Traci C. West: Rihanna and violence against women

Chris Brown’s alleged violence against Rihanna has sparked intense debate and discussion about these celebrities.
I decided to ask Traci C. West, PhD, a professor of ethics and African American studies at Drew University’s Theological School, for some perspective on the violence and the public’s reactions. She researched the historical legacy of violence against black women for her book, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics.
Here’s Traci…

From your work and the research you conducted to write Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence and Resistance Ethics, what are some critical perspectives you think many in mainstream media haven’t yet touched upon when discussing the alleged violence Rihanna suffered at the hands of Chris Brown?
I am saddened by the ways the media has sensationalized this horrible incident of violence that Rihanna has suffered by an alleged perpetrator who was someone she trusted and loved. At the same time, I am always hopeful that when the silence is broken by the media on the pervasiveness of male violence and abuse against women and girls, it will push our society to be less tolerant of it.
There’s been a lot of media coverage so I cannot say that I have seen all of it. But, based on what I’ve seen, I am disappointed that the media pundits, talk show hosts, and so-called experts seem to be stuck on the same wrong questions that were asked about women in the 1970s and 1980s — What did she do to provoke him? What is wrong with her if she stays with him?
I think the focus needs to instead be on what’s wrong with the perpetrator’s behavior — on why male violence is wrong, and on how the community holds the perpetrator accountable for his violent behavior to prevent any more violence from taking place in the future.
I’ve heard and read personal accounts of young girls defending Chris Brown and blaming Rihanna for the violence that she suffered allegedly by Chris Brown for various reasons I won’t repeat here. I’ve also seen photos of mothers and daughters with signs in support of Chris Brown. What do you think about these acts of protest? And why do you think they feel Chris Brown is the victim and not Rihannna — despite the physical evidence?
Unfortunately, public support for alleged male perpetrators of violence together with the shaming and blaming of the women who have been victimized is all too common. This response is very painful to witness. It is a painful reminder of how we, women and men, in the broader society are the ones who are “the problem.” We are a big part of the reason why it is so hard to truly eliminate male violence.
Too many women (and men) do not believe that men who batter and rape should ever be held accountable for their violence because the women bear the responsibility for the violence. Woman-blaming excuses for the men are almost always given, such as she provoked him, she stayed with him, she started the argument, she should have known that he would react in that way, and other similar responses we teach our daughters and nieces, sons and nephews.
What do you think are the differing views among men? Black men? P.Diddy recently said he loaned his house as a space for Rihanna and Chris Brown to “work through their issues.”
I think that there are a range of responses from men. Some black men, like Kevin Powell, have been trying to offer constructive responses that hold men who are violent accountable. While others, like P.Diddy, seem to be indifferent to the suffering of Rihanna and extremely ignorant about how potentially dangerous an active, unchecked batterer can be.
Most of your research is based on African-American women in the U.S. Have you looked at Christian ethnics and domestic violence in the West Indian community at all? What particular cultural practices or institutions may be affecting Rihanna?
No, I have not focused specifically on Caribbean-Americans within black communities. Unfortunately, woman-blaming attitudes that reinforce the culpability of women who are victimized instead of the men who are the perpetrators, are found in all racial/ethnic groups.
I do not know Rihanna so I hesitate to speculate about the cultural influences that have helped to shape her. However, cultural and racial stereotypes seem to underlie the public’s response to her. For instance, it is common for black women, from varied black ethnic groups, to be seen as “strong” survivors who should just “move on” after experiencing intimate violence. Christian leaders also sometimes reinforce this problematic attitude by telling women to “bear their cross like Jesus did” and just keep going.

What advice do you have for Rihanna?

I do not have advice for Rihanna, but I would offer words of encouragement, support, and affirmation for the brave way she fought for her life when she was attacked. I hope and pray that she will find a way to take all of the time that she needs to deal with the deep emotional and spiritual wounds that can result from the kind of attack that she apparently suffered from a trusted, intimate partner. I hope that she will have a chance to be part of a confidential, support group comprised of other women who have had similar experiences.
What do you hope readers will keep in mind as the details of this violence unfold, and future decisions are made?
I hope that readers will: 1) sit down and make a list of 10 reasons why male violence against women and girls is wrong and causes harm to those who are victimized and the whole community, 2) make a list of 10 different ways that male perpetrators should be held accountable and make restitution 3) make a list of 10 different things that friends, families, and community groups should say and do with men and boys to prevent the violence from occurring in the first place. Then, I hope that they will share these lists with others and work together on making some of the necessary changes.
Going forward, what does our country need to still work on to combat domestic violence and empower survivors?
I will be concise instead of making the very long list I would like to make for your readers that would include a range of steps. From a much stronger, more comprehensive Violence Against Women Act, to many more media images of tender, kind, non-violent masculinity. In this country, one fundamental step we must take is to decide that male violence against all types of women and girls, is always, in all times and places, and under all circumstances, morally reprehensible and shall not be tolerated.

Join the Conversation