We're all in pain, and something has to give

Introduction:  After reading article published by The New Yorker by Junot Diaz, we decided to have a conversation about some things which caused us both to take pause. The story that was presented was heart-wrenching and terrible. One that centred on the abuse that happens to children when they are in spaces that make it even harder for their voices to be seen as having weight, value, and innocence. Following socially acceptable ways to cope with internalised trauma isn't the wave. Abuse oft begets more abuse. Look at all the examples Kanye, Junot, and countless other men use socially acceptable misogyny as a way to act out aggression and violence on the bodies deemed deserving of abuse. 

 


S: Today I was walking through the corridors of my job where I am not paid nearly enough, listening to Solange’s song “Weary.” Singing to myself, “I am weary of the ways of the world.” On so many levels that is true. I am weary because my race is always a condescending point of discussion.  I am weary of feeling like I must constantly police myself, as my feelings and being are under what feels like never ending scrutiny. Weary of fearing the small mistakes. I am weary because Drake keeps on putting out music no one asked for. 

 

V: I was not listening to ‘weary’, Do you need to go for ice cream? I was listening to ‘Leave that Bitch Alone’ by Cardi and thinking about her singing in that white dress with her baby bump out with that bad production squad behind her.  Boppin and glad I don’t have to be out here thotting. Saw that article and was like, ‘Oh yes, my-Caribbean-homie-in-my-head’ is going to give me that good TRUTH.’ *ahem* I should note that my perspective in this article is from a person who completely grew up in the Caribbean, and when I say we, the we is Caribbean people, at home or abroad. 

 

S: Now, as everyone knows I love Junot Diaz. I love his work. I think he has a great way of showing how misogyny is always the downfall of the male characters in his stories. Their inability to function on a human to human level because of this ideal of machismo, these misplaced ideas of manhood often lead the characters in his stories down a deep,dark, path. I love that he does not swear like a 40 year old male writer for Empire. I love that he represents how that whiteness can not erase people of color from nerdom and their immense contributions to sci-fi. However, my man writer crush of the last decade reminded me of one of the reasons I am weary, and it is because of a common male societal failure. 

 

V: When I saw that he was going to talk about childhood trauma and how it messed him up as an adult.  I really thought the article was going to be something different. Oscar was one of the few characters I read as an adult, that made my childhood feel real. The childhood fun promised in cane fields, the intergenerational trauma that bubbled up as a fear you can’t name.  The superstitions we all laugh at but follow religiously. No-one believes in dreams like we do. I thought he was going to name one of our secret shames. A breakdown on how kids are vulnerable. How poverty means you leave your children with people you don’t completely trust but have no other choice. How even though we say it takes a village to raise a child, sometimes an entire village demands hurt children be silent for the sake of the collective village ego.  

He started his article with a nameless and voiceless woman.  He showed me his pain, and my heart broke for him. Then he said ‘real man’, and my body tensed. I know what it means when sad and hurt men feel that they need to prove how real their masculinity is. He showed me another woman and then another, and another, then another until they were too many to count.   Have you ever looked at dolls that have their painted eyes, lips, teeth and hair removed? It’s all I kept seeing, the only thing he bothered to let me know about them was that they were Black and Brown women. Faceless, hairless mannequins distinguishable only by shades of Black skin.

 

S: Junot Diaz, like a lot of people, is dealing with childhood trauma. To hear about what happened to him is saddening and disgusting. There are too many stories where adults prey on innocence and create irreparable damage to people’s lives. It was a terrible thing that no one should have happen to them. I'm amazed at the kind of bravery it takes to put that personal dialogue out there in order to help others heal and to help yourself heal. I am not that brave, never have been probably never will be.  I have no critiques for that part of the article, you can never critique pain. However, what is missing from the larger societal discussion and what is missing from his analysis, post trauma is how men of color often use women of color as their emotional door mats.

“What happened was that in the middle of a deep depression I suddenly became infatuated with this cute-ass girl I knew at school. For a few weeks my gloom lifted, and I became utterly convinced that if this girl went out with me, if she fucked me, I’d be cured of all that ailed me.”
— Junot Diaz

V: I’ve been that girl.  When I was 15, a boy who I thought was my best friend, thought he was in love with me. He was going through a lot at the time, and was functioning through his depression.  He also thought if he fucked me (choice of language important) he would be better. I didn’t, and I also didn’t sleep with him. It ended up being messy because I was dating him, broke up and started dating someone else. When you’re fifteen and the guy you think is your best friend tells you he loves you, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know what the difference between romantic, platonic love really is.  You don’t know what the difference between being sensual and sexual attraction. I did know that I didn’t owe anyone anything. Everyone told me I was wrong though. It was one of many times that I felt that my body was not my own. At the end of that chapter, he threw rocks at my head, I got the impression people thought I deserved it. I did doubt myself for a very long time after that. He apologized to me years later, and I said ‘It’s okay’.  It kinda is, but I knew the apology wasn’t for me. Sorry isn’t really enough, but sometimes people are tired.

I really wish Junot had talked about how much our society ties masculinity to sexual acts with women.  How the way we look at relationships within the context of the conquering and the conquered, what that means for us as Caribbean people, what it means in the context of the Afro-diaspora. How when you’ve got nothing to your name, your name is all that matters. What we decide it means to be a good man.  How emotionally manipulating women into a sexual act is abusive. I wish he had explicitly named how some of what passes as ‘game’ is emotional abuse. More than that, I wish he'd showed more empathy to the women whose psychological well being he damaged.

I also wish he’d clarified in which context he’s a ‘negro’.  I was a tad bit confused, and by tad bit, I mean completely. Is this a light-skinned lie you’re trying to trip me up on? Remember how you talked about how Beli wasn’t ‘negra’ because she was pretty even though she was dark-skinned?  Where we all knew that you were referring to a different way to classify social Blackness. Do you mean in the one-drop rule of the USA, you’re a ‘negro’? Are you using it to mean Afro-descendant? We both know that you are a light-skinned Black man, and that completely changes how you’re read. Would you have been able to get away with the rest of what you described if you were dark-skinned? Or does the shade of your skin not matter because of the specific way Caribbean bodies are fetishised in the USA? 

“And that’s how it went for a while, from college to grad school to Brooklyn. I would meet intimidatingly smart sisters, would date them in the hope that they could heal me, and then the fear would start to climb in me, the fear of discovery, and the mask would feel as if it were cracking and the impulse to escape, to hide, would grow until finally I’d hit a Rubicon—I’d either drive the novia away or I would run. I started sleeping around, too. The regular relationship drug wasn’t enough. I needed stronger hits to keep the wound inside from rising up and devouring me. The Negro who couldn’t sleep with anyone became the Negro who would sleep with everyone.”
— Junot Diaz

 S: Junot talks about the woman who he considered to be the love of his life. She was there for him for years, with him through the drinking, through the depression, and he was going to marry her however, what he ended up doing was cheating on her. He states that he believed a Pulitzer would keep her around, as though as any good woman from “the hood” should hold her man down, especially when he brought back something which validated his feelings, his success.   How can he write that line without thinking to himself, or at least having a written response or reflection on how the center of his accomplishments as a man, his success should have solely been what kept her around, not him reforming his ways. I wanted him to tell me how wrong that was, how chauvinistic that was, I never did get that line. What about what he was doing at the important events in her life? Where is her fully realized story? Where is her fully realized apology? Where is the acknowledgement that these women probably have to continuously deal with broken men such as himself and because of  toxic masculinity their behavior is condoned. The men who need help never get it, while depending on the women of color they date to take the brunt of the abuse.
 

V: Take all of this abuse, because there is a myth going around that your worth as a Black or Brown woman is directly tied to the abuse you can take.  It's not enough to be in a world that derides you for skin, sex, sexuality, and physical ability, when men who share your poisoned slice of pie demand that you must work extra hard to prove that you are deserving of love, care and tenderness. 

What creole mistresses have taught me is that Brown Sugar however fine it may be doesn't walk down wedding aisles.  Brown Sugar is for kitchen tables in the back, quick sugar fixes, and to be scorned at fine dining.  Cane may be king, but Brown Sugar gets lost in the dust.  

What I heard was elitism, was respectability rhetoric, was a voice saying "So what if he ________, he has ________'.  It was sad to me, because how many times, and how many ways do we hear this? When you live in a society based on violent oppression, it's difficult to see your potential for excellence separately from your potential ability to oppress others. 

This statement coupled with the line of the two Junots made me think of the elitism within Caribbean immigrant communities in the USA and the way that it shows up in respectability politics.  I think most persons who've grown up in the Caribbean know this particular brand of condescension from strangers and family members.  This is not to say that the diaspora doesn't feel pride in their roots, nor am I implying that this attitude is only found in the diaspora.  I'm trying to specifically talk about how society around us informs our personal interactions and how people can respond to that programming in different ways. 

It takes a lot to leave your home, not just financially, but also emotionally.  Leaving to go somewhere where you know everything will be different can take a psychological toll.  Leaving to go to the USA is a goal for a number of people who leave the Caribbean, whether they feel as though they are moving to get more opportunities, leaving because they feel as though they don't deserve to be with the poor Black people, or because of persecution due to gender or sexual violence.  Whatever the personal reason, reality is the USA actively works to destroy the economies in Latin America and the Caribbean and that drives immigration to the USA. 

Let's say we're talking about someone who left when they were younger, but not so young that their sense of self hasn't completely formed.  Now you've left everything you knew and now you need a home, I've noticed the reaction goes two ways; either you cling to your first identity, or you discard as much of it as you can and adopt new facets of this new dominant identity.  Americans don't eat plantain, so you don't eat plantain either and talk about how much you love [insert American thing here] and why [Native country] isn't up to par for not having it.  If not, you're telling everyone that plantain is life, they can take it from your cold dead body, and you won't be caught dead eating that plastic food.  

There is a specific dynamic that is brought out; sometimes it's different if they moved older and sense of self comes from Caribbean identity, sometimes they're born in the USA or moved young and their identity is hybrid Americanness.  There's a need for a feeling of belonging to the dominant culture, and as we all know, Xenophobia in the USA shows itself by actively looking down on everyone else while still consuming their culture.  

Usually people who are immigrants to the USA are connected in some way to elitist thinking in their home countries, then you couple that with internalised xenophobic attitudes about their own region.  American education tells you that you are exceptional for just being there, you are chosen in some way to be a part of something great. You deserve to be recognised for your greatness. USA No. 1, is the American brand and it's sold everywhere.  

What you get are people who think and say things like, ''You wouldn't understand because you didn't go to [insert American school here]." How does this tie into this piece? Have you ever heard the way that Caribbean immigrants (generally speaking) talk about the women from their home countries? They want them to perform labour in ways that they might not otherwise demand from women outside of their perceived community. I'm talking about the 'I want a real [Nationality] girl. One that knows how to cook, clean, [labour], [labour], sex, [receive abuse that we don't call abuse].' crowd.  On the other hand we have the way that Black-in-any-shade bodies both male and female from Latin American and the Caribbean are fetished in the USA.  From the American sex tourists on our shores or the way our dancing is hypersexualised. White supremacy is thorough, I'll give it that. 

Here we've got this guy who is probably being sexually fetishised for being Dominican by Americans, who is actively abusing a Dominican woman where their shared identity might the subconscious justification for why her body and emotional well being is playing proxy for his frustration about being Dominican in the USA, being abused in the Dominican Republic, and who knows what else.  Then he turns around and tells her, yeah, but at least it's just cheating, look at my American award. What more does she deserve than being next to me? How much better can she get that me? I’m going places. I'm not like those people at home. Stay with me because gotta keep up appearances for both communities. Yikes, as the Americans say, for both of them.

Women on sex does a great piece on Power! Money! And Sex! Where sex becomes transactional, and men can exchange power with sex.  In this narrative however, it’s not transactional because the women do not seem to have signed up for this, what he has described is exploitation and abuse. He openly described leveraging a personal career milestone to keep a woman in a relationship with him.  Depression in men shows up as over-indulgence of the gym, smoking, alcohol, or sex.  Please do not be afraid to seek help, there are therapists that are available worldwide.  If you don't know where to go, please contact your local social work organisation and they should be able to redirect you to a professional.  

In addition to all of these things, I’m wondering to myself, Does he love her? Or Does he just love the way she takes his abuse? Is he tying feelings of intimacy with abuse to his partner? Where does this stop? One of the few things I’ve learnt is that everyone is broken in some way.  Living and loving isn’t about finding someone not broken, it’s about being around people who don’t take their pain as justification to cause you more. It’s about admitting you’re wrong. It’s about saying enough to the pain, the pain you carry and the pain you might pass on.  

S: Everything we see tells us that it is okay to treat women as though they are not worth the same as men. No matter how great the cost,  I have seen so many people risk everything for a relationship where they were giving everything and the man was just there or even worse  more useless than a white friend who says nothing when a white person says something racist. Why does this happen? Simply because women’s agency is not valued  in the patriarchal society we exist in, especially the agency of women of color. What more do we thrive off of in the West than black and brown pain?

V: There’s a great line where Khani Mbau says “A sex symbol, is you literally flashing your bank account in the form of a human being.  That person is your credit card, your visa, your invite to every party. They are literally your billboard to say ‘Hey, I’m living the good life’”. Men, date for ego, we live in a society that ties the power in real masculinity to ability to acquire and control sex. We also live in a society that ties power to able-bodied masculinity and proximity to whiteness, what that means is women and femmes, especially Black women and femmes are left powerless.  Where oppressing these groups is a way to show your power. How that oppression manifests itself can be multi-faceted, some of which have been discussed above. 

S: The dating world can be tough enough,  as it is a landfill however, when dealing with dating as a woman of color, there is always that underlying idea and thought that if you were someone else maybe just maybe they would treat you better. I don’t know what lies people tell themselves, or what ideals they like to uphold about blackness in black communities however, I can tell you this, hood negroes love themselves some white bitches. There have been so many times where I have been around black male friends, or on dates with black men, who say they love black women however,  then they feel the need to have a conversations bashing black women while usually uplifting white or asian women, on top of expecting black women to always be readily available for them at the same time (I was trapped in a car once when this conversation was happening, that was just rude). Black and brown women are always supposed to hold them down no matter what while they are still aspiring to whiteness.  Just look at the difference in the way Serena is talked about versus Kanye and Kim K are talked about. 

V: Let’s spare a second thought for the women that Junot dated.  Healthy relationships are had when both persons have secure attachment styles.  There are three types of attachment styles: secure, anxious, and distant. These styles are often formed in childhood, but can be modified in adulthood through hard work or if one encounters a traumatic event.  A cheating partner can cause someone's attachment style to shift from secure to anxious or distant. I hope they were able to find the help that they needed to heal from the abuse that they went through. 

I’m certain that these women he were dating were working through their own issues before they met him, especially the ones who are Black and female in world that despises you and tells you that you’re not worth loving. Everything around you in society tells you that Black women are one dimensional women whose worth is tied to the labour they produce whether it is sexual, physical, or emotional.   It is an act of revolution to love yourself as a Black person but it is also revolutionary for Black people to be in love with each other. I hope he told the women whose love he treated like a university course that they never signed up to teach, that he was writing this article. I hope he apologised thoroughly, I hope he didn’t do it with the expectation of forgiveness. I hope everyone can see a therapist, hopefully, one from the same community as them.

S: As you read the article, Junot Diaz lists all of the black and brown women he put through emotional abuse all of the women who he was the living truth of the light skin demon mythology for however, he does not mention something which I found to be an important missing detail. The partner who he mentions at then end is not a woman of color, she is someone who could be considered to be a white passing woman who is half Asian.  Through all of the pain and suffering he put so many women through, through all the descriptions he gave about their ethnicity or their race, he forgot to say he got his act together for someone who is valued as holding more value in American society. No longer was he looking for the “hood” girl to hold him down he found what a lot of upwards aspirational men of color aim for, a white woman who he needed to treat right and get his act together for. His inability to even consider that maybe he was treating these women in such a terrible was because of his own internalized self hate for people who are black or brown was a let down. I was disappointed in him not going in deeper and really pressing himself to look at how it is ironic that he actually did place a white woman on a pedestal after writing a piece using so much afro-latino bravado.

S: I am proud of Junot Diaz for finally being able to share a painful story in hopes of conveying  how childhood trauma ruins lives forever. I am glad he could talk about the masks we hide behind to disguise our pain. However, I was left slightly disappointed that someone who is so poetic with their words, and so poetic with their ability to portray emotion gave me a piece which seemed like an incomplete thought. I don’t expect any author to be perfect, I don’t expect Junot Diaz to be perfect, for all people of color in the U.S. have been broken through systematic oppression in some way.  However, Junot Diaz does not blame sexism, machismo, the patriarchy, for him having these abilities to have women stand by as he emotionally abused them (he was the good grad school kid who was a nerd, of course women stood by him in his adulthood). He does not even say what he did was emotionally abusive to the women who loved him, because to go that far and admit that in one’s own pain we can still be abusive, it’s getting into a deep level of self-reflection. A level of self- reflection on how abusing women is commonplace especially at the hands of those who have been abused; and how women of color are often the ones who are getting consistently the ones who have to carry this burden of abuse.