This Is Not Just About Junot Díaz - Prof Linda Martin Alcoff
Professor Linda Martin Alcoff is Professor of Philosophy at CUNY and Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice
This article was originally published by The New York Times
For those of us who have been fighting for decades against the oppression, emotional manipulation and brutalizing of women, as well as the murders, misrepresentations and wrongful imprisonment of all people of color, the case of the Dominican-American author Junot Díaz is a particularly difficult one.
This week I signed an open letter, along with a group of Latina scholars and writers, that criticizes the media thrashing of Mr. Díaz that has taken place since accusations of sexist behavior and sexual misconduct against him became widely public.
In the letter, we make clear that we by no means dismiss these accusations — which include forcibly kissing the writer Zinzi Clemmons and verbally abusing other women — or the serious damaging effects of the sort of behavior of which Mr. Díaz has been accused. But we do object to what we characterize in the letter as “a full-blown media-harassment campaign” that has followed the accusations, in which the writer has been cast as “a bizarre person, a sexual predator, a virulent misogynist, an abuser and an aggressor.”
While the episode has so far focused on Mr. Díaz, I also believe that it forcefully raises a broader issue: That we have a responsibility to think about the future — specifically, a future in which repentant sexists might have a place.
Some might dismiss this letter, and the views expressed in it, on the grounds that its authors are too closely aligned with Mr. Díaz — as his friends, as Latina writers or as Dominicans. In truth, Latinx literary theorists and writers have never been in agreement over how to interpret the thematic focus on sexism in his fiction. Yet some may still see our words as simply an attempt to protect our own.
Do I identify with Mr. Díaz? Absolutely. What happened to him at 8 years old — he was raped, and recently wrote about it in The New Yorker — happened to me when I was 9. It took me decades to tell, as it did him. I know too much about the effects of childhood sexual assault and the burning questions that stay with us for so long because we were much too young to make any meaningful sense of what we experienced. His story tore me apart.
But I refuse the claim that this disqualifies my judgment about him or my ability to offer an analysis of this debate. We cannot take personal experience (in any form) as an immediate cause to question credibility without silencing victims once again. We need to hear from more victims, not fewer. We also need to have more debates over these issues among Latinx and other oppressed groups who understand in our bones the multiple issues at play and exactly what is at stake.
My identification with Mr. Díaz sits alongside my acknowledgment of the testimony of other female writers who have described his brutish behavior, his emotional manipulation, his machista nonsense — especially that of the poet Shreerekha, whose beautiful and painful essay on her long-term relationship with Mr. Díaz also tore me apart. Yes, the women his novels refer to as “sucias” are speaking out and speaking for themselves!
The manipulations Shreerekha describes may have little to do with Mr. Díaz’s own abuse; what her piece shows is how men can use their designation as literary geniuses to attempt to dominate vulnerable women, and how some men of color use racial solidarity as a tool to politically coerce these women into silence. How can disarming women of color ever assist in the struggle against racism?
The #MeToo movement has sparked strong debates, especially among women of color over these intersecting issues.
Clearly, we need to go beyond easy binaries. The letter I signed calls on all of us to think through the important issue of how to demand individual responsibility from abusers while also being vigilant about our collective and institutional responsibility, to develop critiques of the conventions of sexual behavior that produce systemic sexual abuse. While individuals can never be absolved of responsibility by blaming structural conditions, those conditions do create opportunities, excuses, even training in the ways of domination, and these have to be radically transformed.
This debate is not just about Junot Díaz and the women he has mistreated; it is also about the #MeToo movement as a whole — how its aims are articulated, how it constructs a new imaginary of liberation, both social and sexual. And as others have been saying, this imaginary must include a future in which we can become a better community that talks openly, listens and learns from one another, even when it involves pain that comes without a trigger warning.
The Latina feminist philosopher Maria Lugones has asked in her work how our anger can become both backward- and forward-looking, not only redressing past wrongs but serving our visions for the future. Her work is a master class on conflicts that involve what she calls “non-dominant differences” — conflicts among the oppressed — and she argues strongly against sidelining some forms of oppression in favor of others. But she is clear that this is no easy task; every community contains multiple forms of oppression. This can create “barriers across sense,” as she puts it, that distort how we see one another and disable our ability to understand.
Sexist behavior, whether slight or severe, is never acceptable or excusable. Nobody, today, can claim ignorance. Sexism in every form weakens liberatory movements, fractures solidarity and exacerbates the oppression of the already oppressed. Even verbal offenses, like sexist comments, can instigate shame, humiliation and feelings of unworthiness, and in some cases, post-traumatic stress episodes, nightmares and self-harm.
But sexist behavior is sometimes enacted by individuals who are making otherwise important contributions to the movement, even contributions against the oppression of women. Unrepentant and repeated sexist behavior warrants condemnation and exclusion. Repentant sexists, though, should elicit a different response. Mr. Díaz has said publicly that he accepts responsibility for his behavior. Of course there is always the question of sincerity, but this is best judged by practice in the long term.
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.
As a survivor, I fully know the stakes in this issue. The likelihood that one will not be believed is what keeps us in decades of agonized silence, unable to get help or support. And for this very reason, we have to reassess how credibility is judged by jurors, newspapers, among friends, and crucially, across the internet.
Social media and traditional media are imperfect mechanisms for establishing truth or enhancing understanding. We need to enact alternative ways to interact with repentant sexists, to imagine productive roles for them — just as former gang members can educate young people in their communities on the topic of gang violence.
Can we hold people to account at the same time as we acknowledge their own victimization? Can we remain aware of multiple forms of oppression in our analysis? Can we demand more of a structural and systemic analysis without reducing individual responsibility? Can we respect the rage we are hearing as well as plan for a different future? I believe we must.
Listen to the author speak about this issue on the May 17 episode of the WNYC podcast The Takeaway.