In 1991, Marjorie Vincent, the fourth African-American to win the Miss America title was on the Today show speaking on her platform of domestic violence. It was one of the first times that the topic, then considered “family business,” had been discussed on a national level. It was the beginning of a conversation that is still very much unfinished in our community.
Almost everybody knows someone who has been affected by some form of domestic violence, but we continue to marginalize it as a women’s issue or treat it as a taboo topic.
When a woman is battered everyone in her sphere is affected: her family, her co-workers, her neighbors, her faith-based community; anybody that she has ever come in contact with is pulled into her trauma. Similarly, when a man batters, everyone in his sphere is affected: the family who may look up to him, the son who may grow to emulate him, his friends and neighbors who look the other way. He becomes the center of a storm that he cannot even begin to understand, let alone control. So how can we possibly have a conversation about domestic violence without our men, who are both victim and perpetrator of the abuse?
Our young men need to understand that certain behaviors are not acceptable in healthy relationships. Male batterers need to understand that abusive behavior is wrong and that they can get help to learn how to have healthy and loving relationships. Young girls need to understand that abuse is not normal and older women who may be caught up in an abusive relationship need to understand that they can – and should – get out. But how can they understand these things if we don’t engage our community in critical dialogue?
Ask yourself these questions: If domestic violence has nothing to do with you, then how do you see yourself in relationship to your community? What type of children will you raise or mentor if you don’t feel like it is important to talk to them about respecting themselves and others? How can a community grow and thrive when we “normalize” violence and bury our young women at alarming rates with the attitude that “this is just the way life is?”
We have to stop treating domestic violence like a dirty, little secret. We also have to start having conversations about domestic violence that are educational, helpful and authentic.
Domestic violence is a complicated issue, but people rarely acknowledge this. We are often too quick to segment ourselves into camps whose doctrines tend to be absolute: “It’s all her fault;” “It’s all his fault;” or “They are both at fault, let’s move on.” Blame, guilt and shame are never helpful when trying to change unhealthy behaviors, but they seem to be the emotions that people cling to most when discussing domestic violence because they don’t force us to dig any deeper. It saves us from having to ask ourselves what part we play in the problem or how can we be a part of the solution.
As African-Americans, we have always had a unique set of challenges that have made domestic violence very painful to talk about. As women, our desire is to hold on to our families and to protect our men, who have a history of being under attack. This often causes us to want to circle the wagons around the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. We ignore that the entire family – the victim, the batterer, and their children – need our help, not our silence or our excuses.
We have to be brave enough to acknowledge that some of our views about domestic violence stem from our history and we have to be willing to discuss this topic in culturally relevant ways that can change hearts and minds.
The truth is that we will never put an end to domestic violence until we are willing to be open and honest with each other, and acknowledge that domestic violence is our business, and that we must get involved to stop the hurting.