Melissa Harris Perry commencement speech at Wellesley College, 2012
The most amazing graduation speech ever. She gives three advice to the graduates:
“Be ignorant, be silent, and be thick.”
In a few moments you’re going to walk across this stage and you’re going to have your accomplishments acknowledged in the acquisition of a certification that you KNOW something.
But even as you accept your hard won degree, I encourage you to embrace the reality that you know almost nothing.
I love my iPad. I’m reading my lecture right now from my iPad. I love that it streams books and knowledge and information to me, Matrix-like, at a moment. Like, toowoosh! anything that I need to know. But it is important for me to pretty regularly just go stand in the library. It is an AWE-full experience standing in a library. I think of myself as quite accomplished. I’ve written two books—heh hey. But when you stand in the library and you are surrounded by those stacks of all of those thousands of volumes of texts of things that you know nothing about, written in languages that you cannot decipher, on topics you can barely fathom, it is humbling.
Standing in a library reminds us of our own limitations. It encourages us to remember that we don’t know everything, can’t predict every outcome, and don’t even know all the right questions to ask.
I will never fill a cavity. It is pretty unlikely that I will ever speak Mandarin. I am certainly not going to decode anything in the DNA chain. But thankfully, graciously, the universe provides an interdependent web of other fantastic women who will. Remembering our ignorance, embracing our ignorance, allowing our ourselves to accept a posture of ignorance compels us to keep learning.
There will come a September morning pretty soon when you are going to miss this place. And not just the buildings and not just your friends. You are going to miss a new syllabus. You’re going to miss somebody handing you a piece of paper full of things that you’ve not thought about yet. About challenges you didn’t even know existed. The exquisite moment of utter ignorance just before the learning begins: I promise you, you will miss it.
So remember, ignorance is not your enemy, only complacency with ignorance is to be resisted. Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life’s hard classes. Remember to keep forming hypotheses and gathering data. Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious. Keep groping in the darkness with ravenous desire.
Ignorance is not incompatible with excellence. It is not incompatible with leadership. It is not incompatible with greatness. Ignorance is a posture of humility, which brings me to the other piece of nontraditional advice: Be silent.
If the Nerdland staff is watching right now they probably just fell out of their chairs, because I know they didn’t even know I could be silent as long as I just was. And, in fact, not just the Nerdland staff but we share space in 30 Rock right next to the Up staff. And the Up staff is really quite diligent. They’re very quiet, they type along. And when I come in, usually on Thursdays or Fridays, the screaming begins. I sit in my office where I don’t much like to be alone and I scream, “Oh my god! Have you read the script today?! Come in here and talk to me! Come! Come! Come!” Sometimes they just shut the door.
I am, in being a feminist and having been trained as a feminist, become very good at using my voice.
Women’s education is very much about finding your voice. About learning to speak, about speaking with confidence, about sharing your ideas freely, about battling the boys.
But there is an enormous difference between being silenced and choosing to be silent. When we are silenced, you have something to say but no one will listen. When you choose to be silent, to quiet it down, to listen, you’ve actually exercised the other part of voice. The part that makes your voice sound like something. It sounds like something in comparison to the silence.
Silence can help to soothe one of the voices that you actually would like to be more quiet more frequently. It’s what Jay-Smooth would call your “internal hater.” That little hater. I don’t know if boys have the hater. Girls have the hater. The hater sits on our shoulder and tells us, “Sit up straight.” “Omigod, you have a lisp. Why are are you talking?”
The little hater fusses at us and tells us that we are insufficient, and suggests that we “can’t do math, because it’s hard.” She is actually soothed by silence. You can actually encourage that part of your meta-narrative voice to be quiet so that this part of your voice can speak. And silence allows you to do something else that you now have as Wellesley women.
You have privilege. No matter what circumstances of dis-privilege you came from, this degree now confers upon you privilege. And when you choose to be silent in the face of those who have less privilege, you undermine the idea that only people with certain degrees and certain certifications have a right to speak.
So, I’m not asking you to silence your advocacy for justice or to mute your voice as a citizen. I am not asking you to accept the opinions of others as your own truths. I am not asking you to sit on your ideas or fail to share your skills. I am asking you to remember that silence is the vital precursor to voice. Gather your voice in your silence. Listen to it in your own head before you give it away. Wake up, roll over, and make love to the day wordlessly.
My final piece of advice is this: Be thick.
In a world that teaches women to be thin, be thick.
Recall the moment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved when Paul D says to Sethe:
“ Your love is too thick, Sethe,” and she responds:
“Love is or it isn’t. Thin love ain’t no love at all.”
Thick is the only thing worth being. When you are thick you unconditionally embrace the object of your attention. Thick women make fools of themselves all the time, because thin women stand on the sidelines; they’re critical; they’re removed; they’re barely committed. Thick people pitch tents in a park with the belief that social action can change an entire international global system of economic injustice.
Thin citizens vote; thick citizens run for office.
Thin folks believe every critic is a “hater.” Thick folks can hear critique without crumbling.
Thin leaders stay the course no matter what the evidence sat. Thick leaders listen, learn, and correct.
Thin women look great in bikinis. Thick women look terrific in history books.
Cultivate a radical thickness that allows you to be vulnerable and imperfect as you cast yourself headlong into the crazy, scary, painful, grown-up world.