Women’s Advocates’ Education and Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer writes a monthly post on topics that are relevant to the work we do as an organization. While Women’s Advocates is supported by Grant No. A-CVS-2018-WOMADV-00013, awarded by the Office on Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs – the opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.
Both Aisha Fraser and Dr. Tamara O’Neal were black women.
And like many black women, both of them, in life and in death, experienced the catastrophic impact of public stigma against domestic violence, painstakingly multiplied by racism and inequity. Aisha Fraser’s ex-husband received a jail sentence of only nine months in 2014 for brutally assaulting her in front of their children in his car, and was subsequently hired back into the community. Had he received a longer jail sentence, it is possible that Aisha would not have died due to domestic violence, as so many black women do – who are three times more likely to die as a result of intimate partner abuse than white women. In the comments section of a 2014 article about the car assault, one subscriber also argued that the assault must have been “mutually combative” and that Fraser was likely “an equally involved wife,” a remark that speaks to stereotypes of black women as angry and aggressive.
In many of the news headlines following the Chicago shooting, Dr. O’Neal was left as an unnamed victim while a police officer also killed by her former fiancé was directly named and mourned. Dr. O’Neal was relegated by numerous media outlets to the position of an invisible, silent victim, just another murdered black woman whose life and lifesaving medical work came second, even third, to the work of the police officer. When viewed in the lens of racial inequities that contribute to black men and women being statistical minorities in the medical profession, this oversight is egregious. And when viewed in the lens of disproportionate police killings of people of color, this oversight is devastating.
We cannot continue to deny or minimize the harm that racism adds to the harm already caused by domestic violence. And we cannot continue to argue that recognizing the double-edged sword of racism and domestic violence is somehow equivalent to denying or minimizing the harm that white women also experience due to domestic violence. Recognizing that pregnant black women are eleven times more likely to die due to domestic violence than pregnant white women does not mean that pregnant white women are not at risk for maternal homicides, or that their experiences are less important. It simply means that we must place women of color at the forefront of conversations about domestic violence because they are dying both due to abuse, and due to racism. When a wrong presents itself, admitting it is one path to righting it.
The same day as the Chicago shooting, Wagatwe Wanjuki, an award-winning anti-rape activist and woman of color, posted a Twitter thread about the racially motivated erasure of Dr. O’Neal through media coverage of the police officer’s death. The response was swift and polarizing: Wanjuki received thousands of retweets and comments of support, and thousands of retweets and comments of vitriol. One Twitter user wrote, “Domestic violence…is not just against black women.” Another wrote, “its not about race but since you r wanting to make it about race here you go.” Still another wrote, “DV is DV is DV. No matter the race of the victim.” And one user wrote, in response to Wanjuki’s remarks about inequities against black female victims of domestic violence, that it was “just not true” because her white friend who had escaped an abusive relationship had not been taken seriously by a judge.
In the minds of these users who had stumbled across Wanjuki’s thread, her statement addressing the racial disparities experienced by black women with a history of abuse was somehow, at the same time, a statement negating the existence of domestic violence against white women. These false equivalencies are unjust at best and at worst are inherently damaging and detrimental to black women as disproportionate victims of abuse. The criminal justice system and public perception are stacked against all domestic violence victim/survivors regardless of color, but the stacks reach even higher and even wider for black women. It is possible to hold both of these truths at the same time in both palms while also recognizing that one palm, the one holding the truth of abuse compounded by racism for black women, is holding something that is heavier, more deeply rooted, and will take longer to unlearn and unpractice.
Routinely, when women post articles on their personal Facebook accounts about the MeToo movement and sexual violence against women, their male Facebook friends or male friends of friends of their Facebook friends will comment that men “get raped too” and will then usually stay silent when confronted with the lived realities of their male peers who are in abusive relationships or whose boundaries have been violated. It is unacceptable to leverage the existence of violence against men as a tool designed only to derail conversations about the existence of violence against women. A Facebook post about Harvey Weinstein’s female victims is not the same as a Facebook post claiming that men are not also victimized.
In this same way, it is unacceptable to leverage the existence of domestic violence against white women as a tool designed only to derail conversations about the existence of domestic violence against black women. It is unacceptable to downplay the fact that black women are dying at the hands of their abusive partners, and are dying at the fastest rate.
On Wanjuki’s Twitter thread, one woman wrote, “My point is to advocate for ALL survivors and victims,” regardless of race. Yes, we must advocate for all survivors and victims of domestic violence. But we cannot take race out of the equation, because taking race out of the equation is killing black women.
We can and should advocate for all survivors and victims, we need to, but when we respond with immediate contempt to the racial injustices that are pointed out to us, we are only advocating for some survivors and victims.
Written by Women’s Advocates’ Education & Outreach Coordinator Meggie Royer (firstname.lastname@example.org)