same. I am more than a policy decision, and I shouldn’t have to explain that to you. My silence is not an invitation for you to speak— it’s an invitation for you to listen.

My silence should be heard.

Diego Navarrete '21, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Weld Hall.

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