Language Oppression / by Lianuska Gutierrez

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And how did it first come out, show itself (upon his seeing two men kissing on the street)?

With a glare; with the gaze aimed, fixed, and a face of hate — that you can read, which malefactors, when called out, deny, which purveyors of normativity try to take from you… they would confuse you of the literacy you have accrued for your survival, your “facultad” (term from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera).

Those shows of hate are evident; if you are not afraid to name them, if you allow that the mundane couches the real, if you don’t deny the communication to you like an electric current.

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“… our left brains and science have not yet successfully caught up with what we understand to be true about how our right hemisphere functions. However, I believe our right minds are perfectly clear about how they intuitively perceive and interpret energy dynamics.” -Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

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I came across a June 7 article on the magazine website Everyday Feminism: “3 Ways Language Oppression Harms Us (and How We Can Heal)” by Alex-Quan Pham. I have a personal story that I place in the category of “language oppression,” that I have experienced as just that, though some, or many, may not agree that my story belongs under that heading.


I speak good English; I have that privilege. My parents immigrated to this country; they are native Spanish speakers, and they never developed full ease with English. So I know about what Pham’s article is telling. I know the ramifications, the loss, the difficulty, that comes with having to navigate in a society in which the dominant language is not your own. I know how profound language is- it makes you; it does structure how you think, limits or liberates what you are able to think. I have a Ph.D. in poetry writing from the University of Missouri. I finished there last year. Yet, I have had trouble reading a full poem in the past year. I start to read one- the kind of activity that used to basically be my life, give me life- and I trail off… I cannot continue. This is because my language, the poetic register in which I think and speak, was militated against at the University of Missouri, by the university administration.

I complained of harassment on the part of some university employees. The harassment persisted for about three years. Part of being a poet, part of being a kind of poet/artist, part of being who I was, and wanted to be, is being awake. I was awake to certain things. I challenged them whenever and wherever I found them; I was ‘always on’ as an artist. I was engaging in something called “commitment,” what Kobe Bryant talked about in an interview.  (Yes, I’m citing Bryant, an accused sex offender--who retained his endorsements, rep, the right to define his experience: ‘I thought one thing, but she thought another’… sorry not sorry; that is enough to say, Kobe, agree to disagree on what constitutes brutality; the message, for him- OK to stay you, without invalidation or punishment.  The way men can always find allies…one time on the subway, I heard on the other side of the press of crowd, a teenage girl told a man spilling obscenities to be quiet; and what do you know; he went at her.  “What’s that smell?” he directed his speech toward the teenage girl, “I think you need to get some Clorox to wash your pussy out.”  An old man on the train started cackling. They always find allies, on the spot, at drop of dime. Sorry not sorry for throwing out that word, thrown out to girls at any random moment, by men you don’t know (and do); I mentioned at MU, because it connected, a college boy in the gym wearing a T-shirt with the lyric "All I need is pussy money weed (let it rain! paper blunts cunts one and the same)"; a university pantsuit called me ill (not uncouth- but sick) for saying that word, on the man’s T-shirt, in the college facility, on a campus, like any other, where girls get raped, often.  In other words, they not only get their pack (or their kind, that stud the sidewalk, turvied vault, like blinking flecks of Mica; gauntlet, as Mary Karr called it.) to stick up for them when a lone girl talks back.  They get the system, too.)  Kobe Bryant said that when he was a young athlete starting out, he knew he was going to make it, there was no way he would not, because he lived basketball. I lived my goal of bringing to the surface what I wished to tell. I protected my story and voice, for many years, while I worked to be a better writer, one more equipped to tell my story well. For me, writing is like method acting; and I accomplished an unheard of feat of staying in role, not for months, but day in and day out for years. Maybe I did not need to practice this stringency; but it was simply the way I knew to work. I know my voice is tied to seeing and feeling what other people manically try not to see and feel, and I know it is tied to the type of memory that most would repress. I felt that if I allowed myself a respite, if I allowed myself to be lulled, to forget for a while my why, I might not be able to return to the genesis-place of my story- because I am only human — when you are bobbing blithely under ether (blinkered normativity), you want to stay there.


A basketball player is allowed to give his all, and he is allowed to proclaim his commitment without fearing negation. (He won’t be told, for example, like I was told by my department head: “Nothing should matter so much.”) He is met with eager affirmation. A Latina first-generation college graduate, Harvard graduate, victim of sexual violence, poet, who reaffirmed her own life by coming to voice, is militated against to forget her goal, and is called insane for demonstrating the drive and aptitudes to reach it.


Based on my willful, if also onerous, receptivity, the harassment I experienced at the University of Missouri was not something I was going to turn a blind eye to. And I used my language to fight it for three years. My time, my energy (asking for the behavior to stop, limning myself in counter to effigization- which began after the ‘ground zero’ man, the initiator of the mobbing [], was irked by my telling him to leave me alone)… three years… The American university does not care too much about the marginalized/about women; that is not what it is for- despite the rhetoric (as the film The Hunting Ground shows).  It is for profit, it is a business.  


They invite an artist & critical interrogator to be a student on their campus; they invite someone who only has (any) chops because the work matters to her, because she lives her ethic, because she does not renounce her sensibility. But they think her work is a game; they are filling some slot, some quota: (Latina) creative worker. They would kill you before truly honoring what you have to say. I felt they tried to kill me (shut me up, empty me). When I protested, a final time, the abuse I was experiencing in the main campus library, including on the part of the head of the library and the head security guard of the library (a woman), the administration got together, closed ranks, and let my abusers do what they wished to me: let them ban me from the library.  (And the library director I had named as permissive and collusive in the behavior I was facing got in a vindictive thrust, got to bar me from every library on campus, not just the one where I was being regularly baited and disrespected by him and his friends.)  The school let them ban a doctoral candidate in literature and a female asking for help from books. Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, 17th-century nun, poet, scholar in New Spain, comes to mind- the treatment she got from monks, who closed ranks and put their foot down to keep her from reading, writing, circulating her word. They thought her activities, and her literacy, inappropriate. She was one given to living for her work; and when her work was prohibited, she willfully exposed herself to an infectious disease and perished.


At least I could go somewhere else; they forced me out of my home; in order to not have to admit impropriety (or that they ignored pleas for Meaningful intervention for three years), to not have to put a stop to harassment, and, as for the aggressors- to avoid, simply, apologizing- and ceasing.


One dean who finally deigned to tell me why, how I could be disenfranchised for demanding a halt to harassment, said that my language showed that I am out of touch with reality- because (allow me to translate her words that I cannot bear to repeat- her elision, distortion, her violence, with which I have lived this past year) it is abundant, and it interconnects/constellates elements.


This culture (like others, vulgarity, philistinism, envy, straited thinking with bloodtaste for hegemony are universal) eschews personal history, cause, impetus, story.  They deny your story, that they know nothing of.  They reduce you to unagentic body, haphazard chemical storm, and blot out the experience that accounts for you- an experience in which they, and their kind (their type of personality; their egoism, and limitation), are implicated.  You have had the godspark to tease out and organize your experience.  You have pointed your finger to the reality of interrelation, which is a moral reality, a reality that demands mutual accountability, empathy.  You have connected the dots; and you see what they do not, or what they do and disavow.  They don’t permit this.    


That dean’s mind does Not work as mine does, no; she does Not do what I do. She is a veterinary scientist, she is not a poet. Language is not something visceral, fluid, alive, for her. It is something bare and instrumental.


I’m reminded of the trailer for the film Genius, recently out, starring Jude Law; Law plays Thomas Wolfe, and you see Wolfe adding and adding onto his manuscript, and his editor telling him: stop already! I’m also reminded of the volumes of letters or diary entries left behind by many poets. Contemporary American (scientistic) culture calls this outpouring, this way of being, this volubility always on: hypergraphia. Ok. I call it jouissance; I call it having broken through to voice; I call it the wellspring of the kind of work I do. As Maxine Hong Kingston wrote, “This well-deep outpouring is not for/ anything. Yet we have to put into exact words/ what we are given to see, hear, know.” (I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, 2011) When you silence, empty, degrade, threaten a (marginal, needed) voice, miracle, of self-remembrance and dissent, because you do not wish to bear accountability and do not wish to assist in the curtailment of injustice, you risk interfering with the source that lets the speaker write, anything. And you mean to. You mean to take a world within to cleave to your insufficient world without.


Of course, the dean said I was lying; of course she said she did not believe me, about the harassment- of course; I am a female, and this is how American universities treat females. — Furthermore (and here I go writing long, get ready-), I know well now (not having known before, having grown up in Queens, NYC) that small towns, as well as college campuses — that is, enclaves, where you cannot escape being in contact with the same people daily, weekly, for many years on end, be they friends you want to see or a troupe of malevolent harassers; where you cannot tell an aggressor to leave you alone without bringing the wrath of a community on top of you- the aggressor’s longtime and entrenched buddies- who cannot escape him or her either, who may be his underlings, who are trained to not cross their neighbors, no matter the authenticity and integrity they must lose to achieve safety- *Shirley Jackson is a good reference for this community pack phenomenon; and she has endured for her talent, but I am sure, current culture would also empty her language; her work might be called “fantasy”… which is like calling Kafka’s work “fantasy”; the culture today is not more receptive to self-interrogation, exploration of its own id than it was in Jackson’s time (as if it’s all been for nothing- on the larger scale: the culture would erase many lifetimes of work. But there are individuals who do not, who read, and decipher, and remember worlds that have been opened.); she received sacks of hate mail for her story “The Lottery,” as she did that annoying thing of challenging the fabric of her culture, conveying as terrifying what’s normal as air, or daily violence taken for granted. There is a tradition of writers who have worked in this vein; MU’s main library houses their books, may even showcase their faces on big posters on the walls- while banning living humans who assimilate and redouble the legacies of these artists and thinkers. — such enclaves are dangerous to a female aware, not mute, and on her own, as such an environment is threatening to any independently minded person. The visual artist (sculptor) Louise Bourgeois described the artist as one who has the gift of being in touch with his or her unconscious, which is the “definition of sanity and self-realization.” To live plugged in, relatively, to what others repress will ‘invite’ hostility. This is a form of bigotry too subtle, pitted against something too subversive and multiform, hemming common circuits of symbolizability, for the Law to ever be able to approach/address, or protect. Someone like me does live surrounded by lawlessness (and- naturally- is described as the one unlawful, for aiming the gaze back.)- someone like me does live in the Wild West, as Emily May, the founder of the anti- street harassment organization Hollaback! described the world around her. — But the fact that this dean attacked me, a poet, one who breathes through language, that she attacked me At my language, at my way to freedom (the way I had fought to find- hard-won)… that is the biggest problem. When you attack someone’s essence/core, you mean to break their back. When you use their motor, their way to personhood, as precisely the way to profoundly invalidate them, strip them of personhood… that was very sad to me, devastating. I almost broke from it. I thought for months that I could no longer write poetry- what I loved, what would pour out of me, what I needed, had discovered, for me, to be myself; and what I needed to keep to for my commitment (to the ethical, to witnessing); I still had so much that, as a marginalized person, with a particular experience, and perception (*this is a word that does not have to invalidate claims to reality, but that is bound up with any articulation of truth, with any testament, as the embodied self cannot not be perspectival- whether the human subject is a sanctioned authority or a female who is not a phallic daughter.), I had consecrated my life to telling, so much in me waiting to out. I figured out I could still write, after several months; but it doesn’t pour out of me in quite the same way; and I can still have trouble reading a poem in its entirety…


I don’t fully know why this should be. I do not respect that woman and her pack; I know she is ignorant, as to what I do and who I am. I know she is not entitled to her inferiorization of me, and I know that she is defensive and agendized. But the fact that someone who spits on my register of thought and speech, on the freedom I have had (in language) that she doesn’t know herself, the fact that someone smaller could get away with banning me from books, and with barring my further communications from reaching faculty of the university ( — they don’t want you to tell your own story, to out their wrong, to spread your “lies”…), that someone like that could actually use my weapon to fight dehumanization, to dehumanize me, and get away with it- pragmatically, officially- has been, hard, and makes my life and way of being feel rigged- from the outside.


Carol Adams writes about the “dismemberment” of nonstandard speech.  An “Oedipal” critic practices textual violation when he reduces a text to a repetition of himself (84)- does not let in the new, reads by his standards/ken/formation, rules out other hermeneutics by which to approach the text- and when he does not respect the integrity of a text (85).  I experienced the decontextualization of passages/moments of my discourse by the veterinarian/scientist dean (and by all that bureaucratic clan, behind closed doors; but I can cite her).  Willful misunderstanding of my statements; or incapable, biased reading- totally divorced from the “positive climate” for interpretation, that I had provided, that I was providing- scaffolding needed to ground an intentional utterance, in submission to a culture of disquisition, protocolar argument--needed to grant a revelation its sense and stamp of shared avowal.  Revelations are silenced when we have no framework into which we can assimilate them (106).  (And note the problem here, hard to get around, that the individual, no matter the truth she has to share, needs backing/community/standardization to share it.)  Adams takes as an example Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Creature in Frankenstein:

… the Creature’s style of speaking differs greatly from the characteristic forms of speech attributed to women.  It is not hesitant, self-effacing, tentative, weak, polite, restrained… The Creature does not avoid confrontation.  It is excited, impassioned speech… It demands, it entreats, it implores, it commands, it prophesies.  The Creature is a powerful speaker, it transgresses conversations mightily and fearlessly… its speech was muted by the dominant social order… 106     


The traditional mode of feminine speech is more my way in person, lifelong (by nature first, and then by cultural reinforcement.)  My voice is on the page.  My voice on the page, or in my anger, intimacy, freedom, is more the Creature’s style.  It is what they would steal, mute- to leave me no out.  Old hat.  Hurts more when it’s all been said and fought a million times; and it still doesn’t take.     


Delineating a positive climate, or the “tradition of providing additional authority through historical references,” is what “any embattled group does” (128); and it is work; these allusions may tumble out of one, because they comprise one’s educated imagination, but even so they are summoned (if in a white heat) and put to the page as a kind of work: to be heard.  Argument, bringing into visibility, takes life energy; it takes diversion from other pursuits, and from simple being.  When I summoned writers that have said a version of (the essence of) what I was saying, in my communications to MU authorities, this move was not read as a “legitimating mechanism” (128) on my part, on the part of one vulnerable in an antagonistic atmosphere.  I don’t know what it was taken as; gibberish, arrogance; I was simply snarled at, by the cop set on me, “I would never read what you read.”  I have a doctorate in literature, so that rules out a lot; and the American university teaches its college writing instructors to teach in their classes that it matters to be open to new ways of thinking and to new texts.  The American university purports to care about this.  


Simone Weil wrote “… all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive effect on the established order… insofar as it is ceaselessly creating a scale of values ‘that is not of this world,’ it is the enemy of the forces which control society.”  Normativity/institutional power have a time-old tactic for ‘managing’ challenge.  Nancy Nyquist Potter is one philosopher who has written about their fallback strategy- the pathologization of defiance.  They attempt to “eviscerate the critique of the dominant culture by attributing psychological motives rather than political [or ethical] motives to those who protest the activities of the dominant culture,” writes Carol J. Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (p. 139).  I go further in recalcitrant affirmation of what the agendized and morally lazy spurn and distort, and I respect the individual; individual boundaries and sensitivities are entitled, certainly on campuses that trumpet diversity and the well-being of all. 


The privileged world I know, is not a Clinique ad, wherein an actress who made it, Gina Rodriguez, cries telling that education trumped every obstacle in her life (brown skin, bad hood, wrong body type).  I agree that knowledge, yoked to voice, is the only solution there is.  It is the best there is: (self-)awareness and a practiced slammed conduit (lauded and confirmed up until the point of displeasing).  It is a hermetic solution (when you are not speaking the strictly rote, when you are trained on disseminating what “ain’t no everyday thought”; when you are pushing, for more; like a greedy bitch, like a reformer with vision not settled on what is).  Education is inner freedom; and, MU taught, outside nothing.  Education is no protection for a woman, who speaks as a woman, who speaks outside of cooptation, or stresses timeless urgencies (good and wrong; openness and feeling, against bigotry/absence of imagination (of the Other)/repressive arrogance).  My world, best of all possible, is not a Dove soap ad in which girls and women are urged to assert themselves, to be confident, not diffident.  In my reality, in 2016, women are muted and invalidated, when they say who they are, when they press their humanity and causefulness, when they tell what they know, when they say no.  For me, Clinique and Dove ads belong with the sham myth of the American university: bastion of intellectual freedom, civil freedoms, civility; they all belong in a “Matrix” waste bin.   


Amelia Shroyer wrote in her piece for The Establishment, “How About We Stop Policing Women’s Language?”: “We weren’t meant to win. We can’t be too smart or too dumb or too nice or too aggressive or too sexy or too prudish. We exist in a world in which we are set up to fail.” Audre Lorde also expressed this: not meant to survive. A quiet girl is eaten up, is overwritten, is not let to define herself. I learned this at Harvard University. A woman who has found more than competency, who has found ecstasy, in the word/ a daughter of immigrant, working-class parents who got to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in writing and literature/ a woman who promised herself she would speak the abuse society sanctions/ a woman who waited deferentially (while full to bursting), who studied, and did her schooling (i.e., financial support to write), before “putting (her) proud American boast right here with the others” (Sharon Olds to Walt Whitman): is eaten up, is overwritten, is not let to define herself — is pathologized and criminalized when she has barely gotten started, no matter the victory and vibrancy of what she is punished for, her will to speak, her daring to say stop and to insist on telling who she is rather than letting strangers define her. I learned this at the University of Missouri.





Lianuska Gutierrez holds a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Fordham University, and a PhD in English(specializing in poetry writing, twentieth-century American poetry, Lacanian studies, and phenomenology) from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She has had poetry published in various journals including The Prague Revue, Yemassee, Wicked Alice, Eratio Poetry Journal, Deluge, Animal Studies Journal, and Counterexample Poetics.