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Home / Articles / Diversity Matters / The Ways Racism Fuels the Fire of Domestic Violence

The Ways Racism Fuels the Fire of Domestic Violence

Ending domestic violence isn’t possible until systemic racism ends, say advocates

The Ways Racism Fuels the Fire of Domestic Violence

Racism and violence have long been intricately linked, feeding off each other like rivaling wildfires. In the last several months, the U.S. has experienced an amplified uprising for racial justice, calling for attention to the problem of systemic racism that has oppressed people of color for decades. 

Among the root causes of domestic violence in Black communities specifically, 72.6% of participants in the 2017 Black Leaders Survey on Domestic Violence cited systemic racism, a factor ranking slightly behind economic stress (85.6%), childhood trauma (84.9%) and substance abuse (72.6%). 

Racism perpetuates domestic violence in all races—Asian-American, Indigenous, Hispanic and Latinx, Black and more—and advocates say ending one issue cannot be done until both are eradicated. 

Shelters May Not Be Seeing All Survivors 

“There are people in this field who really only see domestic violence as a single-issue factor, which in and of itself contributes to the problem,” says Tonya Lovelace, a global intersectional thought leader and movement maker with 25 years experience in ending gender-based violence. Lovelace says that domestic violence programs need to consider that they may be complicit in systemic racism because their services are designed to only adequately serve limited populations of people. 

“Gaining access to services has to do with seeing yourself in the services and feeling like it’s accessible to you. We know there’s a long-time concern that service providers will see or hear or understand us or really from our perspective share our common practices. There’s often just a lack of understanding.... for that reason, I’ve found women of color will often stay longer in their relationships because they don’t see services accessible to themselves.”

In a video called “Connecting the Dots,” created by the nonprofit Futures Without Violence last September, Vanessa Timmons with the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence talks about how women of color can encounter a condemning stereotype when trying to find help.

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“The lens of bias through which survivors of color are viewed in shelter impacts how long they stay in shelter, whether or not they feel they get access to the same services and whether or not they get evicted." Timmons says women of color are sometimes painted as “difficult,” “loud,” “poor parents,” or looked at as “angrier” than other survivors.

Microaggressions—defined as demeaning or threatening social, educational, political or economic cues that are communicated individually, institutionally, or societally to marginalized groups—were experienced by Black women who stayed in a shelter and participated in research published in the 2014 issue of Journal of Black Psychology. Most commonly the microaggressions were listed as a lack of culturally specific products and foods, a homogenous composition of shelter staff and marginalized conversation among victims.

Nonetheless, 93% of the women said they felt the issues they experienced were not racist and were not intentionally exclusionary, and that they would feel comfortable returning to the shelter. 

Colsaria Henderson is with CORA, or Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse, in San Mateo, Calif. She’s spent 25 years in the domestic violence movement, the last two as CORA’s executive director. She says the systems put in place to help survivors were not created with Black people’s needs in mind. Within her organization, she’s been working toward more inclusionary services. It’s been a struggle, she says. 

“CORA was run by an amazing and highly supportive white woman, but we are very different in how we see the world and our experiences. I want survivors to see their community reflected in the staff. I want to see a Black or brown face, ideally many.

“There are higher rates of Black and brown survivors being labeled as aggressive, and being exited from shelter as a result. There’s a different idea that happens when someone with brown skin gets upset than someone with white.”

Representation can make all the difference between disclosing abuse or not.

“It does matter who they’re seeing. To see a reflection of yourself and your community and your understanding—you’re looking for that in your most vulnerable situations,” says Henderson. “You’re looking to trust that this individual is not going to judge you... all of us would be looking for that.” 

Seeing Only One Identity in a Person

Lovelace notes that there are intersectional identities of survivors and advocates not taken into consideration when offering services. “Any brand of justice that does not take the full humanity of people into consideration causes harm.”

Lovelace explains further, “There are gender issues at play, for both Black women and Black men, and at the intersection of LGBT communities, trans communities, and gender non-conforming individuals who are Black. There are very specific circumstances and experiences that each of those genders have as Black people and across other identities as well. There are multiple identities that people live in, and the idea that any service that only serves one piece of that identity doesn’t really fully see us.” 

“So, then, my full self is not at your table, you’re not seeing my full self. You’re only seeing a slice of me. And that is not justice. Because you have literally carved me up. Services cause pain when you don’t literally don’t address or see my full self.”

Police Who Don’t Always Protect

Lovelace says part of the reason she believes Black survivors don’t report as often as white survivors is because they’re fearful of police and the inconsistent history of police performance in Black communities. In early June in Fairfax County, Va., police were called to a “domestic case,” where they encountered a noncombative but disoriented man walking around outside.

Reports show that the first police and paramedics to arrive were trying to coax the man into an ambulance. “The police were, in this case, attempting to work with him,” says Lovelace. But soon, another officer arrived and almost immediately tased the man several times, then struck him in the back of his head with the stun gun before kneeling on the man’s back, holding him down. The officer responsible was charged with three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery and relieved of duty. 

Lovelace says incidents like this shape the community’s view of policing. A survivor herself, she recalls a time when faced with the decision of whether or not to call police on her abusive ex-partner.  

“I realized I needed to call ... because I feared for my safety. But when police arrived and began to speak about [pressing] charges, I literally had to call my mom and ask, what am I going to do?”

Lovelace’s mom asked her what she would tell other survivors to do as an advocate. For safety, Lovelace followed through with charges and, though stereotyping happened at the scene—police told Lovelace that because she had no bruises they had to bring lesser charges, even after she explained that most Black women do not bruise the same or as quickly as most white women. No brutality on the scene occurred, but she knows her experience in this case isn’t universal. 

Kelly Miller is with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. In “Racism in the Anti-Violence Movement,” released last year from Futures Without Violence, Miller says the criminal justice system never should have been the primary solution to ending domestic violence.

“The way that systemic racism looks in the anti-violence field is that, decades ago, even though women of color said don’t go in that direction, [those] who had the power decided to completely invest in the criminal justice system as a solution to intimate partner violence, to sexual assault, and to other all the ways that women and gender non-conforming folks are harmed. That, we know now, of which women of color knew 40, 50 years ago, does not serve communities of color, in fact, creates more harm.

“We have to begin to step away and find other ways of community accountability and transformative justice that works for everyone,” says Miller. 

Henderson says there is an omnipresent fear that exists around law enforcement and communities of color, including immigrants, many of whom are afraid of the current administration’s pervasive threats of deportation.

“We saw this after the last presidential election, some 69 percent of the folks we were serving were Latin and we saw a decline in [request for] legal help... we saw people who would not go into a courthouse because they were afraid. When people experience systems in such a visceral way, and we have generational trauma of systems not taking into account what we want, what our families look like, we will always be in a place where they’re not going to call. They’re not going to risk it.”

Calling 911 isn’t everyone’s first thought during an emergency. Certainly not Henderson’s.

“When there’s an emergency, you call a church member, you call a neighbor, you find a stranger in your neighborhood. There are neighbors who are doctors and I would get them out of bed before I would call 911.”

She calls the militarization of law enforcement “the absolute opposite of safety” for herself and other Black individuals. When she speaks to survivors in crisis who dial CORA’s 24-hour helpline, she says she makes the assumption they don’t want her to call the police. 

“You dialed seven extra numbers to avoid calling the police. I think that in of itself says a lot.” 

Lovelace says that the services she was offered during her domestic violence call could have easily been done by social workers. 

“I have advocated for Black women who have called police and then been arrested themselves, naked and barefoot, because the officers failed to assess the primary aggressor and had no regard for their humanity. So, I personally can relate to the fear of calling police.”

What Is the Solution?

Lovelace says ending racism within the domestic violence movement starts with nonprofits taking self-inventory on how they’re offering services, or, more specifically, who they’re offering services to. 

“It starts with culturally relevant services. The first step in doing that is being able to hold tables and conversations right now [about] why Black lives matter, why the outrage, why is there a connection between what happened to George Floyd and their advocacy?” says Lovelace. “Because these are the very folks you expect [survivors] to call when something is happening.

“They need to make sure that the spaces mainstream programs are creating to talk about this are not spaces that have to be carried by Black people at their table and if they have no black people at their table, the dialogue should still be happening, and in fact, more so. 

“It’s important that non-Black advocates have this conversation. Because what we are now talking about is anti-Blackness being a core central issue that has not been centered and exists across non-Black communities. I do think it is critical for discussions to be layered in terms of talking about anti-Blackness and racism in general.”

Centering Survivors Within Services

Lovelace says nonprofits should also review whether or not they’re centering survivors in their work, or prioritizing providing services over providing advocacy.  

“Now there are more medicalized approaches, ‘dual’ and ‘triple-diagnosed’ being used in screening survivors at intake,” Lovelace says, speaking to the trend of compartmentalizing survivors based on the issues they present with at shelter. A survivor who has been abused but also has a substance addiction may be turned away because of a so-called “dual-issue.”

“When you see a person with layers of identity... shelters often see [these] survivors as burdensome to them, and often treat individuals as burdens, especially in communities that are less resourced, communities of color and immigrant communities.”

This exclusivity in offering services only to victims who fit a so-called “nonburdensome stereotype” is deadly. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, Black women experience physical abuse at the hands of an intimate partner at a 10 percent higher rate than white women. In a 2017 report from the Violence Policy Center, statistics showed 93 percent of Black female homicide victims were murdered by men, almost 60 percent of those by an intimate partner, and that Black women are dying at more than 2 times the rate of white women. 

Bottom line, says Lovelace: “It is so critical that people understand the real basic context that, for people of color, they never can detach their full identity from their experience. The idea that domestic violence was ever a single issue is problematic thinking. It is essential that mainstream programs listen to and follow the leadership of Black women advocates and women of color advocates as they understand how to best reach and serve their communities. 

“When their leadership and voice are undermined, underrepresented or overlooked, this not only replicates racism within mainstream programs, this creates more barriers for help-seeking from survivors of color, and particularly Black survivors, and lays the ground for continued high rates of homicide.

“Most importantly,” adds Lovelace, “the anti-violence field should support culturally specific, grassroots organizations that cis and trans Black survivors often go to first for assistance. These community-based organizations are providing critical assistance on disproportionately less funding or no funding at all and yet are a central resource for Black women survivors.”