Ijeoma Umebinyou is a Nigerian writer living in the United States of America. In her TEDx Talk speech titled, “Dismantling the Culture of Silence”, Ijeoma explores how remaining silent belittles our struggles whether it be with mental health, sexual harassment, or other topics deemed taboo by the society in which we live.
She divides the Culture of Silence into the three C’s: culture, code, and cage, and how we can escape from it.
Read her beautiful speech here
It is the tradition of silence that insisted that what they had gone through was something to be ashamed of, something that devalues you, the survivor. Whenever we examine our society, we find that silence benefits no one, instead it continues in a deadly cycle. It tells you that your emotions, your feelings and your depression is not real.
It is when we speak out against what hurt us that we can have a societal shift, no matter how small. The tradition of silence insists and demands your full cooperation in erasing your stories, in not owning and telling your stories because it is one thing to know your story, it is another thing to tell it.
Telling your story gives you the pen. It gives you the power and gives you privilege and it becomes revolutionary. How can we keep telling stories of only strength and not weakness?
There are three important things that make up the tradition of silence; they are Culture, Code and Cage.
The culture is what you are born into and it tells you that certain stories do not fit. It tells us that if our narrative does not fit the statuesquo, something is wrong with us. The culture feels that silence, no matter how broken the survivor feels, is strength.
Think of why some women stay in abusive marriages. It is the culture that insists that she is nothing without a man and when she has children, she owes her children a marriage. She, no matter how broken or sad, will be blamed by the society for failing to stay.
So, what would a woman without support, without her own source of income, a woman in a society with little or no laws that protects her, do? She stays in that abusive marriage. The culture of silence gives you a side-eye when you complain. It says, “Look at you, don’t you see your mothers survived these wars? You must learn how to hide your wars in the morning, you must cover it up.”
The culture creates code and the code charges us not to speak about our pain. It says we must not break down, we are strong. The code creates super-humans. A pride in how much you can carry because if you dare break the code, then, you are automatically seen as a failure.
The culture of silence creates a code that, masking your pain, denying your story and not telling it, is how it has always been and how it should be. The code will use traditions; it will compare you to others. It will shame you into not telling or owning your story of surviving.
Elements of culture and code create the cage and the cage is where all our untold stories go to die. All our different untold narratives go to die in the cage. The cage is the final destination when the tradition of silence is not dismantled. We fear that when we open the cage, we are going to meet isolation. It is better to be quiet, it is better to honour the code than for you to open the cage or feel you have the power to tell your story or own your narrative.
The solution to the culture, code and cage is that we have to understand that there are stories within stories. Some are more complex than the other. Story many of our culture denies happens. Stories that when left untold, leaves us with a community and a society without a proper representation. When we tell people that they should be quiet because their stories do not fit what we know, we deny the importance of diverse narrative. When we deny the importance of hearing what others have survived, we deny them the power to feel less alone.
We should also seek to encourage people to tell their stories by listening with an open mind. If someone confides in you, telling you they are depressed, do not brush it off by saying it does not happen to people like us. Encourage them to tell their stories. Sometimes, listening is giving them power to own their story and break through the tradition of silence.
We should not tell others that their experiences different from ours need not be told. In overcoming the tradition of silence, we must understand that it is not weakness to seek help and we should encourage people to go and find help.
Yes, we can suffer from depression, yes, we seek therapy, yes, we can see a therapist. No, we must not break our backs carrying silence like a badge of honour. Remember how we heal from pain is different, as different as our lived experiences. It is important to understand that normalizing pain is a tragic cycle that must end.
If our silence continues, how can we add our lived experiences to the human story? We also have to use bigger lenses to see the world, more importantly, as people with a story, as people with a pen, we must tell it because we are witnesses to it all.
Watch her speak here
Now check these out: