Unique Issues Facing Black Women Dealing With Abuse

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After video footage was released showing football player Ray Rice punch his then-fiance, Janay Rice, and then drag her through the hotel to their room, activist Feminista Jones spoke out about domestic violence among black women in an essay for Time magazine.

"Black women tend to feel obligated to put racial issues ahead of sex-based issues,” Jones wrote. “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 police] ..."

The point Jones was making is that even though black women experience domestic violence at significantly higher rates than white women, they tend to remain silent out of fear of the police force and a sense of duty to their race and culture.

Consequently, their first response is not to report. Instead, they opt to protect their men and their community. They also feel like they need to be strong and asking for help would be a sign of weakness, says Zoe Flowers, an advocate that has spent 17 years in the field of domestic violence.

“This idea of strong black women is rewarded and is something that can even be a source of resilience," she says. "But it can also leave us feeling like we have no one to turn to."

Scope of the Problem

For black women, domestic violence risks are extremely high. In fact, they are 30–50 percent more likely to experience domestic violence than white women. And, worse yet, they are almost three times as likely to die as a result of domestic violence than white women. Yet their first response is often not to report what they are experiencing. Or, if they do report, they later recant their stories. They also are less likely to visit shelters or receive services. Instead, many black women suffer in silence. 

According to the Women's Community, Inc., black women are often reluctant to call the police because of the past injustices they have witnessed or experienced. This reason also keeps them from pressing charges against their abusers. They also are concerned with being labeled a "snitch" in their communities and they are worried that their community will be labeled or viewed as "bad" if they report the abuse. As a result, they remain silent. 

Meanwhile, the rates at which they are being abused is alarming. For instance, more than four in ten black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes. They also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse, including everything from name-calling and financial abuse, to humiliation, insults, and coercive control. Meanwhile, more than 20 percent of black women are raped during their lifetimes. This is a higher share than among women overall. And, black women face a particularly high risk of being killed at the hands of a man.

For instance, a study by the Violence Policy Center found that black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than white women. What's more, more than nine out of ten black women who were murdered knew their killers. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports this statement as well revealing that black and indigenous women are murdered at a higher rate than any other race.

In fact, black women are killed at a rate of 4.4 per 100,000 people and indigenous women at a rate of 4.3. Other races are killed at about a rate of one or two per 100,000 people. And, a Bureau of Justice Statistics report indicates that black women are four times more likely than white women to be killed as a result of domestic violence. And even though black women only comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute half of the homicides against women in America.

It's also important to note that the vast majority of homicides of black females were not related to any other felony crime. Most often, these women were killed in the course of an argument. And, at least half of the murders were a result of domestic violence. Among the black female victims who knew their offenders, 52 percent were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives, or girlfriends. Also, 93 percent of the homicides were intra-racial.

Moreover, gun violence plays a predominant role in homicides among black women. When the murder weapon could be identified, 51 percent of black female victims were shot and killed with a gun. Within that group, 82 percent were shot and killed with a handgun.

Why Black Women Remain Silent

Domestic violence—which consists of physical abuse, emotional intimidation, financial abuse, gaslighting, and more—occurs when an intimate partner attempts to exert power and control in the relationship.

While domestic violence occurs in all racial and socioeconomic groups, it can cross gender lines as well with a small percentage of women who abuse men. But the vast majority of domestic violence cases involve abusive men who seriously injure their victims. And in black communities, the problem is particularly severe, with abuse being the leading cause of injury among black women ages 15 to 44.  

Many advocates for the black community maintain that because of their contentious history with law enforcement, many black women are reluctant to call the police even when they should. Unfortunately, many black women do not believe the police are there to protect them.

Meanwhile, others worry about the consequences their partners might suffer at the hands of the police. To them, it is just too big of a risk to take. For black women, they do not want their families broken apart. Instead, they want their men to change and to be healed. They do not want them in prison.

There are other reasons that black women do not call the police. For instance, they are afraid of being judged by their community. They also do not want to look like a traitor to their race. Instead, black Americans are more likely to turn to their churches for guidance, relying on religious guidance and faith-based practices when working through relationship issues. Meanwhile, these religious beliefs can also keep them trapped in abusive situations if divorce is discouraged and forgiveness is required.

“In many cases, we don’t ask for help because we have internalized this idea that we need to be strong,” says Zoë Flowers, an advocate who has spent over a decade in the field of domestic violence. “This idea of strong black women is rewarded and is something that can even be a source of resilience. But, it can also leave us feeling like we have no one to turn to.”

Flowers also says that internalized stereotypes about the appropriate response to violence can also result in black women feeling like they have to fight back against an abuser. When this happens, it does not always go over well when black survivors look for assistance from shelters, the police, and the courts.

“When we do stand up for ourselves, we are labeled an ‘angry black woman,'" Flowers says. "I know of several African American women who fought back and were punished professionally and personally because they were not seen as good victims. The constant labeling and invisiblizing, often at the same time, impacts our safety-seeking and our ability to obtain justice.”

Flowers points to the case of Marissa Alexander as an example. She is a black survivor of abuse who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a bullet into the wall next to where her abuser was standing, just minutes after he tried to strangle her to death.

Other factors contributing to this silence include a fear of isolation and alienation as well as a strong loyalty to both the immediate and extended family. A reluctance to discuss "private matters" coupled with a fear of rejection from family, friends, congregation, and community also contributes to their silence. 

Finally, many black women will put their personal needs aside in favor of family unity and strength. Unfortunately though, not reporting violence simply allows it to continue, unchallenged. This may explain why black women are more like to be murdered by a spouse or a boyfriend. 

What Needs to Change?

When it comes to addressing the unique challenges that black women face when dealing with domestic abuse, most advocates would suggest starting with the church. Not only are black people the highest population of Christians in the United States, but they also are more likely to find comfort and security in the idea that God will take care of them.

Consequently, the black community needs the pastors and other men in their churches to stand up against domestic violence. These need to not only communicate that abuse is an unthinkable act, but also be willing to come alongside any woman in their community who are experiencing abuse. By taking a strong stand against violence, they may be able to reduce the number of women that are being abused in their communities.

Another area of improvement includes providing additional training of local police forces. They need to understand all of the unique challenges black women face when reporting domestic abuse. This empathy and understanding would create a sense of security in reporting abuse. And, if black women not only feel safe reporting domestic abuse but also feel like they and their significant others are going to be treated fairly, they will be more likely to contact police when violence occurs. They need to see that their local police want to help them and keep them safe. Until they are convinced of that, it is highly unlikely they will report the abuse they are experiencing.

The way in which black women are viewed and treated by domestic violence advocates and shelters is another area that needs to be improved. It is important that these social service groups understand the unique challenges that black women face, including their fear of being judged harshly by their families and their communities when they report the violence.

Programs should be put into place that help black women communicate effectively with their families and communities so that these relationships can be preserved while she fights for her safety. There is nothing more detrimental to a victim's recovery than feeling like she has brought shame to her community. 

Empowering black survivors of violence to share their stories and their experiences also will go a long way in encouraging other women to come forward as well. The key is to give black survivors a voice within the domestic violence community so that they can reach out to and work with other black women dealing with the same issues.

Because black women already understand the unique challenges that black victims face, they are more equipped to help them get the assistance they need in addressing their situation. They also can dispel any worries or concerns they have about asking for help.

Finally, educational programs geared specifically toward black communities can help dispel some of the myths and concerns that black victims wrestle with when they are in an abusive situation. The key is that these programs deal with the very real and specific things the keep black women from opening up to others about what is going on in their personal lives. 

A Word From Verywell

It is no secret that black women experience abuse and violence at exceptionally high rates. But the challenges they face in getting the help they need often leave them feeling alone and isolated. By addressing the unique concerns and challenges that black women must deal with instead of developing a one-size-fits-all mentality, communities will become more effective in addressing domestic violence in the black community.

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