The Blame Game: Black Women, Shame, and Victim Blaming


(Trigger Warning)

I will never forget listening to the raging voice of a man I didn’t know on the other end of a phone line alongside my homegirl in Florida.  We sat in a room with the door closed while she told me what had happened the night before to preface the voice mail I was about to hear.  The man behind the voice was someone her sister had recently started dating.  He left the message on her voicemail several hours after beating and berating her in front of her child and leaving her bloody and unconscious on the concrete outside her house, speeding away in her car.

“Bitch…what you call the cops for? I didn’t steal your damn car.  I was gon’ bring it back.  And I didn’t hit you that hard, shit, you should be able to take a hit.  That’s why I don’t fuck with black women now.  Can’t take a hit and quick to call the law on a nigga.”  There was a pause. Then, “I ain’t mad, aight?  Drop these charges and we can work it out.”

His voice was almost as vile as the words and even though I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, I felt afraid listening to the voice mail he had left on my friend’s sister’s phone.  This man was dangerous, delusional and manipulative.  His words were carefully coded to make his victim simultaneously feel sorry for him and guilty for “provoking him,” not being “strong enough,” and involving the police.  The only good news was that the message was evidence and could be used to prosecute him. The bad news was that despite pleas from friends and family members, my homegirl’s sister was dropping the charges.  “She’s probably going to get back with him,” my friend said shaking her head and hanging up the phone.

I struggled the first few minutes with suffocating my anger, my concern and my judgment even though I knew (of) a lot of women who returned to unhealthy relationships (only sometimes violent), myself included.  I was, however, concerned about this woman’s safety and well-being, and that of her daughter who witnessing this kind of volatile relationship might internalize violence as love.

The reasons individuals stay in abusive relationships are varied and can range from fear, familiarity, dependency (either emotionally or financially), low self-esteem,  “because of the children,” “because of so much time invested,” “because he’s sorry,” “because I love him.”  There is a misconception that abuse is limited to physicality (or heterosexual relationships) but it’s not.  I believe emotional, psychic and psychological abuse is also unacceptable and just as damaging.  If someone is calling you out of your name, telling you you are worthless, chronically cheating on you, making you feel used, or disrespecting you in public or in private that is abusive behavior, and may very well preface physical force.

Intimate partner violence was not uncommon in the community I grew up in and to some degree, as a child, I erroneously believed that it was a signal, even a condition, of love.  It’s not.  By the time I heard that callous voice on the phone and the terror it evoked in me, a bystander, I was at least a decade into my feminism and recognizing abuse as abuse.  Still, there was nothing I could do to protect my friend, her sister, or her sister’s child.  The relationship eventually ended, but not before more damage was done, if not through physical abuse, through mental manipulation.

I immediately thought about this experience when reading about the February incident between Ray Rice and his now-wife, Janay Palmer, who got into a fight at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City.  Rice allegedly knocked her unconscious and dragged her limp body from a hotel elevator.  Video footage was released of the latter and while there was visual evidence that could be used to prosecute the perpetrator, it did not guarantee indictment.  In the weeks and months that followed the couple quickly married and participated in an ill-timed and ill-advised press conference. Rice spoke to the media and attempted to apologize, defend himself and restore his “good guy” image.  Janay, appearing uncomfortable and distracted, sat in support of her husband and came to his defense saying, “I deeply regret the role I played in the incident.”  Her words implied that she feels(or has been led to feel) she is at least partially at fault for being knocked unconscious by her boyfriend.  The Baltimore Ravens quickly tweeted her comment in an effort to spread the blame and clear Ray Rice’s name.  Not a good look.

On May 1, Rice pled not guilty and applied for a first time offender’s program (that includes counseling) that will keep him out of jail and likely clear him of charges within six months.  Recently, the NFL suspended Ray Rice for two games as a result of the incident, a penalty many (myself included) find insufficient considering the seriousness of the offense.  The proverbial slap on the wrist to a man who literally knocked a woman unconscious is another missed opportunity for the NFL to stand up against domestic violence (hell Stephen A. Smith’s suspension for a week from ESPN for his half-assed remarks about women provoking violence, which I will note later, is probably a more strict punishment than Rice will receive from his organization).   Instead the league has been focused on protecting its golden child runningback, and his reputation, at the expense of his wife.

There have been numerous reactions to this case, many now focused on Stephen A. Smith, an ESPN analyst’s, thoughtless comments about women of domestic violence being implicated in their abuse, oftentimes provoking men to violence.  It seems despite Smith’s supposed allegiance and empathy to women (in his family) his victim-blaming advice is no different from blaming a rape victim for being raped.  (“What were you wearing?” “Were you flirting?”  “Were you sending mixed signals?”)  Same bullshit, different day.  His half-assed apology (see below) does little to lessen the impact or damage of his initial insinuations.  Not only did he make an assumption about what prefaced Rice’s violent tirade but he immediately blamed the black woman/victim.  But what else is new?

The many stereotypes of black women are used to justify violence and aggression against them.  Because black women are mythologized as gold-digging, angry, physically strong, provocative shrews some black men assume (and this is something that having a mama, a auntie, a grandmother who raised you, or your own damn daughters doesn’t change) that if/when black women are hit, they asked for (or deserved) it.  At the end of the day many men empathize with other men and instead of vilifying any act of violence, physical or otherwise, against anyone, especially a woman, they attempt to justify it.  They put themselves in the shoes of the aggressor, but not the victim, and see themselves as blameless and reactionary, rather than violent and misogynistic.  This is a failure of our culture and the cultivation of black masculinity.

The blame game is not an uncommon response to violence towards women, black women in particular.  Remember a few months ago when Columbus Short’s wife went public with allegations that he choked her, put a knife to her throat, and threatened to kill her and comedian D.L. Hughley called her a “thirsty bitch,” who should have kept her mouth shut?  And in 2012 when Chad Johnson (Ochocinco) head butted his then wife, Evelyn Lozada, and people had little empathy for her because of her infamous attitude and short fuse (with other women).  And of course there is/was the backlash Rihanna experienced when Chris Brown was arrested for beating her to the point that her face was nearly unrecognizable, and instead of vilifying the man for hitting her, people (black women included) speculated about what she must have done to trigger his anger and fiercely defended him as the blameless victim.  And these are the few stories we know about with victims who are survivors (there are others).

Our culture has a problem with silencing victims and their names (and protecting men) when the perpetrator is well known or well liked or famous or an athlete or attractive, etc. etc. etc., and it needs to stop.  Perhaps a start would be to actually hold those who are abusive accountable for their actions.  As we have stressed over at the CFC for years, you can hold someone accountable and love them at the same time.  I don’t think men who participate in anti-feminist, misogynist, and/or violent acts are irredeemable (many black feminist men I know have problematic pasts, don’t we all?), and I think that rehabilitation and genuine change is possible, but it is only possible when they are called out and required to take responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof).  We have to be willing to stand up against the violence happening not only in our communities but in our households.  Abuse is not normal and need not be normalized.  Blackgirl lives are at stake and they are worth saving!

We have to stop shaming victims of intimate partner and domestic violence and distributing blame as if there is anything that someone could do to justify being beaten.

As Sil Lai Abrams said in an Ebony article about victim blaming,

Our widespread cultural acceptance of domestic violence and our overwhelming tendency to victim blame is part of what’s driving our disproportionately high rates of sexual assault, domestic violence and intimate partner homicide. We need to start raising the bar on what is acceptable in our relationships and stop doing to each other what Massa did to us.”

That’ll preach.






14 thoughts on “The Blame Game: Black Women, Shame, and Victim Blaming

  1. Sometimes we are too close to see the abuse and feel the pain. Sorry goes a long way in erasing those ugly events. I wasn’t physically abused but I was as they called Mind F’ed. I forgot about it until I read the message from your girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend. I heard those same kind of words. We tend to see the hurt they feel and ignore our own. I’ve seen women scream for help, ask me for help and when I call the police they asked me why I called them. This makes me reluctant to help woman I witness being abused. We need to teach our girls that it’s not okay to be abused and not to empathize with the abuser. Teach our sons that men don’t hit women.

  2. The worst part of this behavior, to me, is that it tells black women who are being abused that, if they at any time hit back or hit first, that they are the aggressors and therefore the problem. And, if what is happening to her is her fault, then how can she leave? And if no one labels what is happening to her as abuse, then she has no access to help for abuse victims.
    How many black women will die because of this irresponsible behavior?

    1. Quick question. If a person hits first, doesn’t that, by definition, make them the aggressor and a part of the problem? Aren’t they at fault if they start a fight (when I say “start the fight”, I mean they physically assaulted another person) and the other person responds in kind? Finally, isn’t it irresponsible to suggest that people can be physically aggressive toward other people without preparing the aggressor for the possibility that other people might fight back. Don’t we miss half the narrative when we unilaterally suggest that “boys don’t hit girls” without emphasizing that girl’s should not hit boys either?

      1. NVC: Please read portion of article that talks about the multi-facacted ways abuse can occur: emotional, mental, economic, in addition to physical. Yes, if you hit someone first, you are starting the fight, but is it so cut and dry when she hits first out of anticipation of being hit or the verbal abuse or the emotional abuse? Who is the aggressor in more complex situations, huh? It’s such an easy way to dodge the responsibility and accountability that black men have in ending interpersonal violence in our communities to make this about who hits first. When the real issues have to do with power and victim-blaming/shaming; patriarchy and misogyny.

  3. First let me say that I do not condone or minimize the ugliness of domestic violence. It is indeed an unthinkable and intolerable act that should be prosecuted to the fullest when evidence shows that the perpetrator did indeed maliciously cause physical harm to their partner. Not after repeated incidents but the very first time regardless if the victim doesn’t want to press charges. We need to protect them even if they choose to ignore their partners hideous behavior.
    Now I do want to bring to the forefront that we can’t jump to conclusions about incidents of violence either real or perceived until all evidence is analyzed because we may unintentionally run the risk of vilifying and innocent person because of an emotional response to an incident. Case in point I had a woman who had a violent reaction towards something I had done outside of our relationship which was coherently understood to be a friendship. In her fit of anger she attempted to physically assault inside of my residence. In an attempt to restrain her and protect myself and property, I held her arms to her side and held her down until she calmed down.
    As a result of the physical encounted she suffered bruises on her arms and a bloody nose. She eventually calmed down and apologized for her behavior but if any would have seen her physical state they would have emotionally presumed that she was physically abused. And god forbid if the police were notified Im sure I would have been arrested on sight. My message is that we have to look at things before we formulate an opinion about something as serious as domestic violence.

  4. Hi there, the word you want is EMPATHIZE. “At the end of the day many men EMPHASIZE with other men and instead of vilifying any act of violence, physical or otherwise, against anyone, especially a woman, they attempt to justify it.

    1. Nance, thanks…I corrected the typo. My eyes were playing tricks on me and I didn’t realize/notice/”see” the error. Thanks.

  5. I deeply appreciate this piece. I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts and it just frustrates me to no end that people refuse to get it. It’s like we’re only equal when it comes to violence and that is insane! I was wondering if you had seen Ray Rice’s press conference and apology. If not, check it out:,0,670057.story.

    He seemed very sincere, only time will tell if he has truly learned from his actions. I think it was important for him to a) recognize that saying sorry will never erase what happened and b) implore the message to his fans that he was wrong, no ifs, ands or buts about it. And though there is no public record of their relationship being abusive, people have to recognize the signs and stop making excuses. Even if she did hit him first, no one deserves to be knocked unconscious. But the need to assume she deserved that is the underlying problem. She was completely unarmed so there’s no way she presented that much of a threat to him. And that goes for anyone who is outweighed physically by their partner. Like you mention above, abuse typically starts before the physical assaults occur. Emotional, psychological, mental abuse is much more prevalent and excused. We have to stop being abuse apologists and learn to hold each other accountable. Period.

    Thanks for writing this.

  6. I say this in an effort to actually get this started so that by the time of elections there is a serious possibility the world could start anew, from fresh clear perspectives.

    Its a bit off topic, yet not really. I’m in the process of gathering many a women to ask, plead if you will for Michelle Obama to run for office 2016. I do believe having a female president, yes also of color, would allow for us to make different decisions about how we view ourselves in this world, about how we view the world in general (ending wars, helping feed starving nations, global warming, etc.) I believe that it will give way for many women to have better faith in themselves. I believe it could decrease and/or cease the killing of our black men/boys. I believe that it would also give less opportunity for shit like (rape, victim blaming and so on) to simply easily be swept under rug. Yes I do strongly and seriously believe in this.

    More to come in the following months.

    Now my thoughts surrounding this has been…well not so easy to comprehend. Like why a woman would follow thru to marry a boy who just knocked her completely out of world? Why this is a on-going debate, he should be sentenced-simple? Is money that important in football? Is anything so serious you have to use your hands to prove a point? Why are black men acting this way? Not to say white men do not, yet my focus truly is the stereotypes that will soon follow black men as well as women due to shit like this.

    My co-workers and I were discussing this…and the first thing I thought/said was “so did she sue, so she can take him for what he got?” And I was swiftly told she married him immediately after. And my thought then was, “oh yes, money.” Is this how we will continue seeing ourselves? I know there are many strong, determined, confident women out there doing things for themselves. Yes me. I’m not rolling in cash but I am happy never the less. And I dont seriously wish someone would put their hands on me, because the aftermath of that would be worse.

    I have family members, whom Ive witnessed get abused. I remember one incident like it was yesterday. I now 34, was about 11 then, and my sisters boyfriend at the time (unfortunately and fortunately now my nephews father) was trying to pull her through a chained front door, by the neck. I behind the door crying profusely trying to shut the door on his arm. All I could see is my sisters eyes rolling back, mouth open gasping for air. Later on she pleaded with me not to tell my mother. She even paid me not to tell. I said okay. But as soon as my mom walked in the door from work, not even fully in the house I was blabbing it all. It was my duty, I felt. Even to this day, though my sister and I have no relationship…part do to the fact that I love her too much. Longer story, it was my duty to protect. I’m still that way with anyone. Even strangers. I tried stopping a guy who slapped a young girl as they walked out the movies. He cursed me out and tried to approach me. I got out of the car, grabbing my tire iron. No way I will watch a man beat a woman. Never. I dont understand the system though. One moment our innocent brothas are quick to be thrown under the jail or buried 6ft deep. Other moments its like we just kill ourselves with ignorance and lack of pride.

    I dunno where I am going with this. I have just been so confused a lot with many things going on shootings, beatings, rapes…I just dont seriously get it. And I say to self should I be turning my eye and acting as though I see nothing or ….

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