It’s Time to Retire Toxic Ride-or-Die Culture

·9 min read

My first real romantic relationship with a man took a decade of my youth. From 13 to 23, almost the entire span of my brain’s developmental years, I spent aguantando because I wanted him to stay. He cheated; I forgave. He called me crazy; I believed. He needed money; I gave. He told lies; I held them as truths. I had many needs, but I was too busy meeting his to pay any attention to my own. By the time I was out of high school, one of his friends called me Hillary Clinton, claiming that I, like the first lady, was a ride-or-die.

But I hadn’t learned to be a ride-or-die from a white woman whose husband’s betrayal was plastered all over the news; I learned it at home. The lessons came from my mom opening the door for my father every time he decided to come back, from my cheating tíos and the tías that stayed, from my grandmother’s unyielding loyalty to my grandfather who would dismiss her humanity, from my ‘hood, specifically when an older girl I looked up to took a gun charge for her child’s father like Aleida Díaz did in “Orange is the New Black.”

This toxic performance of ride-or-dieness has made its way through generations. Back in the day, for our grandmothers and matriarchal ancestors, women stood beside men because society demanded they have children, because coming across money was difficult, because job opportunities were nearly non-existent, and because being a “kept” woman, or “una mujer de su casa,” afforded them respect. But this often-unhealthy devotion is not something that’s just in the past.

In a culture that remains steeped in machismo, many Black and Brown women continue to uphold marianismo, the idea that women must be pure, self-sacrificing, and completely devoted to their families and/or romantic partners. We see this among our elders as well as the young, independent, and feminist-minded. In media old and new, the ride-or-die character has been packaged as someone who is strong and aspirational. In “West Side Story,” Maria attempts to run away with Tony after he murdered her brother, even taking her own life when she thinks he is dead. More recently, in “Euphoria,” the fun, sociable, and confident Maddy Perez stays with her boyfriend despite his physical violence and life threats.

These fictional media portrayals mirror reality. In being in toxic ride-or-die relationships, women, and especially women of color, suffer — whether we are aguantando betrayal or violence or sacrificing our pleasure, money, or happiness. In fact, one-third of women in the U.S. will be in an abusive relationship, and it often takes them seven attempts to leave before fully stepping away from the relationship. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “in communities of color, there is already a cultural phenomenon of not revealing personal matters or private matters and also not trusting those that might be able to provide assistance.” This puts women who are impoverished, undocumented, and/or have been taught by culture and religion to stay and defend romantic partners at increased risk. Even more, Black and Brown women make up the fastest-growing prison population, and many of them sit behind bars for crimes committed by their partners.

It has become ingrained in heterosexual Black and Brown women to do the impossible: to betray ourselves over and over for men who do not reciprocate.

Lorraine Avila

It has become ingrained in heterosexual Black and Brown women to do the impossible: to betray ourselves over and over for men who do not reciprocate. Some stay loyal and/or beside partners due to manipulation, others for “love,” and many to follow the social and cultural scripts we’ve been given, but some also do so under the illusion of safety. In the United States and in Latin America, where hatred toward women is rampant and uncomfortable and violent attention toward Black and Brown femme bodies is the norm, being with a man provides a fantasy of protection, even when our partners are harming us or keeping us from reaching our highest potential.

But being a ride-or-die isn’t only experienced in romantic relationships. I don’t only betray myself for the opposite sex; I do it for other women, too — probably more often. I’ve realized that my ride-or-dieness comes from a fear that I am not a “good” person, that as a Black Caribbean woman, I am “too direct” and “aggressive,” and that I must protect the ones I love from my real needs. In the past, it’s been women who I believed to have my best interest at heart who took advantage of this and left me feeling unsafe and unstable. Since the start of the pandemic, I have solidified and strengthened many of my friendships and ended others. Two of my friend breakups shook me and forced me to take accountability for the ways I was also responsible for repeating similar toxic ride-or-die cycles because I was not learning the same lessons. But now I’ve learned that riding-or-dying for my friends, especially when there’s no balance, no communication, and no true reciprocity, isn’t healthy, either.

Similarly, when I zoom out of interpersonal relationships, I am forced to think about my relationship with oppressive systems, like capitalism and the U.S. workplace. For nearly a decade, I dedicated myself to being a full-time teacher at public schools. In many ways, teaching required me to also be a caregiver, therapist, social worker, and literacy teacher for my students. As I moved through my career, I also became a resource for adults in these spaces who were holding onto identity bias that was affecting the way they interacted with Black and Brown students and educators. I was a racial equity coach for adults and a consistent sounding board for many of my students’ and peers’ academic and socio-emotional needs. Teaching, like many other jobs in the U.S., requires you to give a huge portion of yourself. Teaching made me give everything. But when I needed my workplace to give back, it did not.

In 2019, I was in a car accident where I suffered a severe concussion. I was forced into a weeklong medical leave by my doctor, but 24 hours in, I received emails from my assistant principal, pressuring me to return to work. When I explained how the brain injury was affecting me, I was gaslit. I was told over and over again: “You are what’s best for your students” and “you have achieved something great with our least-reached students.” It was a successful tactic in guilt-tripping me into coming in during medical leave.

When I did return, my headaches became unbearable and I requested the support of substitute teachers. Within the month, the school district called me and told me to never return to the school. I lost all my books, materials, and even my physical teaching license inside that classroom. More than that, I lost my students, who called me with their parents, crying about me leaving them and asking me who was going to have their back now.

The truth is that in all of these situations, I failed to remain grounded in my boundaries. Like mami says, “le das una mano y cojen el brazo.” I breached my boundaries, stretching them for other people’s needs — sacrificing myself until I was left broken.

This complex reaction belongs to so many first-born daughters of immigrants, to so many women and femmes, to many of us who grew up in one-parent and/or unstable homes.

Lorraine avila

While I am aware of the ways I have performed harmful ride-or-dieness throughout my life and career, I am still learning to move away from this need to automatically sacrifice myself for those who wouldn’t do the same for me. This isn’t unique to me. This complex reaction belongs to so many first-born daughters of immigrants, to so many women and femmes, to many of us who grew up in one-parent and/or unstable homes. For years, I thought my tendency was a sign of compassion, maybe something even noble, but I’ve realized it is a toxic trait because it is a morphed reflection of the noxious version to ride-or-die.

Still, despite my negative experiences with ride-or die-culture, I do believe in a positive, healthy version, one that represents a deep sense of love, respect, and loyalty. I believe in using my privilege and my voice for those I care about. I believe in using my resources to facilitate life for members in my community. I desire to work through conflict, difficult moments, and messy conversations with people I share space and life with. I want that from my community and for me, too – reciprocity.

My close friend, Mechi Annaís Estévez Cruz, has taught me to see so much of this. When I speak about ride-or-die culture and feeling negatively attached to it, they remind me that it’s nuanced. “When you are in a relationship where the premise is communication, reciprocity, and meeting one another’s needs, then that’s radical loyalty,” they say. “If the premise of the ride-or-die idea is that you have to put yourself under, or the other person takes and doesn’t reciprocate, that’s just normalizing the power dynamics of mainstream colonial cultures.”

In a world where we have to lean on one another, this sounds normal — righteous— except the inheritance of colonialism has sullied it.

LORRAINE AVILA

As a person of Caribbean descent, a fucked-up inheritance of the transatlantic slave trade, who reflects on the effects of colonialism often, I’m now thinking about the ways it has deteriorated how we, as communities, hold one another up until this day. “What are you willing to give a person,” Mechi asks me on our phone call. “What does it mean to ride? What does it mean to put yourself on the line to protect the people you care about?” It’s not supposed to be bad. But, as Mechi says, “this society has really corrupted what it means to ride-or-die, so we are all trying to perform it incorrectly and causing a lot of harm.” In other words, in a world where we have to lean on one another, riding-or-dying sounds normal — righteous — except the inheritance of colonialism has sullied it.

To reclaim a positive version of ride-or-die culture, we have to decolonize our relationships by speaking and practicing love. It becomes our responsibility to learn how we want to receive love. It then becomes our work to communicate it and ask others how they wish to be loved as well. From this collective space, we have the ability to create the safest conditions to ride-or-die for our people — to liberate everyone and to thrive together.

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