A year after Junot Diaz, what conversations have we postponed?

A year ago today the New Yorker published a piece written by Dominican Author Junot Diaz. In it, he publicly disclosed that he is a survivor of child sexual abuse.

Very quickly, and fairly, after this was published, another round of disclosures were made publicly by survivors who had been harmed by him. Other survivors of color, women of color.

I felt in that moment the importance of the conversations that these events were opening for advocacy, and asked our Executive Director to make this the focus of our staff caucus.

I also opened it as conversation for our crisis advocates, educators and student groups.

I listened more than I spoke, feeling intuitively the range of associations and emotions.

The day after the New Yorker piece was published, I had surgery and began a three week leave of absence from work.

My first thought when I read the publication was that I had realized that Junot Diaz didn’t identify as having identified publicly as a survivor previously, as my familiarity with him centered that knowledge.

I’d heard him deliver the keynote at the Facing Race conference organized by Race Forward in 2012, and in it he centered his own trauma, both that he’d experienced and that he’d caused.

I’d paid attention especially when as he described the protagonist in his famous trilogy, he acknowledged that character as written as a survivor of child sexual abuse; weary of giving up his privileges, and a part of a culture that didn’t hold him accountable, amongst several incest survivors in his community who hadn’t received support. He said in response to an audience question, “I think by the next book I’ll be ready to have him deal with it.”

The specificity and emotional presence he conveyed while communicating harm that he was responsible for really struck me, because it was contextually labeled as a weakness in our personal and collective accountability.

In supervising advocates, it has been a central theme and question to define accountability practically, creating a bias for being held accountable and taken harm seriously.

Much of that work has created inner tension, at the root of which includes a resistance to identifying with harm and abuse of power.

I have grappled with how whiteness and white supremacy steeps itself in both my advocacy and my survivorship, and have emphasized devoted time to understanding my own internalizations present in my behavior and reactions.

I began writing a book two years ago examining those questions and tensions present in myself, wanting more guidance on how to be accountable beyond what that has come to mean. I believe that as a white advocate, and as a white survivor, I have harmed other survivors, and been a tool for marginalizing them. I believe that causing harm is the norm, and that accountability doesn’t come easily or naturally.

The word we keep invoking is “instead of”, when what our bodies keep inscribing as challenge for our thinking is, “and also this”.

How do I participate in holding Junot Diaz accountable without negating my own?

How do I affirm and embrace survivors without dismissing his?

Is there accountability for the white leaders who hoard power, or fail to elevate leaders of color?

Is there accountability for the white survivors harassing persons seeking abortion?

Is there accountability for the survivors who stumble into parenting how they were patented?

Is there accountability for the non profits that are opening and speeding up gentrification?

Is there accountability for the white survivors calling the police on their black neighbors, or contributing to Islamophobia or the War on Crime?

Tell me, what are we to include? What does it mean to seek accountability while still healing, the latter more slowly than the former, and the former deserving to still be centered.

It’s not enough to exempt whiteness in our analysis anymore than it’s enough to stop there.

It’s not enough to shine light as institutions without being open to critique that we take seriously.

It’s not enough to interrogate masculinity without grappling with childhood trauma.

If consciousness was enough to undo our internalizations, trauma would be as easy to heal from as we pretend that it is.

The tragedy would be merely lip service, and the change to your psyche irrelevant.

The problem would be individually solved, and not the contagion that has spread and covered us. Not the voice in our heads that says maybe consent isn’t real, and maybe it doesn’t need to be. Not the voice that remains vulnerable to powerful scripts that show consent in the shape of our experiences with it.

As I look at the reflections I have accumulated over these two years, I am full of questions and disclosures, and a feeling that we have been remiss in how we’ve framed these conversations.

I am hungering to go deeper, to pan out further, and to include structures in what we implicate. And I’m hungering for an awareness that trauma shapes us as negatively as positively, and there is compassion I hold for the children who are nurtured in that duality.

Can we go back there, to our childhoods, to our unregulated crisis breakdowns, and stand in that humility, without asking to be excused for anything. Can we pick up the conversations we aren’t having, and have compassion for the acute tenderness still in our way.