The pain of not being able to hurt you the way you hurt me

Over a month ago I read a line that I haven’t been able to get out of my head ever since. It was in the context of being on the receiving end of racial microaggressions – those off-hand comments that say you don’t belong, jokes that lay bare your dehumanisation, questions that make assumptions about you. The line was this: “I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.”

So simple.

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot; the idea of pain caused by an inability to cause equal pain. I’m not sure if it’s true, or if I want it to be true. Not sure that I want to believe that sometimes what hurts most is knowing that because of the way power works there is nothing you can do to someone to hurt them in the same way they have hurt you. There is no violence that can be done to them which will be that same specific violence. I don’t want it to be true but I think the appeal of that line, at least to me, is that in some way it encapsulates the essence of injustice: that visceral feeling that is nothing more or less than the knowledge that “this is not fair”.

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

I can’t stop thinking about it. Injury. Violence. How people can hurt us in ways they don’t know and how “calling out” or “calling in” cannot really exist sometimes in the most intimate of places, or the most public of them where you cannot really “call” at all. Where you cannot really find the words to explain what just passed between you and somebody else but is now sitting ugly between you. Where you realise we don’t really have the language we thought we had because there’s a million words that don’t exist between “yes” and “no”.

Image result for anxiety drawing
[illustration credit: Moisés Mahiques]
There have been multiple such injuries I have wanted to write about recently but felt I could not. On the one hand Nayyirah Waheed’s words ring in my ears, “the thing you are most afraid to write, write that”, and on the other I pre-empt the fallen faces of friends who would be insulted to think that I would first write about these moments than take up my injuries with them personally.

So I’m trapped. And on top of the personal level is the contextual level. That comes into play when I want to write about Muslim men in particular. Even when I have crafted out this space for myself, this platform to say what needs to be said; once said, I have no control over the words. And so it’s another trap. Where is the conceptual space to write about double standards, pain and injury caused by some of the very same people I most dedicate my time to protecting and protesting mainstream narratives for?

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

A few weeks ago my friend was sexually assaulted on the tube. We helplessly laughed at the unfathomability of trying to imagine anything she could possibly have done in the same context that could remotely have caused the same level of dehumanisation to him. There wasn’t.

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

A few nights ago a friend made a “joke” playing on tropes of Muslim men and sexual repression. It was one of those moments where you feel something fragile crumble. Not trust, just hope. There’s only so much you can convey when you try to explain how historically problematic a joke is whilst still smiling.

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

There are those words that play over and over in your mind, those phrases, sentences and questions that people have uttered at one time or another and which you maybe even laughed along with at the time, but which haunt you. Maybe a year from when they were uttered you finally cry about them, and by three years later they’re well-thumbed pages you return to at the end of every day.

I hated not being able to injure him in the same way.

The solution is probably an inevitable turning away from the tools of the oppressor, right? Realising that seeking to reproduce equal violence won’t heal you. But its not that I actually seek to produce that violence… only that I feel my inability to do so, and the inability of many people that I love to do so, very deeply.

5 thoughts on “The pain of not being able to hurt you the way you hurt me

  1. Isn’t that what we all think about at the end of the day? Injustice. At some point of time we all go through it and we all at some point feel that hey I really am helpless. Spot on about the whole explaining the joke while smiling. We are all trapped on some level to say the least.


  2. In our country,Nigeria the phrase that best captures this feeling is “suffering and smiling”,and it was popularised by Afro beat legend,Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
    Fela is long gone but the numbness that comes with being unable to do anything about the injustice of the system remains with us.Beautiful piece

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this … there are so many times I have felt this that I have too often found myself thinking through possible scenarios and having just the right words.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree that it is something we want to think is true, but it is. At the end of the day, it’s really not the things people say or do, but the helplessness we feel because they CAN do it and we cannot. The imbalance of power is what hurts us. If the power was balanced, then their actions would not have mattered.


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