By Dr. Heather Sanders

This topic is so massive, layered, overwhelming––met with racial, historical, intersectional intricacies, it is difficult to know where to rightfully break-in. Nonetheless, this is where I will begin.

First, it is important to establish this fundamental reality––there is no fixed set of perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence within the Black community. They are widely varied and are not specific to gender, sexual or religious preference, profession, ability, or appearance. Perpetrators are not all cis male. Victims are not all cis female. Overstating male oppressorship and female victimhood is counterproductive and fails to acknowledge the diverse ways in which violence appears within intimate relationships. And while both victim and oppressor must find their way back to humanity, it is important to understand, by way of sheer volume, the pandemic that is violence against Black cis and trans women. 

While I cannot explore all of the ways violence infiltrates our homes and communities in a fixed number of paragraphs, it will be important to remember the diversity of ways in which violence manifests––through and towhom it can be manifested. And although this thinkpiece merely scratches the surface of a particular dynamic and the implications of generational silence, the table below (adapted from the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh) describes five major types of intimate partner abuse affecting our communities.

  • Physical Abuse — physically aggressive behavior, withholding of physical needs, indirect physically harmful behavior, or threat of physical abuse.
  • Sexual Abuse — using sex in an exploitative fashion or forcing sex on another person. Having consented to sexual activity in the past does not indicate current consent.
  • Emotional Abuse, Intimidation, & Control — Any behavior that exploits another’s vulnerability, insecurity, or character.
  •  Verbal Abuse: Coercion, Threats & Blame — any abusive language used to denigrate, embarrass, or threaten the victim.
  • Economic/Financial Abuse — a way to control the victim through the manipulation of economic resources.

Black folks in America are constantly inundated with racialized trauma by way of media socialization and we often decide collectively to focus on what is right in front of us at any given moment. And when many of our narratives are sensationalized, it becomes easier for us to decide what issues are greater than others––what deserves our full attention and what topics should be avoided because it will disparage or divide us further. We are still declaring Black Lives Matter, and many movements are even dedicated to reminding us that Black women matter too. Yet many insist that holding Black perpetrators of violence against Black victims, particularly Black women, accountable is counterproductive to Black unity. This type of thinking has hindered us from addressing (with any real fervency) generational violence within our own homes. 

According the Institute of Women’s Policy Research’s Status of Black Women in the United States:

  • Nearly 45% of Black women experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetimes, compared to roughly 31% of all women.
  • The National Center for Victims of Crime reported that 53.8% of Black women had experienced psychological abuse.
  • The National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community found that nearly 30% of Black women are killed by an acquaintance (compared to 15% of white women),
  • According to the CDC, Black women ages 25-29 are 11 times more likely to be killed while pregnant or within the first year after childbirth. 

Reasons for the Disparity

There is no cyclical pattern of events or conditions experienced by a cultural group that cannot be answered by a thorough examination of history. And while Black history is deep and wide, and beyond slave ships and American soil, this is where I will begin. 

The institution of slavery in the United States did far more than establish physical structures and economic infrastructure; it became a psychological mechanism used to rebrand African peoples. Beyond cultural, traditional, and historical erasure, the enslaved were conditioned to accept their inhumanity and inferiority within America’s caste system. The burden of surviving racial and social constructs post-slavery proved troublesome and much of our frustrations often manifested in our homes. Despite experiencing physical and structural violence, lack of resources, employment and opportunities, societal invisibility and exclusion, we tempered ourselves and exercised considerable restraint in the marketplace. We were civilized, polite…courageous. Our humanity demanded a response, however. Rage––intense, inconsolable, and misplaced––was often directed at those we loved and who loved us. And some lost their courage––imitating the oppression they longed to escape. 

And because the American system of law and order has never proven to be allies of Black families and the outcome of such interference was uncertain at best, we kept family business, family business. For many, the chances of surviving one another seemed to be greater than surviving the authorities. 

The Cycle of Silence

So we don’t tell. Our mothers and grandmothers were encouraged by their mothers and grandmothers to keep family business family business and a betrayal of that pact seemed far worse than any act of violence one could experience. If he was a good man––he worked, paid bills, came home most nights––he was worthy of your silence. And attachment to any partner was better than the alternative––singleness.) After all, what would you tell people? What will they say? What would this do to him1? For many Black women, the consequences of prioritizing themselves are too great and too severe. 

Besides, for many, aggression and violence are uniquely male––dominant, provocative, possessive––attractive. In Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, author and activist, bell hooks states, “In a culture of domination, everyone is socialized to see violence as an acceptable means of social control. Dominant parties maintain power by the threat (acted upon or not) that abusive punishment, physical or psychological, will be used whenever the hierarchical structures in place are threatened, whether that be in male-female relationships, or parent and child bonds.” Physical and verbal aggression are normative and utilized to achieve submission. And for generations, silence has been synonymous with loyalty. Black children are raised to believe it is a good woman’s responsibility to not only forgive violence but excuse it, accept it, expect it, and, in some cases, glorify it. 

And while most dislike the results of the violence they experience, they can become addicted to the intense, yet sequential emotions and behaviors that often follow, including physical intimacy, passionate apologies, and love-making. The urgency to be forgiven and acts of violence forgotten is heightened following abusive episodes and for women (or men) who crave acknowledgment and validation, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse is a small price to pay in order to achieve it.

It’s important to remember: Historically, African Americans have not and, perhaps, could not prioritize clinical individual, marriage, or family counseling to address and overcome challenges leading to abuse and addiction. Survival was and has remained the priority. Healing and support were faith-based; Black women, in particular, believed God heard their prayers and would supernaturally deliver or save them (and their loved ones) from suffering. Emotional demonstrations more accurately enunciated our pain and substantiated feelings of godly connectedness. Subsequently, victims can feel responsible for their abuser’s redemption and can likewise feel guilty for calling attention to abusive behavior. But that commitment to preferring the abuser’s well-being only perpetuates the cycle of intimate partner abuse and the normative practice of undervaluing Black life. 

Next week I’ll share how we must really start valuing Black life and more.

To be continued…

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If you or someone you know is experiencing or has experienced abuse or violence from an intimate partner, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can find local resources in your area. Call 1-800-799-7233 or live chat with a counselor by visiting thehotline.org. 

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Additional Resources

Types of Domestic Violence:  https://www.acesdv.org/domestic-violence-graphics/types-of-abuse/

Black Women and Domestic Violence: https://www.blackburncenter.org/post/2020/02/26/black-women-domestic-violence

Intimate Partner Violence in the Black Community. https://ujimacommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Intimate-Partner-Violence-IPV-v9.4.pdf[1]


[1] The pronouns “him” and “his” references the perpetrator of intimate partner violence, however, perpetrators of violence are not bound by race, gender, sexuality, religion, or ability level. 

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Dr. Heather Sanders is an author, strategist, educator and developer. She specializes in anti-racism education and is the cofounder and principal of ASanders Company.com

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