‘Abusers manipulate their ability to bruise Black skin’: why domestic abuse awareness must be intersectional
Writer Evie Muir shares her expertise as a domestic abuse specialist in Black, Asian, minority ethnic and refugee communities.
16 Oct 2020
October is home to both British Black History Month, and Domestic Abuse Awareness Month; periods of celebration, commemoration and contemplation. This year we should call for the intersections between race and gender to be acknowledged and acted upon, in order to platform and help Black victims and survivors of abuse like myself. For us, October is a month where we have the opportunity to be doubly seen and heard within contexts that traditionally omit us from discussions.
One in three women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, and while there’s no evidence to suggest Black women are more likely to experience abuse, it’s acknowledged that we’ll endure severer, more complex forms of abuse for longer. Understanding this intersectionality is to recognise that our multiple vulnerabilities are compounded by numerous forms of oppression; misogyny, racism, colourism, classism, marginalisation, heteronormativity and institutional discrimination.
“Anecdotally, abusers often manipulate their ability to bruise Black skin with less visibility, meaning our physical injuries aren’t always picked up on by others”
Alongside types of abuse like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour-based violence – physical, sexual, verbal and emotional abuse can be normalised amongst our communities. This desensitises generations to the unacceptable way Black women are disrespected and devalued.
Anecdotally, abusers often manipulate their ability to bruise Black skin with less visibility, meaning our physical injuries aren’t always picked up on by others, whilst issues of consent and sexual ownership dominate experiences of sexual abuse. Similarly, verbal and emotional abuse is routinely accepted as the norm, often based around how we look, our size, our skin tone, our attractiveness, whether we look “too Black” or “too white”. Financial abuse is also common, with many Black women carrying the burden of being the matriarchal sole breadwinners of a family while their partner controls the funds.
Dating outside of our culture also poses a risk for Black women unique to dual-ethnicity relationships. Being culturally misunderstood and subjected to racist slurs, our experiences as Black women are gaslit and undermined. We can also be exposed to racist family members, sexually fetishised or objectified. Gabrielle’s* experience as an African-heritage woman in a relationship with a white man proves this. “My abuser used [our cultural differences] to trap me,” she says. “He used the strained relationship I had with my family, who disapproved of me dating in a way that didn’t align with their beliefs, to coerce me, sexually and emotionally abuse me. As a Black woman, he fetishised my ethnicity to play into this idea that I was hyper-sexualised.”
For those who have experienced abuse, seeking help is rarely an option. An “us and them” narrative can pervade between Black communities and the police who are both feared and untrusted. Even as survivors of abuse, Black women must choose which side they’re on.
“I call it dishonour-based violence,” says Ngozi Fulani, the founder of African-Caribbean Domestic Abuse organisation Sistah Space. She spoke to gal-dem candidly, and unapologetically – advocating for the necessity of uncomfortable discussions to encourage change. “In the Rastafarian community, for example, you can’t report abuse to the police because your whole community shames you. You’re in the wrong whilst the perpetrator won’t get a mention.”
“Being culturally misunderstood and subjected to racist slurs, our experiences as Black women are gaslit and undermined. We can also be exposed to racist family members, sexually fetishised or objectified”
This, compounded by the hostile environment Black communities live in, incites real fears of Black men being hurt or even killed in police custody. “We have a duty of care to our brothers, we don’t want that person dead or hurt, we just want the abuse to stop,” adds Ngozi.
Once Black survivors overcome the stigma associated with seeking help, we’re faced with mainstream support services that re-victimise us by overlooking these intersections. It’s become clear that these services aren’t designed with us in mind. The lack of representation across organisations’ websites, social media and promotional imagery, the absence of diversity in their staffing bodies, and the lack of training amongst staff in key areas that support Black women, such as DDVC’s (Destitute Domestic Violence Concession) or how organisations don’t hire interpreters reflects that we do not fit their definitions of an “ideal victim”.
The support we access will often be culturally incompetent – full of behaviours, attitudes or policies that perpetuate intentional or unintentional discriminatory practice. From support workers not being able to spell or pronounce our names, and our culture, faith or ethnicity being blamed for the abuse – to making space for the mistakes, fragility and privilege of our support workers.
“The VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) sector is rife with racism”, Ngozi emphasises. “Let it be said – this is a barrier to support being provided. Never mind people accessing it; the support doesn’t exist. We can’t even get to the barrier. In order to even see the barrier we must overcome every obstacle in our way.”
These barriers are rooted in the stereotypes which dictate how Black women are seen in all sectors from domestic abuse support services and the criminal justice system, to healthcare. Racist and inhumane historical stereotypes have led to the idea that we’re strong, aggressive, angry and resilient.here’s even evidence that many white medical professionals think Black people feel less pain. This has dangerous, life-threatening consequences.
“These examples of institutional failures not only impact a survivor’s experience of abuse and support, but also their life after abuse, and propensity to remain safe”
Natasha Benjamin, founder of Free Your Mind, a childhood abuse and trauma service, felt this when she witnessed services fail her mum, who was abused by her stepfather. “When my mum went to the police for support, an officer shrugged their shoulders and disregarded the abuse,” she explains. “Eventually I was taken into care, suddenly and without warning. We lost control of our lives and this could’ve been prevented if interventions were taken by the authorities sooner.”
These examples of institutional failures not only impact a survivor’s experience of abuse and support, but also their life after abuse, and propensity to remain safe. Ngozi poignantly summarises this ripple effect. “If you don’t understand our hair you can’t help us. We’re our hair, skin and our food. Services will offer us refuge, but in places like Surrey. Me nah going to no Surrey! Them no have no plantain, them no have no Shea butter, and in the morning I’m even more traumatised. Let me go back!”
Rather than ensuring mainstream support is accessible, the solution to this is often presented as the few “specialist” BAMER (Black Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee) organisations in existence across the country. Ngozi contends that BAMER organisations signify a box ticking exercise that try to serve all cultures satisfactorily, rather than specialising in one culture exceptionally. She believes that “every group needs to see themselves reflected and needs to speak to someone who understands their journey”.
Subjecting Black women to culturally inappropriate service provision deters survivors from accessing support. Gabrielle remembers, “I couldn’t tell my family due to the risk of punishment for being in a relationship they disapproved of. I sought professional help – but often felt my pain was dismissed because of my race. I tried counselling but the lack of Black counsellors that understood the nuances of racial trauma meant that I never actually talked about what happened.”
Upholding Black survivors of domestic abuse requires the deconstruction of systems that are foundational to our current knowledge around victimisation and support. This is non-negotiable. Our wellbeing demands increased funding for Black organisations who are supporting communities, an Afro-centric approach over Western models, diverse support staff and a commitment to both anti-racism and unconscious bias mitigation that targets individual prejudices alongside institutional failings.
No more politely pleading for the same standard of support whilst we suffer – it’s time that mainstream services prove whether our Black Lives Matter to them, in October and beyond.