The Spectator Sport of Black Women Bashing

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the 1990s, The O.J. Simpson murder trial polarized America and highlighted domestic violence as a national cause célèbre.  At the center of the storm was Simpson’s wife, the blond Orange County-bred Nicole Brown Simpson, who’d suffered years of domestic abuse by an NFL legend deified as a pop culture god.  After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murdering Brown Simpson white America wanted his scalp. Nicole was the perfect victim, the beautiful tragic heroine who died too young at the hands of a savage.  The trial of the century hinged on redeeming a white woman’s honor and bringing her Negro killer to justice.  Brown Simpson was grieved globally, transformed into a symbol of the deadliness of intimate partner violence and martyr of a legal system—signified by the “dumb” biased black female jury that acquitted Simpson—run amok.

The underside of the verdict and the global valorization of Nicole Brown Simpson was the disreputable black female abuse victim.  Each year thousands of black women are shot, stabbed, stalked, and brutalized in crimes that never make it on the national radar.  Black women experience intimate partner violence at a rate of 35% higher than do white women.  Intimate partner violence is a leading cause of death for black women, yet they are seldom viewed as proper victims and are rarely cast as total innocents.  This is the backdrop to the tale of a group of white high school students in New York who thought it would be cool to don blackface and reenact the 2009 beating of pop star Rihanna by Chris Brown at a pep rally.  Like the gleefully bloodthirsty white audiences that gathered to view 20th century lynchings, there has always been a robust market for white consumption of black pain.  A big part of the white audience’s glee came from not seeing Rihanna as a proper victim.  For white Middle America, intimate partner violence is only funny as spectator sport if the person being beat is viewed as other.  From the right wing’s Moynihan-esque propaganda on black welfare queen matriarchs to recent abortion-as-black-genocide messaging, black women’s bodies are fair game for institutionalized acts of violence, terrorism, and control.  So for a lily white school to find the brutal beating of a black woman hilarious is par for the course in a misogynist white supremacist culture that deems black women less than human.

There is a deep connection between the current backlash against human rights for women and the white kids’ pep rally.  During the recent presidential debate, gender justice issues were reduced to hollow rhetoric about equal pay.  Mitt Romney prattled on about having “binders full of women” while President Obama tried to link the provisions of the Affordable Care Act with improving employment opportunities and equal pay for working women.  Although Obama rattled off a few vital health and family planning services provided by Planned Parenthood, the GOP assault on abortion rights went unmentioned.  Violence against women comes in many forms, and by ramming through law after law of draconian anti-abortion, fetal homicide, and “personhood” policies through state legislatures nationwide the GOP has become the foremost lynch mob of civil rights.  As the poorest, least compensated women in the workforce, women of color suffer disproportionately from the dismantling of reproductive health care.  But they are also brutalized by both parties’ promotion of corporate handouts, tax cuts for the wealthy, and denigration of social welfare programs that specifically target poor and low income families.

Yet, violence against women of color is so far outside of the radar of social justice organizations, much less the context of mainstream politics, that it even elicits little outrage amongst many young women of color.  Over the past few years, whenever I have classroom discussions about the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident students roll their eyes and snort in exasperation.  Some girls dismiss the issue as an endless rehash.  More insidiously, others express the view that Rihanna was somehow complicit in her own beating.  She must have done something, she must have hit him first, she must have provoked it in some way with her mouth, attitude, body—is the typical blame-the-victim refrain.

Not seeing themselves portrayed as worthy of human dignity, respect, and value has inured them to the unrelenting violence of explicitly anti-black anti-female media images.  According to a Pitzer College study, girls who are consistently exposed to “sexist violent rap videos were more accepting of teen dating violence.”  Training young women of color to come to voice, to identify the normalized violence that they experience on a daily basis, is one of the biggest challenges of feminist of color organizing.  Critiquing the pep rally incident, my Women’s Leadership Project students all agreed that the brutal beating of a Taylor Swift, a Britney Spears or even a Nicole Brown Simpson wouldn’t fly as spectator sport at a black high school.  The tragedy is that they all believed that Chris Brown’s beating of Rihanna would.

The Spectator Sport of Black Women Bashing
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22 thoughts on “The Spectator Sport of Black Women Bashing

  1. 1

    More insidiously, others express the view that Rihanna was somehow complicit in her own beating.

    I don’t believe Rhianna was complicit in her beating at the time; but she sure as hell looked complicit afterword, when she kept on going on and on about how she still loved Chris, and couldn’t bear to part with him, and then worked with him on something. I know none of that excuses anything Chris did to her, but it’s still hard to sympathize with the victim when she shows absolutely no desire to be free of her abuser or improve her own life.

    What makes Rhianna even less sympathetic, is that she’d created, in her music, the personna of a brave, tough and merciless woman in the face of male cheating and other misconduct, ridiculing cheating men as being totally worthless while confidently kicking them to the curb. Then she got beaten up in real life, and that tough personna turns out to be a complete fantasy. Her celebrity gives her advantages most abused women only dream about, and she didn’t use them!

    If you want to draw more attention to violence against black women, forget Rhianna and find a black woman who’s actually trying to make her own life better — then you can describe some of the real obstacles she faces as well.

    1. 1.1

      …aaaand when white women go on and on about how much they love and forgive their abusers and can’t bear to be apart from them, you think that makes them look complicit too? Because that’s been answered over and over again.

      1. Yes, in many people’s eyes, it DOES make them look complicit, whether or not that’s really fair. Or, to put it another way, it makes them look like helping them is useless because they won’t even try to help themselves, and/or won’t accept the help that is offered them.

        In Rhianna’s case, it seems to me that a lot of people were very sympathetic to her when news of Chris’s treatment of her first came out: she had fans, she was well-known, and the public thought Chris was an immature asshole, and she could easily find herself a better man. But when she started blithering about how she still loved him and couldn’t be without him (for purely emotional reasons, mind you, not because she couldn’t pay her own way), most of that sympathy seemed to evaporate.

        1. So do you not feel sympathy for people who suffer from psychological trauma or manipulation, generally? Or is there something that makes this particular situation uniquely undeserving of sympathy?

          1. F

            I think the point was that

            it DOES make them look complicit, whether or not that’s really fair.

            You’ll note that the law operates in the same way. Get a restraining order/PFA order, then in a week call up your abuser to come over, that order is void. The victim cannot violate the order either. Any violence which occurs can still be prosecuted, but what can you do for a victim who refuses counseling? Incarcerate them for their own safety?

            Now, the law doesn’t always work as it is written, and the laws and services could be much better. The same is true of public perceptions: Victims should be supported, and abusers recognized as such. Some victims will always “look bad” to a lot of people when they keep seeking out the same situations which lead to abuse, even though that is the wrong way to look at it.

            That said, I don’t think it should matter how the victim looks, whether she is trying to escape a bad situation, or seems to go back into that bad situation. (And I really don’t think men who abuse women should even be available to go back to, at least not immediately or soon.)

            And in this case, the example of Rihanna is here exactly because of such things as the vomit-inducing display of this pep-squad and the mindset behind it. I.e., I disagree with Raging Bee that this is a bad example. However, I am neither a woman nor black, nor a victim of this sort of abuse, so I am quite open to education in this.

            Perhaps other victims feel differently. Maybe they don’t want to be associated with victims who return to their abusers. And maybe they speak from a place of psychological trauma, too. I can’t be the judge of that. Cultural brainwashing and psychological trauma may drive Rihanna back to Chris, and it may drive other victims who left the cycle of abuse to have a problem with women who excuse their abusers, especially publicly to large audiences. Women who couldn’t get any help to get out may resent women who essentially refuse help – particularly if this also lets criminally abusive men off the hook.

            Again, I don’t think this is particularly relevant to what these white kids did for public entertainment with their casual racism and amusement at violence, nor to the complete lack of negative reaction from the spectators and the school. It didn’t have to be about Rihanna, it could been about any victim (probably one who had received media attention – most don’t receive any attention from the public or the law at all), and very likely only a victim who was a black woman. Certainly this would be about someone downhill on the privilege spectrum, because, you know, they just aren’t worthy of the smallest bit of human consideration, if they aren’t outright hated. They are the Other.

    2. 1.2

      Nope. That is simply not how the human brain works. It’s common knowledge so I’m surprised that you come on so strongly in your comments here without taking it into account. The brain does not have an on/off switch for attachment. It’s more common than not for a person to continue for some time with a relationship that he or she intellectually knows is bad and wrong. They can’t hit the off switch for their attachment, because there is no off switch.

      I don’t know, but I it may be the case that Rihanna created a fictional character who would have left an abusive partner “cold turkey”, but that does not mean that she or any other woman or man could actually do that in real life. Famous people don’t have special powers over their brains that the rest of us don’t have.

      Don’t get me wrong, I actually like and enjoy the illusion of free rational, intellectual choice and I think it’s good to do whatever we can to promote choice, but we can’t do that by pretending that the brain works in ways that it doesn’t.

      It’s sad that you had to use a word like “complicit” too. I imagine it must be pretty easy to be a violent and abusive person in a society where self-identified moderates (I clicked through to your blog) are that quick to turn to victim blaming.

      1. Great post. I would even add that they may be more vulnerable than a lot of women because she is rich and famous and thus lives in a strange and isolated universe.

        I like your line about attachment not having an off-switch.

    3. 1.3

      Trying to forgive or defend the abuser is a normal psychological response. It isn’t as though abuse typically happens in otherwise healthy and normal relationships- victims are worn down over time to believe that the escalating abuse is acceptable. Folks like ragingbee always seem to think that they are somehow immune, that they would do infinitely better than actual abuse victims if they were in the same situation. Its a comforting thought, but unfortunately it is just narcissistic delusion to think of yourself as so far above others in response to a life-threatening situation.

      What most people forget is that the majority of women killed by their partners are killed when they try to leave the abuse situation. Abusers also work very hard to restrict the resources of victims to it will be more difficult for them to leave. I really resent people who present leaving immediately as the only “smart” option when they don’t know any specific information about how likely someone is to actually escape the abuse. That kind of recklessness could make it harder to successfully leave (as in leave without being killed or stalked or economically impoverished). People in abusive relationships are extremely vulnerable and deserve complete support without judgment.

    4. 1.4

      Yes, because it’s not like it takes a woman an average of six tries before leaving an abuser. And it’s not like abuse has the mental component where saying you still love him is, oh, I dunno, fucking normal. Or that she got any pressure to forgive him from the fans who sent her death threats.

      And you’re just learning now that not all songs are in fact autobiographical? And that most performers create a stage persona? Oh honey. That’s cute.

  2. 3

    Sikivu, thanks so much for this! It is an excellent article. Since most women aren’t celebrities they don’t have to deal with domestic violence under the full gaze of the media. The average woman who may end up getting beaten in the same way as Rihanna and/or was murdered like Nicole simply would not have aroused the same amount of attention–sympathy, curiosity, hate, support or blame. Just like everything else in this society, the class and ethnicity of both victim and perpetrator heavily weighs on the outcome. A working class black man accused of killing his ex-wife–also black is going to be dealt with differently than if she were white. Some may say, well that’s what she gets for crossing the color line; and there’s no doubt in my mind that many felt that way about Nicole. The case of Rihanna would not have caused a blip on the domestic violence radar had she not been who she is…I did’t know anything about her music nor his, but I certainly have found out about their lives whether I wanted to or not! The beautiful people, the wealthy, and the privileged will continue to use their a$$ets to obtain justice; the rest of us will have to fight for it. Finally, can a society in which most people worship at the altar of war seriously expect to have peace at home?

  3. 4

    The whole Simpson thing down-punch illustrates the super-rich’s strategy to pit poor blacks against poor whites, but kinda in reverse, sorta. There’s the apologist take where the not-guilty verdict painted a “we’re not racist” patina on due-process while effectively taking a crap on the reality of domestic violence. We were pathetically presented with an ‘either/or scenario where OJ was EITHER a typical ‘colored’ thug OR Nicole Simpson was a dirty cheating bitch. The fact that due process itself is unable to untangle that knot is truly frightening. That we’re able to sell this narrative to all strata along class lines….well…

  4. 5

    I think there are two dynamics going on. Black-white, and male-female. Race is pulled out when it’s convenient for white people (I’m white btw) to distance themselves from something that is happening in the poor community, including domestic violence or crime. I believe I used poor community correctly. Domestic violence and crime are increased in poor communities, but when people in power portray it as a race issue, then it isn’t the problem of the people in power to fix it. If it was a poor issue, then we might have to consider how our policy and environments affect poor people and how we might help them.

    Women get it worse in general. Look at recent comments about how women rape easily, and how we want carve outs for rape in a marriage so men aren’t unduly harmed. Add the layers above and black women are incredibly likely to be assigned blame for their own mistreatment. Give it a few generations and they are equally unlikely to call for their own justice for fear of ostracism and retribution.

  5. 6

    I think this fits into a broader problem of how middle class or upper class white women need to be ‘protected’ in various ways, but the moment the woman is poor and Black it’s assumed all her problems are of her own making and she needs ‘responsibility.’ Nobody can dare challenge that Ann Romney ‘worked’ as a mother but a single Black mom with kids at home is told she needs to go to work (for shit money) since apparently she doesn’t fit the protected status.

    1. 6.1

      Well said — which is why IPV and domestic violence remain grossly underreported among black women in particular. The pervasive criminalization of black men also contributes to the hesitance of some black women to report IPV as black male assailants are subject to harsher sentencing for violent crimes. Cultural/social pressure, economic constraints, and child/family ties often make it more difficult for AA women to pursue legal action against their abusers.

  6. 7

    I only just realized that the Rihanna/Chris Brown blackface skit was very local to me. At a high school less than an hour’s drive away.

    I am so not surprised. Things haven’t changed much in upstate NY since the 90s, when I was ostracized for allegedly being a lesbian (I’m not, but whatever, that’s not the point).

    I’m trying to think of what I can do.

  7. 8

    This is a damn good post.

    Also, I find it really interesting that Chris Brown is rightfully condemned as an abusive shithead, as was Ike Turner and Bobby Brown. Then I think about Michael Fassbender, Charlie Sheen, Sean Penn, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Nicholas Cage, (none of whom I can stand either) and can’t help but notice that they don’t get much mention for their also horrific crimes against their partners. Hmm. I wonder if something might also be *colouring* the public’s perception?

    1. 8.1

      I was not aware that the White men you named had abused their female partners. It is a shame that they are not treated with the same contempt as the Black men you identified. Wonder when that will change.

  8. 9

    Thanks for the link to the original article, and for your excellent analysis.

    I found it a little boggling that the original article focused entirely on whether or not it was appropriate for the participants to be wearing blackface, and zero time on whether it was appropriate to be watching a woman be beaten up and cheering on the person assaulting her.

  9. 10

    Thank you for this article, especially the american bar link. It’s helpful to have such powerful statistics just a click away. I was and still am utterly perplexed by the pep rally circumstances. How did they attempt justify the skit?

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