When my daughter and I removed the Chris Brown posters from her bedroom wall, it had the feel of a ritual. We moved in silence and with a sense of mourning, carefully folding the posters like the flag for a fallen soldier—before placing them in the trash.
It was a week after the allegations surfaced. And then there was the photo showing a bruised, battered and bloody Rihanna. My teenage daughter was a devoted fan of Brown, and I’d been drawn in, too. The guy has talent coming out of his ears. He seemed charming. And surprisingly normal. After the news of his violent attack on Rihanna surfaced, my daughter was confused and angry and finally wept in frustration.
“Now I’m really gonna kill you!” These are the words Brown threatened Rihanna with. The use of his fists shattered the façade he had so carefully crafted of the sweet Boy Next Door. It’s an image too many young girls still cling to, even as Brown has revealed himself to be a dangerously troubled young man. He was seen this summer, for example, wearing a $300K chain that spelled out “Ooops!”
“What did she say to make him hit her?”
“Well, I heard she hit him first.”
These were the words of young black girls on the radio and in newspaper interviews. They defended Brown and blamed Rihanna.
And so it is too often with domestic violence. Women blame the woman. Men blame the woman. Maybe the woman even blames herself. Others like P. Diddy, who famously got called out by talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres for offering his Florida home as a post-assault rendezvous for the Brown and Rihanna, use the old dodge, “nobody really knows what happened.” Yes, we do. We know that a 6’1” man beat, choked, bit, punched and threatened a woman. That he’d done it before. That he left her bloody on the side of the road. And we know that it’s wrong. There is nothing that she could have said that would justify what Brown did to her.
But what if she hit him? Jimi Izrael, one of The Root’s bloggers asked, “when is Rihanna gonna be prosecuted for hitting Brown?” Even if she slapped him first, Brown’s conduct was disproportionate and brutal. Trying to find a sense of gender symmetry to domestic violence is the equivalent of white people pointing out incidents of black bigotry to refute the reality of systematic and institutional white supremacy. Of course, a woman should never hit a man. And of course, there are women who commit domestic violence against men. They should be prosecuted and receive counseling, just as male batterers should. But the vast and overwhelming instances of domestic violence are still just what we imagine: Men and boys physically abusing their girlfriends and wives. (Here in Baltimore, where I live, we’re starting to hear about a disturbing new trend: Sons beating their mothers.) Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims nationwide are women. The fact that women can be perpetrators and men their victims doesn’t change this reality.
Nor should we submit to the view that domestic violence can legitimately be provoked by words. When couples say hateful things to each other, we call it “an argument.” Domestic violence is not an argument. It’s not “a fight.” People call it those things so they won’t have to call the police or intervene. Or take sides. Or give up admiring someone they love.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and it’s time we really became aware of how devastating this scourge is to our communities. One in four women is likely to be battered in her lifetime. Men who grew up in a home where they witnessed domestic violence are reportedly twice as likely to batter their partners or children. Brown himself has talked about his fear as a young boy witnessing the physical abuse suffered by his mother at the hands of a violent boyfriend.
We should be especially concerned because intimate partner violence is occurring at younger and younger ages. Among high school girls, 1 in 5 are physically or sexually abused by a dating partner. Girls 12, 13 and 14 are being violently grabbed, shaken, slapped and stalked by boyfriends and ex-boyfriends. Cell phones have become an instrument of abuse, with boyfriends monitoring every minute of a young girl’s time, compelling her to “check in” with him at designated times, and leaving hundreds of threatening texts.
A particularly troubling phenomenon, described in an article by a judge and former prosecutor in Baltimore, is domestic violence perpetrated by gang members. The woman who is battered by her gangbanger boyfriend lives in fear of both her partner and his fellow gang brothers—who would mete out retribution were she ever to testify about the abuse.
It’s critically important that we remember as well, that there is no one way to be a domestic violence victim. Familiar perhaps with the late Farrah Fawcett’s harrowing portrayal of Francine Hughes, (who famously was acquitted of murdering her husband after years of violent abuse) many envision domestic violence victims only as the kind of subservient victim portrayed by Fawcett. If we hear that the woman is “mouthy” or even fights back, then she is no longer regarded as a legitimate domestic violence victim. If she is a powerful or influential woman—like preacher and televangelist Juanita Bynum who was violently assaulted by her husband in a hotel parking lot in 2007—we may be even more unwilling to recognize the woman as a victim of abuse. Instead, absolute passivity becomes the critical criterion to be seen as a victim. This leaves many women of color who do not fit this stereotypical view of domestic violence victims outside the circle of protection they might otherwise be afforded by their families, their friends—and even juries.
The legal issues associated with prosecuting domestic violence cases are too many to mention. The good news is that there have been enormous advances in police officer training and the creation of special domestic violence prosecution teams in some city and county prosecutors’ offices. But the system is still plagued by uneven and/or inadequate enforcement of protective orders; the aforementioned issue of witness intimidation; victims recanting testimony for fear of reprisal; judges improperly trained in behaviors associated with the cycle of domestic abuse; inconsistent sentencing; lack of appropriate counseling programs for those convicted of battery; poorly funded witness protection programs—and the list goes on and on.
During this month, in Richmond, Va., Chris Brown will continue to pick up trash, wash graffiti and otherwise fulfill the terms of his community service for his violent assault on Rihanna. He’s also busy tweeting about his upcoming promotional tour. On the theory, perhaps, that looking good is the best revenge, Rihanna will likely continue her seemingly nightly promenade before the cameras, fully bedecked in couture on her way to parties, dinners and concerts. She shows no sign of becoming a spokesperson for domestic violence victims. And she shouldn’t have to. Each of us should do our part—in our school and churches and in our own homes—to honestly confront and eliminate the threat of domestic violence.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.