When someone decides to threaten, stalk, harass or abuse his or her partner, what might that victim do? The answer seems obvious to many of us: Tell someone. Tell a family member, a good friend, a domestic violence advocate or police—someone who can help you.
Except, not everyone feels that way. Some contend that Black women specifically are more reluctant to disclose domestic violence than other ethnicities for several different reasons, one of which is entrenched in Black culture.
The 'Strong Black Woman' Stereotype
Domestic violence has been shown to affect the Black community disproportionally—Black women experience domestic violence at rates 30 to 50 percent higher than white women. Several things could be blamed for this—studies show domestic violence is more prevalent among those living with financial insecurity, and twice as many Black men are unemployed as white men. It could also have something to do with a response to cultural taboos.
“Women of all races and ethnicities who have endured domestic violence have to make the choice at some point to stay or leave their abusers. For Black women, the first response is often to not report, not tell anyone. We want to protect our men. It’s not easy to turn them over to the police, the courts and other institutions that have been historically racist and brutal to them,” says Zoë Flowers, an advocate has spent 17 years in the field of domestic violence. She is the program manager at Women of Color Network and the author of From Ashes to Angel Dust: A Journey Through Womanhood, a book of candid interviews with women who have survived violence.
In a TIME opinion piece, Feminista Jones argues Black Americans are “more likely to rely on religious guidance and faith-based practices when working through relationship issues,” and that religious beliefs discourage divorce and encourage forgiveness.
“In many cases, we don’t ask for help because we have internalized this idea that we need to be strong,” says Flowers. “This idea of strong Black women is rewarded and is something that can even be a source of resilience. But, it can also leave us feeling like we have no one to turn to.”
Flowers says internalized stereotypes about the appropriate response to violence can also result in Black women feeling like they have to fight back against an abuser, something that doesn’t often bode well when Black survivors then seek help from shelters, law enforcement and the courts.
“When we do stand up for ourselves, we are labeled an ‘angry Black woman.’ I know of several African American women who fought back and were punished professionally and personally because they were not seen as good victims. The constant labeling and invisiblizing, often at the same time, impacts our safety-seeking and our ability to obtain justice.”
Such was the case for Marissa Alexander, a Black survivor of abuse who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting a bullet into the wall next to where her abuser stood, moments after he tried to strangle her to death.
The Backlash From Dialing 911
Flowers acknowledges there are other reasons why Black women hesitate at the thought of reporting their abusers to police. Systems put in place meant to protect victims can often result in discrimination instead of safety.
“Black women have very real reasons why they’re afraid of calling,” says Flowers. “They call the police and then they’re abused themselves.”
Flowers says we need only look at stories like Sandra Bland's, who was pulled over in 2015 for failing to use a turn signal. An officer slammed her onto the ground while trying to arrest her after the officer said she became combative. Bland was found three days later hanging in her jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide, but family members cried foul, saying she would never have taken her own life.
There’s also the case of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old pregnant Black woman shot and killed by Seattle police after she called to report a burglary. Police say she was holding a knife when they arrived.
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And then there’s Flowers’ own story. Some two decades ago, she broke up with her abusive boyfriend and was preparing to move out of the state in hopes he would end his relentless stalking of her. But when she needed to return to her apartment to retrieve her belongings, she called the local police and asked if they would escort her—she had an inkling her abuser would be waiting inside the apartment for her.
“The police officer actually stood at the bottom of the stairs [to her apartment], holding the door. He wanted me to go up and open my apartment door myself.” A friend of Flowers’ who was with her that day—a white woman 20 years her senior—told the officer that Flowers was afraid of her abuser.
“He snatched my keys from me and went in. Next thing I knew, he had his gun drawn. My ex was waiting inside with a knife.”
Flowers’ abuser was arrested but released that same night, a detail Flowers didn’t know until the following morning when she returned to the police department to file for an order of protection.
Afraid of Racism, Judgment
However, there’s another reason some survivors don’t call police: They’re afraid of being judged by their own community, or looking like a traitor to their race, says Flowers.
Jones argues a similar point in her opinion piece: “As Black people, we don’t always feel comfortable surrendering ‘our own’ to the treatment of a racially biased police state … And when we do speak out or seek help, we too often experience backlash from members of our communities who believe we are airing out dirty laundry and making ourselves look bad in front of white people.”
Not reporting violence is often all the fuel that abuse needs in order to continue, which may explain why Black women are also twice as likely as white women to be murdered by a spouse and four times as likely as white women to be murdered by a boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Justice.
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Have things gotten any better for Black survivors since Flowers left her abuser 20 years ago? Flowers laughs. “I mean … no. Not for Black women, no.” She says the change needs to start with support at shelters to better address the needs of Black survivors.
“Shelters are underfunded, advocates are often overworked. You might have one advocate on duty where there’s 20 beds, so what’s she supposed to do to meet everyone’s needs? I am not saying women of color come with extra needs. What I am saying is that we really need to ensure that our shelters are able to serve the whole person.” She says this includes being better able to address physical and mental health needs, transportation needs, and advanced domestic violence training for advocates.
What You Can Do
Understanding the unique barriers that Black survivors of violence face can start the process of ending those barriers. For starters, read “ What African American Women Want You to Know About Domestic Violence.”
Secondly, if you’re a survivor who’s ready to find help or leave your abuser, you can find a trained domestic violence advocate near you on the DomesticShelters Find Help page. If you are unable to find a helpful advocate in your area, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233, or chat online with someone 24/7 from a safe computer.
You can find more information about leaving safely using our free online toolkit— "I’m Ready to Leave, Now What?"
No matter what you may encounter, there are advocates who want to help you. Even if you face discrimination or barriers, keep trying. A safer life awaits you.
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