No Honor amongst Family

Outside viewers might find the idea of pan-PoC spaces confusing. Surely, the experiences of people of South Asian, aboriginal Australian, Korean, Caribbean, African, and African-American descent are far too distinct to function in a single environment meant to recognize and validate them all. To a point, this is an accurate observation, and there is much that is not shared between East Asian, Amerindian, and Arab racialization, not to mention how most racialized groups are still at least a step higher on colonizers’ racial hierarchy than people of African descent. But there is also a great deal we all have in common. Some forms of racialization are nigh-universal, including fetishizing exoticism and making fun of our food before it becomes “trendy.” There are also, perhaps more importantly, things that members of virtually all immigrant or otherwise marginalized communities have to deal with from each other, which outsiders often struggle to understand.

Immigrant communities are clannish. Between racism and homesickness, they collect in particular neighborhoods and avoid entanglements with the white majority in particular and with members of other ethnic groups in general. They become preoccupied with maintaining culture in the face of others’ hegemony.  They receive their children’s inevitable non-member partners, who don’t speak their language, place social values in the same order, or reminisce fondly about the same food, with suspicion and resentment until they somehow “prove” their worth. Some take this further and develop a siege mentality, in which any display of weakness, vulnerability, or information about how the community operates that outsiders can see is beyond the pale. Especially in communities that already prioritize appearance and internal competition, this is an easy trait to develop.

It’s also a pattern that could not more easily conceal and enable abusive behavior than if it were designed specifically for that purpose.

Prince Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender, scowling with arms folded against a background of forested cliffs.

My ethnic community is preoccupied with “family honor.” That is the phrase they use, distinct from but related to how some other cultures that obsess over the word “honor” present it. This culture is obsessed with appearance and with loyalty. Appearances must be maintained, which means that anything difficult that family members are experiencing is to be kept secret unless it can be used to make us look better. Difficulties worth complaining about to outsiders are difficulties that the family is not addressing adequately, as far as they’re concerned, which means they are things that their intra-community rivals can hold over them forever. Further, loyalty is paramount, which means that it is a priori not possible for members of the same family to hurt each other enough that this hurt is detectable via their interactions. Everything that family members say or do to one another is “out of love,” and therefore cannot be harmful, by definition. Further, it is unacceptably hostile to let any sign of such internal strife show where people outside of the immediately affected circle can see it. Appearances demand that the family present a face of wealthy, contented harmony both to its own cultural kin and to the wider world, no matter what. Revealing such “internal” matters is an unacceptable breach of decorum verging on a declaration of war, because it brings the family’s internal behavior into contrast with this carefully constructed front, because even having a negative enough opinion of the behavior of one’s family is a betrayal, and because making the sausage-making visible to the outside suddenly forces people to consider what it looks like.

“Loyalty” does not include not subjecting your children to continuous emotional abuse.  “Loyalty” does not include standing by them as they reveal themselves to be multiply queer, venturing outside the two acceptable career options, dating outside their race, having non-marital sex, experiencing mental-health symptoms, and otherwise not what one expected. “Loyalty” does not include not lying to one’s children’s faces about past events.  “Appearances” does not include actually addressing whatever problems are making the family look bad. “Appearances” does not include understanding social media well enough to recognize just how much it’s not “for all the world to see.” Neither idea includes registering the content of such defiant speech as information they could use to change their behavior.

But “loyalty” does include keeping abusive correspondence private. “Loyalty” does include choosing a partner based on the culture’s priorities instead of one’s own. “Loyalty” does include pretending to be celibate, cisgender, and heterosexual if one has the tragic misfortune of their actual sex life and gender being something that would “ruin” the family’s reputation. “Appearances” do include never pointing out when parents lie. “Appearances” hinges on never, ever telling anyone that the treatment one receives is abusive or otherwise not to one’s liking, because it would make the family look bad, and that is a fate worse than being abused and being unable to seek any support.

“Loyalty” and “appearances” have one direction—upward.

If my parents were reading this, they might argue that the basic responsibilities of parental care—feeding, clothing, sheltering, teaching, hugging, playing with, and providing financially for their children—are also within the umbrella of “family honor” and “loyalty.” But these basic components of parenthood are never discussed in these terms, and it is not “family honor” that deadbeat parents are said to be violating. “Family honor” is something owed to hierarchs by subordinates, not the reverse, and the concept is inescapably perfect for encouraging and enabling abusive households.

It is not a coincidence that this culture has been steeped in Spanish Catholicism, with its corporal punishment, mortification of the flesh, holy suffering, cosmic hierarchy, and well-honed transantagonism and homophobia, for 400 years. What Catholicism installed, racism made a matter of self-preservation.

I have watched and endured this pattern play out for close to three decades. I have seen what “family honor” means, personally and repeatedly. I have seen that phrase become shorthand for “we’re going to shout insults at you that we wouldn’t dare invoke where our reputations would suffer for it.” I have seen that phrase make my posting online about financial difficulties a bigger cause for concern than the fact that Ania and I were desperately short of cash. I have watched that phrase cause family members to complain to my parents about what I was posting, rather than bring any of those concerns to me or try to solve the associated problems. I have watched “family honor” just-world-fallacy itself into another way to downplay, disavow, and invalidate any conceivable concern about the treatment one receives as “whining” and “spoiled brat” and a dozen other ways to insinuate that one is in violation of their obligations as a family member if they harbor such feelings.

I have received specific instructions to keep the contents of various conversations secret, because my parents knew what they would hear from their relatives if I made them public.

I understand their need for contextual secrecy. I know all too well that people do things they’d rather not publicize or broadly discuss for all sorts of reasons. This discussion and this concept are not about accidentally revealing to someone they’ve been avoiding that they’ve had gaps in their schedule this whole time, or gleefully sharing embarrassing personal quirks they’ve been mistreated for in the past, or about the vulnerability and weakness one shares in private communication with their inner circle that is not meant for, and could be misused by, those less close. This is not about outing people’s hidden marginalizations.

This is about “family honor,” that concept custom-crafted to enable abusers to impugn not just the moral integrity, not just the psychic strength, but familial love and even ethnic identity of those they abuse if they have the temerity to tell others that they are being abused.

This is about “family honor,” the cultural trope that has made me the Plutonium Cousin—everyone who touches her, gets burned—over nothing more than refusing to face mistreatment silently.

This is about “family honor,” and how my relatives refuse to grasp that the steady flow of awfulness my friends hear about them has two possible capstones: I cease contact with family, or my family stops doing awful things.

This is about “family honor,” and how the cleansing light of day will continue to lay sterilizing ultraviolent upon my misfortunes, with whether there is anything to illuminate being entirely up to them.

This is about taking the no-cost behavior of mistreating someone bound by “family honor” to put a smile on their deadened heart and cold water on their seeping eyes and imposing a cost. This is about them wanting to raise their voices at me again, or send me another letter telling me that my gender is the result of me being manipulated into Ania’s dress-up doll for her amusement, or threatening me with financial ruin for being me, and making them think twice.

This is about yet another clique of malcontents trying to harass me out of somewhere I have every right to be, and forgetting whom they’re dealing with.

But if they want me in their lives at all, they will remember.

No Honor amongst Family

4 thoughts on “No Honor amongst Family

  1. 2

    This sounds extraordinarily difficult. My heart goes out to you. I grew up in, and married into, white, not-terribly-clannish families… and yet I have said or done things to offend “family honor”. I’d like to think that I would have the strength to be the Plutonium Cousin if I were in your shoes, but I don’t know.

    I have a friend who grew up in a very clannish Portuguese-American family in rural Southern California. He never fit in; he’s very smart, pretty sensitive to BS, and he only has so much patience for it. He also chose to never marry. He’s in his early 60s now I think, and he visits his family twice a year max, making the several-hour drive to and from his parents’ home in a single day rather than stay overnight. The distance is necessary for him, though he’s frequently reminded that he’s not being “family-oriented” enough. Gah.

  2. 3

    And then mainstream society has the gall to look at the abuse they helped to enable as evidence that “those people aren’t like us, we need to further ostracise them”.
    Though, as I can personally testify, such abuse is also totally possible in white middle class atheist progressive households.
    After I and my sister finally refused to keep lying and my parents could no longer hide certain aspects, my married into the family aunt told me that for her a world had shattered. She’d always looked towards us as the perfect family. The model to aspire to. Not like her own bumpy marriage and open troubles and conflicts…
    I’m sometimes amazed at how mich I can relate to the experiences of people from very backgrounds regarding such abuse, though the difference is that my family didn’t have a whole framework like religion or honour to back them up.

  3. 4

    […] with a D next to their name and Josef Stalin himself. We grow up having as our behavioral model a crime family’s mix of obsequious loyalty to those within and conniving, practical cruelty to…. The right-authoritarian Batista regime aligned with their principles, and they mourned its loss. […]

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