Our side can never accept silence about abuse

June 18, 2018

The allegations of sexual abuse and other misconduct made against acclaimed writer, professor and social justice activist Junot Díaz have led to an intense debate among some in the academic world. Some have protested both the media coverage of the controversy and the charges made against Díaz, while others have drawn connections to the backlash against #MeToo when allegations of sexual assault and sexist behavior are made against men who are liberals or leftists.

The left needs to take up difficult discussions and stand against the silencing of survivors in any circumstance. Here, Akua Gyamerah, one of the signers of a letter challenging those who would side with Díaz against his accusers, explains how this discussion has developed—and why she took the stand that she did.

IN APRIL, acclaimed Dominican-American writer and political activist Junot Díaz wrote an essay in the New Yorker, documenting his lifelong struggle coping with childhood rape.

In the essay, which some described as Díaz’s #MeToo moment, he explained how these experiences not only affected his intimate partnerships, mental health and friendships, but also led him to struggle with addiction and suicide ideation.

Most notably, Díaz spent a good amount of time recounting his abusive behavior toward women, in describing how trauma from the abuse led him to abuse other people:

I was hiding, I was drinking, I was at the gym; I was running around with other women. I was creating model homes, and then, just as soon as they were up, abandoning them. Classic trauma psychology: approach and retreat, approach and retreat. And hurting other people in the process.

Rallying against sexism on International Women's Day in Los Angeles

The essay was a powerful, painful and brave account of trauma, which may have helped others with a similar story make sense of their pain and perhaps harmful ways of coping. It also helped break the silence on abuse, rape and sexual violence that force many men of color across different communities to struggle alone with the consequences.

On the other hand, Díaz’s essay was missing a structural analysis of why he coped in the way he did. Were his sexist patterns of behavior an inevitable outcome of untreated trauma?

The essay glaringly omitted any critical discussion of why all of the people Díaz hurt in his story were female intimate and romantic partners. It didn’t engage with how sexism may have shaped his coping mechanism of compulsive sex and “cheating” with women other than his primary partners.

Díaz, like the rest of us, lives in a deeply misogynistic society with rigid, oppressive and toxic ideas and rules about gender roles, presentation and behavior. This reality can’t be discounted when discussing issues like childhood sexual abuse, coercion, infidelity and emotional abuse at the heart of Díaz’s story. Yet there was no explicit reflection on what seemed to be an obvious dimension of how he coped for years.

A FEW weeks after the publication of Díaz’s essay, several women writers, mostly women of color, publicly accused Díaz of sexual misconduct, harassment, bullying and emotional abuse. Zinzi Clemmons, author of the novel What We Lose, shared in a Twitter post that Díaz forcibly kissed her when she was a graduate student:

As a grad student, I invited Junot Díaz to speak to a workshop on issues of representation in literature. I was an unknown wide-eyed 26 yo, and he used it as an opportunity to corner and forcibly kiss me. I’m far from the only one he’s done this 2, I refuse to be silent anymore.

After Clemmons’ post, other women revealed that they, too, had been bullied and harassed by Díaz. Acclaimed author Carmen Maria Machado shared a story about Díaz going on a hostile rant in response to her question about his protagonist’s “unhealthy, pathological relationship with women” during a public talk.

Sci-fi author Monica Byrne also posted on social media alleging that Díaz, in a group setting, used a hostile rape analogy to challenge her point about the importance of personal narratives in empowering marginalized people. She described the experience as bizarre and humiliating, particularly because she had actually been sexually assaulted weeks before the incident.

Alisa Valdes and Subramanian Shreerekha, two of Díaz’s former intimate partners, also wrote about his coercive and abusive behavior toward them while they were dating him.

Valdes, a writer and producer, described being demeaned by Díaz — and experiencing a backlash when she wrote about his behavior. Shreerekha, a professor and poet — whom Díaz identified as “S — “ in his New Yorker piece — also shared details about the emotional damage caused by her secret relationship with Díaz while she was a student in his department.

These allegations led to a flurry of articles in major publications about Díaz’s alleged conduct. Many of these articles, along with Díaz’s followers and fans, expressed shock and disappointment at the news. How could this seemingly woke, social justice activist — a writer who has publicly criticized patriarchy — be also perpetrating such behavior?

The reactions also forced Díaz, who was facing an independent review by the Pulitzer Prize Board on his alleged behavior, to publicly respond to the allegations.

In a statement in the New York Times announcing that he was stepping down as board chair, Díaz said, “I take responsibility for my past. That is the reason I made the decision to tell the truth of my rape and its damaging aftermath” and that he was “listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement.”

DÍAZ’S NEW Yorker essay, as important as it was for helping break the silence around male childhood sexual abuse, didn’t discuss the full extent of the damage or how he was taking responsibility for it. Missing from the narrative was his sexual misconduct, his preying on students and his emotional abuse of his partners. The piece read more like a qualified confession than an honest reckoning with the damage he had done.

Aya de Leon described Díaz’s essay as a “sanitized version of his behavior” — bold enough to discuss his victimization, but not enough to discuss the extent of his victimizing.

Nevertheless, in response to the consequent allegations made against Díaz, a group of 12 senior women scholars of color wrote an open letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education criticizing “the ways in which the press and those on social media have turned tweets made against Junot Díaz into trending topics and headlines in major newspapers both inside and outside the U.S.”

They argued: “The (at times uncritical) reception and repetition of the charges have created what amounts to a full-blown media-harassment campaign. They have led to the characterization of the writer as a bizarre person, a sexual predator, a virulent misogynist, an abuser and an aggressor.”

Which “media” was the letter referring to: the mainstream media coverage of the allegations or the social media and blog posts by the women who told the stories of their abuse? Did it matter to the letter’s signatories that Díaz had already admitted to his behavior in his New Yorker piece and his public statement, or that he himself had not publicly questioned the validity of these allegations?

The letter continued:

The issue at hand is not whether or not one believes Díaz, or his accusers, but whether one approves the use of media to violently make a spectacle out of a single person while at the same time canceling out the possibility of disagreement about the facts at hand, or erasing a sustained attention to how the violence of racial hatred, structural poverty and histories of colonialism extend into the most intimate spaces.

FORCIBLY KISSING someone is violence. Exposing it to the public is not. It is part of the process of attaining justice and ending the culture of silence that reinforces sexist abuse and behavior.

In response to the letter from Díaz’s supporters, another group of women, gender non-conforming and queer academics of color wrote a letter — I was one of the signers — challenging the idea that exposing and criticizing the sexist behavior of a man of color, like Díaz, in our communities must somehow play into racist media caricatures and misrepresentations.

Our response letter was written primarily “as an expression of solidarity with survivors who have shared their stories, those who have not yet come forward, and those who never will.” We sought to “encourage our colleagues, mentors, students and our communities, as well as the larger media, to more carefully consider how survivors are impacted by narratives that center perpetrators of misogyny and those that support them.”

Borough of Manhattan Community College assistant professor Shirley Leyro explained why she helped initiate the response:

I became really concerned that the way these prominent scholars positioned themselves in support of Díaz would have a really silencing effect on students who might have been considering coming forward with their own experiences. By circling their wagons around Junot Díaz, these scholars were implicitly telling students that they were prepared to defend someone who may have abused them.

Our response letter echoed these sentiments:

We must work to build a culture in which all survivors feel that they will be protected by us even if their stories make us uncomfortable. We are concerned that the open letter published last week has sent the message that these highly respected members of the academic community prefer silence when the accused belongs to our communities...

It seems that the signatories would like for us to move past the reckoning stage of transformative justice. We reject this. This moment can be a transformative one only if Díaz speaks for himself on these issues, addresses the needs of his accusers, and works to demonstrate that he will not repeat these actions again. Transformative politics embraces the possibility that Díaz can be a different person than before, but not automatically and not without centering the needs of those whom he has abused.

We are concerned that in an effort to protect Díaz, a man who has undoubtedly faced colonial legacies of racism and endured victimization as a child himself, the signatories of the original letter imply that those enduring similar systemic violence, but who currently hold far less power than Díaz, not air the dirty laundry of our communities.

AS A signer of the response letter, I was disappointed by how the open letter questioned the credibility of the survivors’ experiences. Unfortunately, this continued after the open letter was published. In a New York Times comment standing by the original letter defending Díaz, Linda Martín Alcoff wrote:

We also need to reassess how we confer credibility on accusers. A blanket acceptance of all accusations simply avoids the difficult work of transforming our methods of judgment. I argue that all accusations should be taken seriously and pursued, but this is a way of saying we confer presumptive credibility on accusers, not that we simply believe without question every accusation.

While Alcoff claimed at the start of her op-ed that neither she nor the other signers intended to “dismiss these accusations,” they in fact perpetuated the harmful social norm of questioning and shaming survivors of abuse to silence them.

It is true — and necessary — that those with a history of perpetuating sexual violence and abuse can be redeemed and won to actively fighting sexism, as our response letter asserts. But that cannot happen without a transformative process that abusers like Díaz — who, again, has not publicly questioned the allegations made against him — first need to undergo.

I was also concerned by how the open letter conflated the survivor’s narrative with the media’s coverage of it.

It’s easy to broadly brush the media as racist and even violent, because the media are those things — their history and practices validate such claims. It’s less easy and acceptable to malign women of color survivors as racist or as perpetuating violence against their abuser. However, that can be done more easily if the survivors’ stories are conflated with the media coverage of them, which is what this open letter did.

It was victim-shaming, masquerading in anti-colonial, anti-racist and anti-violence language, that conflated speaking out against a perpetrator with being racist. Women of color feminists have written for years about the importance of addressing sexism and racism in all their manifestations.

Women and queer people of color, for example, are multiply oppressed by racism, sexism, homophobia and class. If we elevate any one of these oppressions over the other in the name of unity, we risk leaving the struggles of the most marginalized on the sidelines — an outcome I feared the open letter would perpetuate.

THESE DEBATES about how to respond to Díaz reflect much of the reactions to and discussions about the #MeToo movement since its inception. They also reflect the serious obstacles facing the fight against sexual violence and the people it disproportionately impacts: women, LGBTQ people, people of color, people with disabilities and children.

Take the backlash against an article revealing that Aziz Ansari had allegedly sexually violated a woman, “Grace,” on a date. The allegations, along with the #MeToo movement, were questioned as a witch hunt against “decent men,” who simply thought they had consent to have sex with a woman.

The backlash overlooked the role of power in these acts by rich, popular and powerful men like Ansari or Díaz. We can add other alleged and convicted abusers to this list: Bill Clinton, who recently defended his conduct with Monica Lewinsky while he was president; Bill Cosby; R. Kelly; Russell Simmons and; Al Franken.

How different were their behaviors from that of Trump, who infamously stated, “I just start kissing [women]....I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

As Nicole Carr, an assistant professor at SUNY New Paltz and another organizer of the response letter, pointed out:

I saw the [open] letter as more of the same silencing tactics that are routinely used to protect powerful men. If you’ve been following the #MeToo movement closely, you know that nearly each time a man is accused of indecent behavior, a letter/statement of support gets penned by women. This happened when Lena Dunham offered support for a Girls’ writer accused of sexual assault. Most recently, 65 women in media, Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell, signed a letter essentially defending Tom Brokaw against allegations of sexual misconduct. I regarded this Díaz open letter as an academic version of that. I also think that this open letter sheds light on the ugly little secret within academia: our praxis does not always align with our pedagogy/research.

AS ANTI-RACIST and anti-rape scholars/activists, the signatories of the response letter stand with all survivors of sexual misconduct, abuse and assault, including Díaz.

While we acknowledge that the ills of capitalism like colonialism, racism and poverty may explain individual acts of violence, they do not excuse it. The alleged and confirmed victims of Díaz’s are also subjected to the same system as he is. They, too, deserve a letter of support.

Imagine how many more abusers we could hold accountable if we humanized their victims as much as a perpetrator was humanized like in the open letter. Imagine how much more empowered survivors would feel to report sexual violence if less excuses were made for abusers and more support was given to those they hurt.

That is the kind of culture the #MeToo movement is trying to cultivate as part of a wider fight against sexual violence, sexism and abuse.

And that fight is our calling right now. Today, 12 percent to 24 percent of women of color will experience rape in their lifetimes. For every Black woman who reports her rape, another 15 do not.

Up to 32 percent of men and 83 percent of women with developmental disabilities have been victims of sexual assault.

Among LGBTQ people, 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, and 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men report experiencing sexual violence other than rape. Forty-seven percent of transgender people are sexually assaulted; for multiracial transgender people, it is 63 percent.

These statistics are alarming and urgently call for an unapologetic movement led by survivors and their allies that fights back against sexual abuse and its devastating impact.

There’s a great opening today to push forward such a fight against sexual violence and rape culture and to generate anew a society where rape is a thing of the past — a society that values consent, respects women of color and other oppressed groups, and holds accountable those who are abusive.

If we have any hope for that kind of world, we must have the difficult conversations about rape and sexual violence today, coupled with a fighting movement led by the most vulnerable that holds accountable abusers and the people and institutions of power that uphold their behavior.

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Moreover, when one in four female college students experience sexual assault, it is important the academic community unequivocally defends student survivors. As Carr shared:

Oftentimes, as BIWOC academics, our students come to us because they do not want to tell these sensitive stories to people who do not look like them...So, responding to the letter was also a way to send out a message to those students that, “There are safe spaces in the halls of academia where professors will care about what you’ve gone through — no matter how powerful the person is who hurt you.”

I think, at its core, the MeToo movement is about people demanding that they be treated with kindness and empathy. It is easy to dismiss some of these stories as sensationalist, but that simply reveals how badly we expect women, children, and mostly vulnerable people to be treated.

Further Reading

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