Performing Good-West-Indian-Discipline Online

Today I shared a viral video of a Caribbean mom beating her 12-year-old daughter with a belt for talking to and sending photos of herself to a man online posting photos of herself in a vest and underwear online. In the comments which followed on the CODE RED facebook page two persons wrote that they were unable to watch the video as they felt sick to their stomachs.

I was taken aback by their comments. Or rather, I felt their comments were dishonest.

I watched my grandmother punch my cousin in the face for breaking eggs on her way back from the shop. My father once ripped a shirt off my teenaged sister.  I attended public primary school. Nuff said.

My mother recalls missing school regularly because her grandmother would put her mother out of the house on a whim.

I will not even write what I have seen and heard my neighbour do to his son.

Remembering those occasions in which I experienced or was forced to bear witness to physical and emotional violence is traumatic. Sometimes the very ways in which Caribbean parents seek to demonstrate love, care and guidance are the very ways that will destroy you.

We have to know better so we can do better.  We have to unlearn.

But we can’t begin that process of unlearning and re-learning if we are going to get all righteous and pretend like violence is not an everyday, normalised part of life.  The mother who made the video and posted it online knew that her Caribbean viewers would recognise “good West Indian discipline” when they saw it.  She made that video for us, to let us know she is a good mother, a tough mother.  She knows that after what her daughter posted online people would be asking questions about what kinda mudda raises the kinda force-ripe 12-year-old that would post risque photos online.

These videos of mothers and fathers beating their children are in wide circulation and generally receive praise as examples of good parenting.

If we want to change the normalisation of physical and emotional abuse we have to get honest.  Yes, we can (and do) watch the videos. Yes, our stomachs can take it.  Yes, we have witnessed or received worse. Yes, we use violence ourselves. For many Caribbean parents the decision to not hit their children is one that must be consciously chosen over the culturally approved mandate that to spare the rod is to spoil the child.

One mom left this comment:

growing up in a caribbean household (where my brother and i did get licks) i know that the traditional mindset is that this is no big ting. that the lash she get and the mother posting it online was deserved since it seems she was ‘being fas’ and ‘talkin to man’ on FB and she is only 12 yrs old. as a mother who has struggled to find alternative ways to discipline and teach my boys other than the belt, i understand the moms frustration. she probably is honestly trying to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow using the only way she knows how. i am loathe to judge her cuz she may not know any other way to talk and discipline her child. but the truth is that this is wrong. its abusive, humiliating and does more harm than good in the long run. the problem is how to change this mindset that is so ingrained in caribbean culture? i’ve gotten into some serious rows with friends and family who think me soft and too american for not beating my kids. and i’ve also caved to the pressure and frustration and beat them when they drove me crazy… its easy to point the finger but to actually throw off generations of teaching when there seems to be no viable alternative? so much harder….

I appreciate her honesty. Corporal punishment is still legal in most Caribbean schools.  When I started teaching it was against the law for ordinary teachers to hit children but senior teachers and principals were legally permitted to do so.  When the media publicized the fact that teachers who beat children were engaging in a criminal act many teachers felt that their ability to control the classroom was being undermined.

We have experienced violence and are living with that trauma.  We have used violence. We have failed to consider other alternatives. We have justified our use of violence. Violence has become a normal and natural response.

When we dare to be honest about how hurt we are, about how hurt we feel when we hurt others, we open the door to healing.

It’s time we stopped saying that we were beaten like slaves and it made us the men and women we are today.  We are not betraying our parents when we recognise that they were abusive, we are not denying that they weren’t also loving, that they raised us in trying times and under harsh conditions.

We have to admit the hurt and our implications on both sides of it.

See also I am a Complicated Latina Feminist, Ending Violence by Tina Vasquez for a thoughtful exploration of violence and family responsibility.

Edited to remove link to video following complaints. Please read my response to reader criticisms here.

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24 thoughts on “Performing Good-West-Indian-Discipline Online

  1. I definitely agree with all the points you have posted here about the normalization of violence and how difficult the unlearning process is for many. This is a great analysis of what goes on in households throughout the Caribbean. Still though you have people who cannot believe there are any other ways to discipline children. I understand that some people don’t know any better in some cases, but it’s disturbing to see diasporic West Indians my age who *do* know better and can cite some of the negative impacts their “discipline” has had on them but still believe there is no other way. One thing I think people have a problem with the most is ceasing to dichotomize disciplinary methods. Not beating your children is not equivalent to not disciplining them.

    Perhaps the unlearning process would be easier for some if there was greater discussion of alternative methods of disciplining children that don’t rely on violence? That’s the way I’ve tried to discuss with some of my friends about their future children — by trying to present them with alternatives. Hopefully more people though are willing to engage in discussion about the violent nature of discipline & they are able to do so without passing judgment. Even if your mother has beaten you violently, people are averse to bad mouthing their own mother (naturally!) so the conversation needs to happen imo without that vilification. I have hope for our region yet.

    Anyways, this was a great article and vocalized many of the thoughts I’ve been having recently as I try to engage in some reflection about my island and my upbringing.

    (ERS, St. Lucia//Studying abroad)

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  2. Thank you so much for your comment, ERS. The taboo against speaking ill of one’s mother is so strong that many people come down on the side of publicly saying that they are better off for having been beaten. I do agree that we need more of a public discussion of alternatives.

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  3. Phil says:

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    You are right on with this one. This is something I hear pretty often – “my parents gave me a few whacks once in a while and I’m a better person because of it,” or something like that.

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    You’re right here, too, but I think it’s also more than that. People do not want to think of *themselves* as victims of abuse, and so they rationalize what happened when they were children, even to the point of saying it played a positive role in making them who they now are.

    It’s also important to realize that this is a widespread problem across cultures. I’m of Mediterranean rather than Caribbean decent — I’m Italian-American. And I can tell you that the same notion of disciplining and teaching through physical punishment, what we would now consider abuse, is common among the older generations of that heritage. Spanking, smacks across the face, whacks on the arm or hand — all of it has happened and continues to happen (not as much among the younger generations in the USA, but being I can’t speak to what the case may be in Italy today) and to be considered normal. My wife, who is Filipina, has similar observations of her own culture.

    It’s a widespread model of parenting that is based on a kind of assumed “ownership” of the child, including a right to physically discipline. That sees physical violence as the *only* way to teach a child a lesson, that sees actual dialogue with the child as an unacceptable compromise between unequals, doomed to fail. If a child does “wrong,” you fix her/him, period, and a smack or lash or slap is the only thing thought to get the job done. Kids internalize that some things they have done could only have been addressed through physical punishment and often don’t question it – they just think they deserved it and if they hadn’t acted “bad,” they wouldn’t have been beaten.

    Of course, the definition of what is “bad” is to a degree culturally and personally subjective. When I was about 7, I was once slapped firmly across the face by my mother for telling her that I would date an African American girl if I wanted to.

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    • Thank you for your comments, Phil. Your observation that people do not want to think of themselves as abused and victimised is part of why they continue to speak of this discipline in very positive terms. I think that is very true for Caribbean people as well.

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  4. Phil says:

    I tried to bracket the comments I was addressing/agreeing with but they dropped out. My response still (hopefully) makes sense, but for clarification, the statement to which I gave the response that began “You’re right here, too, but I think it’s also more than that” is:

    “The taboo against speaking ill of one’s mother is so strong that many people come down on the side of publicly saying that they are better off for having been beaten. “

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    • Thanks for your comments, Phil. They were clear and add a lot to the discussion by pointing out that these cultural practices aren’t exclusively Caribbean and the role that refusing victimhood plays in how people make sense of the violence they experienced as children. Another thing that we hear very little about is the remorse parents feel after they’ve used violence against their children.

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  5. I know that I have been reluctant to repost the video publicly to participate in the secondary violence being done to this young woman as the video goes viral. The most wrenching comment I’ve seen on a social media site where it was posted said the mother ought to know that that sort of beating is to be done in private. Like slaves, we whip our children and occasionally have sex with them.

    I found it very hard to finish watching the video. There was not much family violence in my childhood, though a family member of mine does not remember me seeing a plate being broken over her head. But i also think the humiliation over sex is what the video is really about, not just the violence. The mother is teaching her young woman that sexuality is shameful and its slutty expression is to be whipped back into respectability. She is not learning of risks and decisionmaking, of the value of intimacy and the preciousness of desire; she is learning that sexual expression is transgressive. Boys are not taught that. And I kept thinking that one day a man will beat and shame her over sex the same way and she will have learnt that that is what sex deserves.

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    • Thanks, Colin. I’m glad you mentioned not posting the video for ethical reasons as another person writing on our fb page also said the same– that by posting the video we are complicit in the public shaming.

      100% agreed that the reason the mother is beating her daughter is because of sexual behaviour. The cousin I mentioned in the article above was mekking sport/playing with a boy on her way back home when the eggs got broken. So the punch to the face she received was more about teaching her respectability.
      Boys do not get their (hetero)sexuality policed in that way but they too undergo violent socialization intended to make them men. Barry Chevannes records this for Jamaica and Austin Clarke writing about Barbados talks about being able to hold one’s licks as a marker of a boy being a “real” man.

      i want to get back to the question of sharing the video though…thinking through that some more. Both from the point of view of ethics and exploitation and from the point of view of new media and how it’s used.

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  6. Temitope says:

    Ah yes DISCIPLINE…I believe that discipline involves ensuring the child is informed of and understands the expectations in the initial stage. As they get older, the ‘why’ of the expectation needs to be explained. They must understand how their behaviour impacts on themselves, as well as on others. They must choose ‘right’ because they ‘know’ it to be ‘right’ and not because they fear punishment. Nonetheless, consequences or punishment are useful when there is a deliberate deviation from the expectation…and even then, their deviation might be valid depending on the situation. Choice of consequence/ punishment depends on the child in terms of what would be most effective for that personality. I guess the approach to discipline needs to be flexible and ongoing. Parenting involves growth for the parent as well…

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  7. I just hear about the video and its content. i agree with you that we need to talk about beating chirren as a form of discipline. What I do not agree with, is giving life to the video of abuse and shame. The video should be killed. We do not post videos of rape and man beating woman and so to highlight what happens.. we forget that nuff beating last their time and done , now this time round.. the beating aint done…

    And I think that we can in small ways not share.. the video.. even if it share a million times.. we dont have to participate in it..

    Yep..we need to talk about violence and beating and slavery and culture and being good mothers and fathers and the hypocrisy of women wearing panty in the advertisements and parents expecting their chirren not to see those advertisements.. where you starting?

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    • Thanks for your comment that we should refuse to be part of the violence and public-shaming by not sharing the video. Another comment I have been getting on the fb page is that many other people felt disgusted and sickened by the video and that the everyday can be disgusting and sickening and anxiety-inducing. A useful reminder for me that you can live with something everyday and it can cause you anxiety, hurt everyday, that some people would find such violence triggering. I’m very grateful to everyone who participated in this conversation.

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  8. Tee says:

    I grew up being beat like that and watching those videos makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t think it’s dishonest at all, all I would be mindful not to judge my readers like that. I believe that just because something is a norm, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t sicken you and cause anxiety because that’s my experience for sure. It’s disheartening and disgusting to beat children like that because the lesson isn’t learned. Licks instills fear, however the dangers of sending risqué photos isn’t addressed. The reason for her wanting the grown man’s attention isn’t addressed. Her thoughts about her body, thoughts on love, thoughts on her needing love and overstanding and acknowledgement goes unaddressed. Nothing has been learned other than if you disobey you will get beat. What kind of compassionate, loving lesson is that? It’s sickening and horrible. The shaming needs to end.

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  9. thanks for your comments. I take your point that I was quick to rush to judgement and that things that sicken us and cause us anxiety can also be things we experience everyday. Thank you for reminding me of that.

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  10. After reading some comments from readers, I could not help but recall how funny, the book, Miguel Street was for me as a teenager. I read with relish, the cussing, the beating and the antics… it was all the colour and fun of the village life I knew and accepted.
    Years later, someone suggested that I try creative writing and that I use a collection style similar to Miguel Street so I dust off the book for another humorous read as well as a little education. I got neither. I was shocked at the violence, the abuse that my the education system had forced on me in the name of literature. (I can’t remember anyone saying it was wrong, perhaps they did but I was enjoying too much.) Therefore as I read some comments, I could not help but think about the some of the negative practices (aspects of our culture) we have in the Caribbean as well as how they are instilled in us and how they are preserved.

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  11. I wrote a post about this video on my blog trying to justify the punishment to those western individuals who have never seen such a thing. But after reading your post you are right. It is too easy to ‘accept’ beatings, especially for those of us who have been through them and perhaps subconsciously feel that everyone should also pay their dues and deal with theirs?

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  12. Jeda says:

    Having had an interesting debate with my Jamaican cousin over in NY over this (I’m mixed race Jamaican/Scottish raised & living in Scotland), I am pleased to have found this article and have shared it with her. First of all I love to hear about any feminist movements! I have found this a very interesting read – and your follow-up articles. Over here in Scotland smacking (or spanking) children is illegal, although a few people still do it. I won’t pretend we’re some perfect society – we have plenty of our own issues around violent crime, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy etc, like any country. However, I have two children – my eldest is 12 – and our education system is fairly well geared up over here to tackle peer pressure, safety online etc (they begin these lessons at 10yrs because research has shown this is the optimum age to help them make better choices as teenagers). This has only happened in the last few years though and young people still make all sorts of these kinds of mistakes. Personally I believe there are many discipline options, other than corporal punishment, to ensure your children become responsible and respectful adults. If my son or daughter had made such a mistake I would first look to myself and my failing as a parent in not teaching them about the correct behaviour both online and offline. I would then speak to their school to find out why they were not teaching about these important issues. For example, as soon as my daughter got a mobile phone, I told her she was not allowed to post photos or videos without our approval. I also made her aware of the fact anyone with a phone can post pictures or videos of you without your consent. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the parent, not the child – schools can only do so much. It is up to us to guide them by example, discussion and teaching to become kind, moral, respectful and responsible adults. Many parents themselves don’t know enough about internet safety and, although we have a wonderful mix of cultures on this earth, I do wish more of us (of all genders) were empowered to live full, safe and content lives. I hope the discussions sparked across the world will help to provide a gateway to a less violent future, as well as more education for all ages about safety online, preventing the sexualisation of young people, tolerance, social equality etc. I hope the family involved can heal from this, especially the young girl. I worry about her self esteem and self worth. So many girls and women post these kinds of pictures of themselves from a place of low self esteem, but I wonder how much lower it will be now, after being beaten by people who love her. It is a very confusing message in my opinion. I am trying to understand the society that continues this, because I am half Jamaican. However in the UK and USA this would not be classed as spanking, but as child abuse. Social work would be involved and the children removed from the home. I hope that the family can heal and move forward in a positive way from this.

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    • Thanks for your comment. As you said, what happened in the video must be understood as child abuse. That does not mean that the children should be taken away and placed in state care. State care has proven to be dangerous for children as recent stories of sexual assault and other abuses in Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad demonstrate.

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  13. Jeda says:

    I would never want a child placed in a more dangerous situation – each country needs to work out the best way forward for them. There has to be ethical and safe political, educational and social structures in place, and that takes time. State care in the UK is far from perfect (with a small amount of similar abuses of trust in the not so distant past), but most of the time UK state care, foster care or with relatives is chosen, even as a short term intermediate step. That may not be the answer for another county. Thank you for opening up this discussion. It is important and we have much to learn from one another across the globe. For example, the UK is lagging in 67th place, well behind numerous African, South American, and European countries with only 22.6% of women in parliament. As feminists we don’t just have responsibility to other women, but to teaching our brothers, fathers and, most importantly, sons to treat and respect women as equal human beings.

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