I Am Still My Sisters' Keeper: Domestic Violence and Colorism in the Black Community

by Erica Thurman

As an advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, cases of such violence in the news usually catch my attention. There seem to be a considerable number of cases involving Black male celebrity perpetrators: The Game, Dream, Columbus Short, Michael Jace, and—most recently—Ray Rice are just a few of the Black male celebrities who have recently made headlines for various acts of violence, including assaulting a pregnant woman (Dream) and murder (Jace).

So where are the calls to boycott Floyd Mayweather’s fights? No protests of Terrence Howard’s films after multiple incidents of domestic violence? Advertisers aren’t fleeing from VH1 after learning that the Game broke his ex-girlfriend/reality TV co-star’s nose in front of their children?

That mainstream feminists have little to say when it comes to violence against Black women comes as no surprise. For far too long, intersectional issues have remained marginalized within the feminist movement. Still, where is the outcry within the Black community? Within the culture of Black feminists/womanists?

Nothing new under the sun, right? Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon—in any community—nor is the fact that celebrities commit acts of domestic violence. Ike Turner, Philip Michael Thomas, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett committed acts of violence against their romantic partners and remained supported by the Black community in general. Understandably, keeping such behaviors out of the public eye was considerably easier before social media allowed for instantaneous visibility and conversation around any issue.

So why the relative silence and lack of social consequences for Black men’s violence against women?

To me, there appears to be a commonality among the victims of these male celebrities. Is it possible that this common trait factors into the response of the Black community? How is it that Black celebrity men assault women with few to no adverse effects on their careers? I noticed was that among the victims of Black celebrity men, dark-skinned women were few and far between. That is to say that Chris Brown, Columbus Short, Michael Jace, Dream, Floyd Mayweather, Chad Johnson, Terrance Howard, Flavor Flav, The Game, and Ray Rice have all been involved in acts of violence against women who were either very light skinned, or not Black at all.

Does colorism play a role in the Black community’s response to domestic violence committed by Black male celebrities? Is it possible that the skin tone of the victim minimizes the reaction of the Black community? If their victims were blessed with the skin tone of Alek Wek or Lupita Nyong'o, would these perpetrators face social sanctions within the Black community? Perhaps it’s easier to distance oneself from these women on the basis that they aren’t “really Black”? Is it plausible that, in a time where the media reinforces the notion that Black men are a rare find, these light-skinned and/or white women are viewed as getting what they deserve for taking away another good Black man?

The Ray Rice case sheds light on another reason people lack empathy for victims in celebrity relationships: class. Much of the discussion about Janay Rice centered on the fact that she married Rice after the violence became public. Many posited that Janay was willing to stay in the relationship for the financial benefits. Such theories do not account for the many, many women who marry abusers of lower socioeconomic status. It also fails to account for Janay’s decision to stay even after Ray’s contract was terminated. There are many possible reasons Janay stayed with Ray, the same reasons that many women stay—including that the risk of fatality increases when a woman leaves her abuser, she has been isolated by her abuser to the point where she feels alone and unable to ask for help, our culture often blames the victim, and (as hard as it is for some to believe) she loves her husband.

Let’s flip the script for a minute. Imagine for a moment that a prominent white male celebrity physically assaulted his Black wife. Would the response be any different? Would we still flock to George Lucas’ movies if he assaulted his wife? Robert Deniro? Still jam to Robin Thicke’s music if he abused Paula Patton?

What we do know is that when George Zimmerman killed a young Black male, we demanded that someone be held accountable and were abhorred when Zimmerman sought to profit in any way afterward. What we know is that Black Twitter was aflame when Paula Deen admitted to making racist comments. What we know is that many people in the Black community wanted to the NBA to punish Donald Sterling severely in the wake of his racist comments. What we know is that crimes of violence against Black women rarely result in similar internal sanctioning.

The message we send to Black girls and women of all hues? That when white people say or do anything considered offensive to Black people, we want them to pay. When white people harm Black boys and men, we hold them accountable. When Black women are harmed by Black men, for various reasons, we are willing to overlook it and continue supporting these men. The message we send to Black girls is, speak up when someone hurts you and we’ll support you—unless you’re light skinned, and he happens to be a wealthy Black man.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Erica A. Thurman is a writer, speaker, and consultant. She is also the founder of B-Girls RAP, a mentoring and empowerment program for girls and young women. Prior to founding B-Girls RAP, Erica worked in sexual assault & domestic violence prevention and crisis intervention on both state and local levels. Erica is also the editor of Life Behind the Veil with Erica Thurman. Visit her website at ericathurman.com.

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