Black America and the Ten Ton Elephant

October has undeniably become the time of the year for organizations to raise awareness of the many incurable diseases that we have in the United States. We see national campaigns that urge Americans to take action by donating funds, walkathons, and prevention screenings for diseases such as breast cancer. October is a month of unity and celebration for those that beat the odds and are living with their ailments. Not to overshadow other highlighted causes during the month, I need to shine light on a widespread social ill that others continue to ignore.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence (IPV) as “a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans. The term "intimate partner violence" describes physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. This type of violence can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.” Relationship abuse is not limited to physical violence; you do not need scars to feel the impact of assault.

The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS) reports that, “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States.” I recently posted that statistic on my Facebook page and was accused of “making up” those numbers. Unfortunately, those numbers are high and yes, they are real. Approximately 12.6 million people a year are victimized by a current or former partner. One in 4 women will be victimized by an intimate partner in their lifetime, with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men first experiencing relationship abuse between the ages 11 and 17 years old. 

Domestic violence knows no barriers and affects all races, socioeconomic classes, and cultures. The 2010 NISVS divides the lifetime and 12 month prevalence statistics by gender and racial/ethnic groups. The report concludes that, “racial and ethnic minority women and men continue to bear a relatively heavier burden of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence.” If those statistics are fact, why is the face of black men and women noticeably absent when discussing intimate partner violence? Do I attribute it to lack of knowledge about relationship abuse, not caring, or is the topic taboo? 

After being asked to weigh in on a discussion about how black women can overcome the shame of talking about domestic violence, I decided to take a deeper look into our reluctance to open up. Victim blaming is a major factor in why most people remain silent about domestic violence. In one of my recent presentations I touched on our culture and common sayings that we are raised to believe. I grew up being told to be strong and the advice I received for handling confrontation was, “you better not let anyone hit you” or let anyone do anything to you. The word “let” places the blame of the violence on the victim and hinders them from opening up. Letting someone assault you contradicts with our desire to always be strong. Victims of domestic violence couldn't possibly be strong, they have to be weak or seem weak because they "let" someone else do harm to them.

Something else was said to me, I found it very interesting, “white people are allowed to be the victim”. They can afford to be the face of the movement; they are allowed to be the heroine and the damsel in distress. I have participated in many presentations, workshops, conferences, and panels, with women pulling me aside after to share their stories with me. Not one of those women were black. The NISVS attributes the high prevalence of relationship violence in the black community to “the reflection of the many stressors that racial and ethnic communities continue to experience… such as low income and limited access to education, community resources, and services.” While I understand that poorer communities face many social ills, I know plenty of educated middle class black men and women who remain silent. How do we explain their silence, perhaps dating violence is "out of sight, out of mind" for them?

I am a black woman, the majority of my family is made up of black people, and most of my friends are women and men of color. My experience with domestic violence is nothing that I am ashamed of, it left an impact on my family and can be physically seen on my mother. I am very vocal about my advocacy work, I invite friends and family to participate in my projects to raise awareness and share important information, but very few acknowledge the conversation. Not too many feel comfortable sharing their private experiences and concerns with others, even if it could save a life. Latin reality television star, Evelyn Lozada, was recently involved in a domestic dispute with her ex-husband NFL star Chad Ochocinco. Before reports could confirm the details of the incident, the internet was swarmed with pictures of a bruised and battered Lozada and the onslaught of victim blaming followed. Evelyn made a public statement condemning domestic violence and founded her violence prevention organization, Pain Is Not Love. She now uses her celebrity platform to stand up for other women silenced by guilt, shame, and fear.

Intimate partner violence is a public health crisis and requires the efforts of the community combined with education to combat this curable disease. Unlike other ailments, dating violence is a curable disease yet we continue pass it down to each generation. The study “NO MORE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Survey of Attitudes and Experiences of Teens and Adults”, indicate that 60% of Americans know a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. The study also finds that 73% of parents with children under the age of 18 have not had a conversation about domestic violence or sexual assault with their children. I am guessing that the “1 in 4” statistic does not apply to them yet. If no one is willing to have this uncomfortable conversation, who will point out the 10 ton elephant in the room?