The photos and videos of battered Black women’s bodies seem to be everywhere. TMZ a celebrity news website released security camera footage of Janay Palmer Rice’s then finance/now husband violently punching her in an Atlantic City casino elevator. According to national studies she is not alone. Approximately 4 out of every 10 Black women have been victims of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes. This means that more than 6 million Black women are survivors. They are our sisters, friends, and neighbors.
With the assistance of a passer-by, the disoriented, disheveled Janay Rice rose to her unsteady feet. However, too many Black women never get up again, like Kasandra Perkins who was shot nine times with a .40-caliber handgun by her boyfriend Jovan Belcher, the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker. Like Janay Rice, she also was not alone. More than half of Black women homicide victims who knew their offenders were killed by former or current intimate partners, most often with a handgun during an argument.
But, it is not just celebrities. The internet is populated with images of formally anonymous Black girls and women who have been victimized, like Jada, a 16-year-old Houston native who had been drugged and raped at a party. Soon, pictures of her—bottomless, unconscious, arms slung on either side, one leg bent perpendicular—were posted on social media. Using the hashtag #jadapose, twitter uses shared photos of themselves that mimicked her passed-out pose and added the message “hit that.”
Society remains oblivious to the most horrific violence perpetrated against Black women—even when their bodies are bound with zip ties and left like litter in the street, as in the case of teenagers, and good friends, Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball. “Black girls murdered, but do YOU care?” asked Jamilah Lemieux. Sadly and ironically, Black women are the targets of so much violence—in their homes, communities, and work places—that their hypervisible victimization has become normalized, such that is no longer visible or as I prefer to call it: (in)visible.
The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promised to “get it right” by addressing domestic violence. This means including the voices of Black women and resisting the urge to make Ray Rice and other players the “Black male boogey men” face of domestic violence, a problem that is endemic across racial groups. Instead, we must explore the complex reasons for intimate partner violence in the NFL and the wider society.
Some speculate that easy access to guns, excessive drinking, or traumatic brain injury contributed to the Jevon Belcher murder-suicide. “When you whip those you love, it’s not about abuse, but love” said the mother in defense of her son, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson who was accused of child abuse. Historical trauma and exposure to family violence/child abuse that masquerades as “love,” has had a devastating impact on the Black community. Getting it right means creating spaces for healing that allow us to love our children and partners in nonviolent, healthy ways.
With pride, I watched citizens of St. Louis (my hometown) speak in a loud, unified voice to protest and seek justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot by police. Yet, our outcry is muted when faced with domestic violence and sexual assault. Getting it right means responding to Tony Porter’s clarion “Call to Men” to urgently address gender-based violence. Otherwise, as Ewuare X. Osayande so eloquently wrote: “As long as the Black community silently embraces rhetoric that places a premium on the bodies of Black men at the brutal expense of Black women, we will continue to be caught in this position of indefensible contradiction. Our double standard as a community stares back at us through the battered eyes of Black women who live under a doubly oppressive system of racism and sexism.”
Millions watched the grainy Valentine’s Day video clip of what Ms. Rice described as a “horrible nightmare”—her body goes horizontal before her head slams into a handrail. Ray Rice, the 206lb former Baltimore Ravens running back had delivered the blow that rendered his future bride unconscious. Millions of Black women are victims of this (in)visible violence. For me, this reality evokes the words and spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. Just like the Negro couldn’t patiently wait for an end to segregation and racial oppression, we can’t wait to end this gender-based terrorism against Black girls and women. We must get it right.
Dr. Carolyn M. West is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and author of the editor/contributor of the award-winning book Violence in the Lives of Black Women: Battered, Black, and Blue (Routledge, 2003). She can be reached at www.DrCarolynWest.com