Domestic violence, inherently, creates complexities on both sides of the gender aisle. We, as a society, have to admit that in order to have an open and honest conversation. This would be a conversation that appropriately lets emotions be felt and listen to opinions that may seem like something directly from a male chauvinist playbook be dealt with directly. The first open and honest paradigm that should govern these types of conversations is that the victim should not be further victimized. There is nothing ever that the victim caused to be a victim of domestic abuse. There is no word or action that has the power of causation for them to be hit or struck in any shape, form or fashion.
I’ve sat back, silently (and perhaps that is a fault of my own I hope to explore later in this piece), and watched some of my black brothers bring out the typical excuses, none of which are worth repeating, and I am of the opinion that if that is a starting place for gender conversations and fairly discussing how to end domestic violence, then we’re dead in the water. Men, and particularly black men need to know that those bevy of responses are non-starters for disavowing male privilege and dismantling patriarchal norms. In fact, those comments are nothing more than very visible and tangible signals to black women that black men aren’t capable of understanding their own complexities as black women at best, and at worst they give others the license to view those men as silent conspirators of domestic violence.
This leads me to my second paradigm that black men need to be seen as allies of black women against men (regardless of color) who perpetrate violence.* I’ve had a few friends ultimately confide in me that they are victims of domestic abuse–from abusive boyfriends particularly. I also have a friend who’s told me about an abusive marriage of which she is no longer a part of–but I wonder about other female friends of mine and are they in an abusive relationship right now? Have they been in one before? Did I as a friend miss warning signs? Was there anything I could do? Some of those things, sadly, there’s not much a third party can do in a real sense without facing criminal charges of their own, but black men need to be seen as aligned with the victim of the abuse. Black women need to know that if they picked up the phone called a black male friend to come and get them from an immediate threat that there wouldn’t be a question of causation lobbed back at them as if made to feel guilty.
Black men don’t have the option of being silent on this one.
Black men were silent when slave masters wantonly raped their wives, sisters and other black women on slave plantations and in other societal constructs in antebellum America. Black men were still forced to stand idly by when white men sexually abused black women in word, thought and deed in the post-Civil War Jim Crow South. But those times are no more, black men have the agency to stand up and protect and be allies of black women. They are ours, they gave birth to each and everyone of us, and in turn we are theirs. It should also be said that black men should not also occupy the role of abuser! The fact that many of these incidents are rarely considered self-defense should be a signal to men that anything other than self-defense can and should be seen as domestic abuse, for which their is no excuse.
As a third paradigm I would like to offer that there should be no hierarchy of victimhood when it comes to domestic violence. In the one-on-one dynamic, the perpetrator is not a victim. The abused is not a lesser victim because they “caused” it. Could the perpetrator be a victim of some other circumstance? Yes, by all means they could be. But that victim status of the perpetrator is mutually exclusive from the one where they acted of their own free will and committed violence against someone else.
Those paradigms, for me are the launchpad from which conversations around domestic violence begin, but it’s certainly not where they end. This, of course, was spurned by the domestic violence incident between former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice and his then fiancee, now wife Janay Palmer and how the National Football League completely bungled it’s response and subsequent punishment of Ray Rice from the day the first tape was released all the way until the publication of this piece. Combined with my own personal beliefs and knee-jerk responses to news stories about public people having domestic violence incidents plus the commentary from those that use social media as a way to share thoughts and ideas, things got complicated for me.
I created those three overarching paradigms more for myself so that I would never give myself a logical “out” to justify domestic violence. I never have before in the past, but my logical mind was warring viciously with what my heart was saying this time around. My friends, who know me, have been subjected to my travails over the past days. I’ve ignored Facebook status posts that completely repulsed me, I’ve not scrolled through comment sections that attempted to lay some blame on Janay Rice, but I’ve also remained silent. I’ve publicly stated that the NFL mishandled this and even ruminated aloud to those same close personal friends that I was conflicted over whether or not the NFL was right in retroactively punishing Rice (hear me out please): my rationale was that since Janay did make the decision to stay, was there any legitimate hope for the marriage? Is the axiom once a domestic abuser always a domestic abuser fair–is there any guarantee that Ray would hit her again? Is there any guarantee that he won’t hit her again? And then I realized that that, was none of my business. What was my business was me coming out definitively saying that I am against domestic violence in all of its forms both physical, mental and spiritual. What was also my business was being able to say without any equivocation that I will consistently and always side with the victim in a domestic violence incident, no matter the gender.
Nevertheless, I found myself still in a gray area, in between two ships passing in the night, both unaware of each other. People I call colleagues and well-respected individuals on one side, and people I called my friends on another side, both yelling into the cyber-ether and no one was addressing the emotional elephants in the room. This really isn’t a topic that gets discussed openly unless an incident occurs, and emotional responses lead to some logically fallacious arguments on paper: what is true to one does not necessitate truth for the other. And as a point of tangential departure, I think the comparisons of Officer Darren Wilson (the police officer who fatally shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri) supporters to Ray Rice supporters are an appeal to popularity and blunt-headed way of introducing a red herring into the conversation of domestic violence. I see the issues as rather separate and to conflate the two does the conversation a massive injustice. It’s also a misleading vividness appealing to the emotional response that people had over the situation in Ferguson that attempts to guilt people away from voicing true and honest opinions no matter how horrific they may be concerning Janay and Ray. Darren Wilson, as a police officer, representing local government law enforcement cannot and should not be compared to Ray Rice, a celebrity football player; the death of an unarmed black male teenager at the hands of a police officer should not be compared to Janay Palmer who suffered abuse at the hands of her fiancé.
The massive injustice that can happen in this gray area is that both sides can become more alienated. I make this supposition because it’s more than evident that this is the first time people have put thoughts into words about domestic violence; some black men don’t have the language or the emotional impetus to freely discuss domestic violence. In the way that cadres of black women over the last half century or so have carved out the space to discuss their complicated black femininity, the space and time for black male identity to be shaped, formed and evolve needs to be given as well. This does not justify some of these Neanderthal responses I’ve read from some of my fellow black men, but I think it does explain where they are coming from. And for those of us that say we do work on intersectionality, then we must rise to the challenge and meet people where they are to educate and liberate them from their dungeons of patriarchy and heteronormative thought that are not life-giving to black women, and ultimately to themselves.
Ultimately, my black male masculinity is complicated. Real complicated.
That is a very definitive statement that speaks to a very indefinite reality. A reality that is probably true for most black men even though the dominant culture sees men in a very clear cut role (i.e. what makes a real man), so do most people in within black culture. There have been numerous jokes at the expense of women (some of which are told by women) that go through many hoops to show how complicated women are (because they’re emotional) and how simple men really and truly are. These Victorian era concepts of gender issues and gender roles have been a part of our politics, a very clear part of our religious beliefs and in the latter half of the 20th century have decided to engage in intersectionality with race talk. This intersectionality means that we must find a way to talk about domestic violence and gender politics–at the same time. Black men need time to evolve past patriarchal norms and immediately need to disavow domestic violence without any questions asked. There is a fierce immediacy of right now that is very, very real–women literally die at the hands of domestic abuse. This is not some virtual game that exists only on social media and TMZ, but the very lived reality of dozens upon hundreds of people.
If these two ships passing in the night fail to turn on their lights and signal to each other, my fear is that more and more people will die, people will face preventable jail time, more kids will grow up in households where domestic violence is normal and religious leaders will still be encouraging women to go back and stay in violent relationships. I daresay that we become complicit in perpetuating domestic violence when we actively do not call out the Facebook statuses and tweets that come across our timelines. Is it tiring? Yes. But, if we don’t, are we complicit in potentially letting one more individual be an abuser by tacitly co-signing them? Even beyond social media, how often do we have one-on-one conversations with people on this issue? Fact of the matter is that 140 characters or less or even a Facebook status message does not provide a safe platform where people feel comfortable laying bare their thoughts on a highly emotional issue. I know for myself, I definitely waited to go public with some of my thoughts simply because I thought emotions were running too high for anyone to deal with the nuances I had without labeling me a “Ray Rice supporter.”
Social media thrives from cliches and pithy remarks, particularly those that can occur in 140 characters or less. And much like the newspapers of old, glaring salacious headlines get the most “clicks.” Clicks are the metrics used to determine how popular an article is; how many unique persons “clicked” on an article to view it. Popular articles that gain the most clicks are those under 1,000 words and use simple sentences. The shorter the word count the less nuanced the writing probably is and the more attention-grabbing it is. (I’ve already hit the 2,000 word mark here and probably half of the people who started out reading this have stopped.) The more and more complex and layered our lives have become, the more we become comfortable with operating in the clear demarcations of black and white. Socially, we will flock toward simplicity rather than complexities. This makes the comparison of Ray Rice supporters to Darren Wilson supporters very easy: people have simple views about how they feel about Darren Wilson, Ferguson and Mike Brown (and if the initial reactions weren’t simple, certainly a month later people’s emotions and reactions have calmed and more simple and succinct responses have been formed), while the emotions and reactions to Janay Palmer, Ray Rice and the NFL are still very much complex.
Are things supposed to stay complex? In my opinion, the answer to that is a resounding yes. My existential ontology is complicated because I took a breath just now, my mere existence is complicated. Do some things simplify as you mature and progress? Again, that’s a resounding yes as well. But those maturities happen at different times for different people and the inverse is true as well. For me, my theology, was once very simple, but now it’s very complicated. Understanding the depth and breadth of what is complicated and what is simple is the nexus of progression. Men are just as complicated as women despite what conventional wisdom may say and certainly despite how most men project themselves. Boys are taught not to be emotional, I can only imagine this is because when things get emotional, it gets complicated, and ultimately conventional wisdom states “women are complicated and men are simple” so how dare a boy actually display emotion.
But, I guess that makes it all complicated, huh?
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL
*I struggled with using the word protector as opposed to ally. I’m not sure if protector is the best understanding of this, but for the sake of my argument this is where I am at the time of publishing. “Protector” is very much a patriarchal concept and in that vein, I do not intend to use it, but I use it in the very pragmatic sense that black men do and can situationally possess the power to protect, (i.e. prevent) a woman from being abused.