Domestic and intimate partner violence (DV/IPV) is a “family secret” in our Black communities. While I’m not suggesting that all Black people think and function in similar enough ways that we could all be labeled simply as one “community,” I do know we have pervasive problems that require nuanced discourse — especially in light of the national conversation about domestic abuse that has erupted over the last week.
Since Ray Rice, former Baltimore Ravens running back, was indefinitely suspended because a video was released of him punching his then-fiancée Janay until she was unconscious, there have been many conversations about violence between partners, and about the particular vulnerability of Black female victims. Much of the discussion has centered around the level of empathy and compassion shown toward victims like Janay, who choose to remain with their abusers.
These events have forced the country to face difficult truths about how prevalent domestic and intimate partner violence (DV/IPV) is in America. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, an estimated 1.3 million American women experience DV/IPV each year. Women make up 85% of the victims of DV/IPV. Despite this, most cases are never reported to the police and most women are victimized by people they know.
And for Black women, it’s an even bigger problem: Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of DV/IPV than White women. And while Black women only make up 8% of the population, 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to Black Women and 29% of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages 15 to 35. Statistically, we experience sexual assault and DV/IPV at disproportionate rates and have the highest rates of intra-racial violence against us than any other group. We are also less likely to report or seek help when we are victimized.
The reasons Black women suffer disproportionately from abuse are complex. Racism and sexism are two of the biggest obstacles that Black women in America face. But because many Black women and men believe racism is a bigger issue than sexism, Black women tend to feel obligated to put racial issues ahead of sex-based issues. For Black women, a strong sense of cultural affinity and loyalty to community and race renders many of us silent, so our stories often go untold. One of the biggest related impediments is our hesitation in trusting the police or the justice system. As Black people, we don’t always feel comfortable surrendering “our own” to the treatment of a racially biased police state and as women, we don’t always feel safe calling police officers who may harm us instead of helping us. And when we do speak out or seek help, we too often experience backlash from members of our communities who believe we are airing out dirty laundry and making ourselves look bad in front of White people.
Access to employment and economic self-sufficiency are also important. Racism has a disparate impact on Black people, men especially, who have, for the past six decades, consistently been held to an unemployment rate almost double that of white men. In a society that measures “manhood” primarily by one’s ability to provide, being denied access to the means to provide can cause some men to seek power through dominating women. For some men, the venting of anger turns violent and their partners suffer the greatest blows. Black women also face employment disparities, earning less than Black men and White men and women. This wage disparity limits available options and leaves many women, particularly mothers, feeling trapped in bad relationships where financial needs trump all.
Spiritual beliefs and negative views about mental health services also factor into why many Black women remain with abusive partners. One in three Black Americans who need mental health treatment actually receive it, and we are more likely to rely on religious guidance and faith-based practices when working through relationship issues. Religious beliefs often discourage divorce, encourage forgiveness and occasionally condemns those who seek psychiatric services instead of relying on faith. Black women’s perceptions of what constitutes abuse have been influenced by their negotiation of spiritual and mental health beliefs and how they have shaped our paradigms. Researchers have also found that Black women report feeling more obligated to fight back than to report abuse and that is reflected in the disproportionate rates of DV/IPV reported by Black men. Our attempts to embody the “strong Black woman” stereotype have often done more harm than good, to us and those we love.
There is a lot we don’t fully understand about the unique ways in which Black women endure DV/IPV because the lack of empirical research is indicative of what may simply be lack of empathy and concern for what Black women experience. I have been a fierce advocate for Black women and a mental health social worker for more than a decade and I have learned that we cannot win this fight if we don’t acknowledge any such fight exists to begin with. We need to continue speaking out and social media has become valuable in helping victims share their stories and learn about resources that can help. We need to push for stronger laws that punish criminal abusers and we need to advocate for more treatment options for victims and abusers who seek help. We need to fund advocacy programs and supportive services for victims of DV/IPV and work on reducing the stigma attached to seeking help when one is in trouble. Most of all, we need to believe that Black girls and women are valuable, important and worth putting ourselves and our personal safety first, and in our society that might be the hardest thing of all.
For too long, the experiences of Black women have been ignored, particularly when it comes to those that affect our overall health and well-being. For centuries, our bodies and labor have been exploited to serve the needs of everyone but ourselves, and the physical and psychological toll can no longer be swept under the rug. Black women matter and the longer we remain invisible and have our dignity stripped and our humanity disregarded, the closer we get to the destruction of our families and communities. We must all work to end the marginalization of Black women and focus our energies on amplifying our voices and sharing what we go through at home, at work and in our communities.