Silence, Voice, and Hegemony: The Advocacy Potential of Scholarship Beyond the Canon

Verghese Headshot
by  Namrata Verghese 19C, Psychology/Linguistics and English/Creative Writing
Fox Center Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

On October 14, 2017, the hashtag #MeToo appeared for the first time on Twitter, following actress Alyssa Milano’s now-iconic tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, reply #MeToo to this tweet.” Within 24 hours of her post, the words had been tweeted close to half a million times—a record-shattering level of engagement for the social media platform.

The hashtag, rooted in a demonstration of solidarity among survivors of sexual assault, spoke to the both the staggering prevalence of sexual violence, as well as the stigma shrouding the disclosure of these experiences. While not a call-to-action in itself, in its unmasking of the colossal, previously unspeakable scale of sexual violence, #MeToo became revolutionary in its own right. It led to several other social media movements (#TimesUp, #WhyIDidntReport, #BelieveWomen), which cumulatively translated to actionable change: over the next year, more than 200 prominent figures, from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, were denounced (and many arrested) for sexual violence. In recognition, TIME magazine honored the originators of the hashtag—dubbed the “Silence Breakers”—as their 2017 “Person of the Year.

In the wake of #MeToo, accounts of sexual violence are more abundant and less stigmatized than ever before. The seeds of my honors project came from this movement, and my desire to critically examine stories too long ignored, too easily silenced—fundamentally, to examine the personal and political power of trauma narratives in revamping our cultural consciousness. After all, as quintessential storytellers, humans are naturally predisposed to process, produce, and be persuaded by narratives; hence, the story has unique power in informing our subjective realities. In fact, narrative psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner argues that stories do not merely shape our realities, but become our realities: we are, collectively, the stories we consume and produce.

However, as I began my research in earnest, I saw that, for all the value in the #MeToo movement, it becomes necessary to note its significant homogeneity: it elevates the voices of white, cisgender, heterosexual women, at the expense of all others. For example, when Black actress Lupita Nyong’o published her #MeToo story, she was publicly denounced as a liar, a ladder-climber. “Not only is there a sense that we’re excluded from the narrative, but even when prominent members of our community are in the narrative, we’re the ones whose stories are pushed back upon,” Nyong’o lamented in a subsequent interview. “We’re the ones who are lying.”

This gap in the cultural narrative perpetuates hegemonic structures of power by actively silencing those voices that deviate from the experiences of white women. It bears sinister implications for the ways in which we conceptualize and tackle the issue of sexual assault, from treatment to intervention to outreach to simple empathy. It also motivated my project, which homes in on the specific and severely understudied traumas of women of color. After immersing myself in this research for the better part of a year, I understand on a visceral level that intersectionality—the compounded effects of overlapping marginalizations—should lie at the moral core of all nuanced scholarship. The concrete, immediate aim of my project, then, was to create a platform to hear the too often silenced narratives of sexual violence from women of color, and to consider how these stories contribute to the master narratives in the #MeToo era. However, on a broader scale, I hope my thesis contributes towards an enduring legacy that moves the needle of scholarship towards elevating the stories of marginalized, understudied communities.

Moving forward, as I wrap up this paper and think towards my work as a graduate student, I aim to never forget that scholarship is necessarily and inexorably intertwined with advocacy; in fact, scholarship is advocacy. In the project of knowledge production, scholarship that does not actively subvert structures of power serves only to perpetuate them, as, to echo postcolonial scholar Edward Said, for every page published, “there is a social fact being requisitioned, a human life engaged, a class suppressed or elevated.” To that end, it has been an immense honor and privilege to learn from the other undergraduate Fox Fellows this year, who are all brilliant scholars, but perhaps more importantly, are all caring, curious, engaged individuals. Every FCHI event I have attended has buttressed my belief in scholarship as service. After all, in the luminous words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. 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.”

Namrata Verghese is a senior in Emory College, pursuing a double major in Psychology/Linguistics and English/Creative Writing. Her honors thesis, housed in psychology but necessarily interdisciplinary, examines narratives of sexual violence and trauma. Specifically, it centers the stories of women of color in an attempt to elevate the voices missing from our cultural conversations around sexual assault, in the wake of #MeToo and other contemporary movements. The project considers both autobiographical narratives collected through the Fivush Family Narratives Lab and literary memoirs. By placing the two traditionally disparate corpora in conversation with each other, Namrata hopes to investigate whether, together, they will yield enriched understanding of experiences of sexual violence, particularly in regards to marginalized communities. 

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