Disclaimer: This month’s content addresses sensitive topics that could evoke difficult emotions and/or trigger trauma responses. Please read with caution and care.
Some trace the history of the domestic violence movement to the 1970s, when shelters began to open in significant numbers across the United States. And while that chronology may make sense in narrow terms, there are also important diversity, equity, and inclusion lessons to be learned from thinking about this history more broadly and through an intersectional lens–particularly considering how violence against women based on power disparities has for centuries been a bedrock tool of white supremacy.
Consider: how in the founding policies and laws of this country people who were Indigenous or enslaved were not counted as full human beings. Rape and sexual violence against enslaved women were commonplace. Under many state laws, until at least the mid-1800s, rape against Black women was not considered a crime.
“My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves,” Harriet Jacobs wrote in her autobiography “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” published in 1861. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, enslaved in Virginia and North Carolina (and whose biological father was also a white plantation owner), wrote in her book “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” of being raped repeatedly by Alexander Kirkland, a white neighbor to whom she had been given, eventually giving birth to his child.
After the Civil War ended, Whites continued to use violence, lynching and rape as tools to intimidate and subjugate formerly enslaved Blacks.
Even the history of the movement for women’s equality and right to vote is often told solely through the lens of White suffragettes or White feminists – centering their views, and often not acknowledging the racism within those movements.
At the historic Seneca Falls Convention, held in July 1848 to advocate for women’s rights, no Black women were known to attend. Black suffragettes such as Hallie Quinn Brown, head of the National Association of Colored Women, often had to work independently of White suffragettes, whose support they couldn’t count on, in pushing for equality and the right to vote for Black women.
After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, granting women the right to vote, many Southern states continued to use Jim Crow laws including literacy tests and poll taxes to intentionally suppress Blacks’ right to vote. For Black women, the decades between the adoption of the 19th amendment and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 were filled with blood and sacrifice and Jim Crow inequity, while White women went to the polls.
Historian Danielle McGuire, in her book “At the Dark End of the Street,” tells the story of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old mother, who was attacked and raped by a group of at least six White men in 1944, as she walked home from a prayer meeting in Abbeville, Alabama. The Montgomery NAACP chapter sent an investigator to interview Taylor – an activist named Rosa Parks. McGuire contends that anger over a series of rapes and sexual assaults against Taylor, Gertrude Perkins and other Black women in the area helped to fuel the Montgomery bus boycotts and Parks’ leadership in that. Sexual violence against Black woman was a catalyst in the civil rights movement – an example of the intersectionality of racism and sexual violence.
Stepping forward to the present, it’s important to acknowledge the significant role that racism and intersectionality continue to play in the domestic violence movement, and to acknowledge the impact of generational trauma on the bodies of women of color. The overall statistics about domestic violence conceal a deeper story of inequity – demonstrating how intimate partner violence disproportionately affects people of color, particularly Black women.
The most recent fatality report from the Ohio Domestic Violence Network, released in October, shows the pattern. Forty percent of the 78 domestic violence victims killed in incidents from July 1, 2022 through June 30, 2023 in Ohio were persons of color. In all cases involving a fatality – including those in which the domestic violence victim survived but the perpetrator or someone else was killed – 51% of the 112 people who died were persons of color.
And of the people of color who were not perpetrators and who died in these incidents – meaning domestic violence victims, children and third-party victims who were present – more than two-thirds (71%) were Black women and children. By comparison, only 18% of Ohio’s population is Black or mixed race, according to the most recent Census for Ohio.
Those disparities, along with an understanding of the impact of generational trauma on physical bodies and psyches, consideration of the impact of centuries of disparity involving education and economic opportunity, and the recognition that racism and power imbalances are alive and well in institutions, including domestic violence organizations – they all are reasons for considering what work of repair and transformation still needs to be done, and the urgency of that work.
Might a lived understanding of that racialized history, along with a distrust of law enforcement, make some survivors of color more reluctant to report the abuse and to seek assistance, make them more likely to stay with their abuser?
What are the historical lessons that need to be understood involving particular subgroups – such as refugees, LGBTQ+, indigenous women, Asian and Latinx communities?
And what are the community and other resources available that can help domestic violence agencies build cultural competency – a complex, collaborative task – and begin to comprehend how racism and sexual violence intersect? What are the stories and the history we need to listen to and learn to tell?
ODVN is offering future training opportunities to dive deeper into these topics. Join ODVN on Feb. 8 for the training session, “Intersections of Present and Historical Trauma: Implications for Survivors of Color.” In this training participants will delve into the complex dynamics of how domestic violence survivors of color navigate implicit biases shaped by historical trauma. Tonjie Reese, Founder and Executive Director of eleven24, will explore the compounding effects of police brutality, mass violence, and discrimination faced by survivors of color. Register by visiting www.odvn.org/training, or clicking this link.
Additionally, ODVN’s Director of Health and Disability Programs and Founder of the Center on Partner-Inflicted Brain Injury Rachel Ramirez will join Nneka MacGregor, Executive Director of WomenatthecentrE, and a diverse group of panelists on March 19 for “Intersections of Partner-Inflicted Brain Injury, Oppression, and Racism: Supporting Survivors of Color.” This training will raise awareness for the unique characteristics of brain injury and the barriers survivors of color face when seeking safety, support, and medical services. To register, click here.