Recently, the CDC released a report that covered the racial and ethnic differences in homicides of women and how intimate partner violence played a role. According to this report, non-hispanic black women (and Native American women) experienced the highest rate of homicide, and more than half of victims were killed by intimate partners. Unfortunately, it came as no surprise to me, as the report yielded similar numbers to those from the Women of Color Network. Seeing these numbers and reading statements like, “Black women are more likely to experience violence or death at the hands of a partner” continuously breaks my heart. It also makes me wonder why.
As an advocate for survivors of domestic violence, I have shared my personal experiences with dating abuse many times. I’m still not sure what possessed me to start telling my story. Maybe it was to make some sense of it, to help myself heal, but I think in large part I wanted to help others. However, one thing I’ve realized is that when telling my story, I never really shared how being a young black woman affected my experience. There are a few recurring themes in my life and sentiments that I’ve heard that made dealing with my experience so much harder:
If a man puts his hand on you, you hit him back. A tale as old as time. The women in my family have shared countless stories of the times when men in their lives hit them and they fought back and even ended up in jail because of it. They share these stories like badges of honor. I was hit and shoved into a bathtub by a former partner. When I tried to defend myself, it only made him more upset and he threatened to kill me.
What happens in the home stays in the home. I was taught (as many of us have been) that what you experience in your home stays in your home. You don’t reach out for help, especially not to strangers or hotlines. No one needs to know about your dirty laundry. After my experience, I had no choice but to tell my family what happened because the police had to be involved and I was afraid. I reached out to them for support and was answered with cheap shots and judgment. Although it was never said, the message was clear: black women don’t allow themselves to be abused. And if it happens you never, ever say anything. There were times my shame got so bad I wished he had either taken my life or that I had never said a word.
Stay strong and deal with it. It’s what you’re made of. This is the most harrowing message of them all. Not only should I not have let it happen to me, I shouldn’t have told about it, and I needed to just get over it. I didn’t want to talk to anyone about what happened me, how it made me feel, or the fact I wasn’t dealing with it well. For years, I buried my experience because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. Aren’t black women built to carry the burdens of the world? To bear the shame and humiliation of abuse, molestation, and other forms of violence that we have suffered for centuries? Suck it up and get over it, we are told, until it breaks you down, until you’re a shell of yourself.
After the past few years of self-reflection and working for The Hotline and loveisrespect, I have begun to break down some of these barriers and rid myself of these internalized messages. I’ve studied the various reasons why domestic violence affects women of color at higher rates. I’ve reminded myself that I didn’t deserve what happened to me and that I survived. I work with youth to educate them on what a healthy relationship looks like. It is these things that put me back together again, as well as reading pieces from writers like Feminista Jones that discuss the tales of black women and our experiences with abuse, or this article on Why Black women are speaking up about DV. Black women will no longer be silent about our experiences and what we endure. We can’t afford to be. We will hand back the burden of pain that we have been forced to carry for so long – a burden that should never have been ours to carry.
Anitra Edwards is the Community Outreach Specialist at the National Domestic Violence Hotline and its project loveisrespect, where she helps educate and empower young people to prevent and end abusive relationships. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please reach out to The Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.