I’ve wanted to write about this topic for over a week, but have been putting it off because, as a white-looking woman, I cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. I therefore don’t feel very comfortable (qualified) to write about the experiences of black women. In any case, I’d like to comment on the Rihanna/Chris Brown situation while doing my best to keep my privilege in check.
It’s not news that we hear much more about white, blonde, and stereotypically “pretty” women who are beaten or kidnapped than we do about other women who go through the same kind of violence. It’s also not news that women of color are not given as much value as white women in this society (and that women aren’t valued as highly as men, of course).
But I still didn’t expect the Grammys to highlight and celebrate the work of a man convicted of bloodying and bruising a woman. (Three years ago, Brown beat up girlfriend Rihanna and subsequently turned himself in to the police, after which he was released on $50,000 bail.) Brown performed twice at the Grammy awards last February 12.
As Lori of Feministing wrote,
It is absolutely unacceptable that someone who is known to have perpetuated violence against a woman has been so uncritically welcomed and promoted by the music industry.
I completely agree.
Sasha Pasulka wrote a compelling post about the message society has been sending women by failing to punish Brown for his crime more severely since 2009:
The message we sent to young women was unmistakable: You are powerless. You are worthless. You will be a victim, and that will be okay with us. […] We will easily forgive a person who victimizes you. We are able to look beyond the fact that you were treated as less than human, that a bigger, stronger person decided to resolve a conflict with you through violence. We know it happened, but it’s just not that big of a deal to us.
Moreover, the week before the Grammy awards, a producer of the show made a nauseating announcement:
“We’re glad to have him back,” said Grammys Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” (Emphasis mine.)
Like Pasulka noted, Ehrlich — *cough* a white man *cough* — is telling us that the victims of Brown’s attacks on Rihanna’s face were… the Grammys. Really? Simply horrifying.
What about race?
Remarkably, the media isn’t paying much attention to the racial elements of the situation.
Let’s dig deeper.
Do you think Brown would have received more criticism for beating up Rihanna if Rihanna were white? What if instead of Rihanna, Brown, a black man, had beaten up a white woman with blue eyes – somebody like the blonde Taylor Swift or the brunette Katy Perry? If this had happened, I bet he would not have gotten invited to perform at the Grammy awards this month (or if he had, many more people would have been up in arms about it!).
In turn, do you think there would be fewer backlashes against Brown if he were white? I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Rihanna were getting victim-blamed even more harshly if she had gotten beaten by a white man.
Black women and stereotypes
Stereotypes are essentially an attempt to justify violence of white people and black men against black women. And they often work.
A 2004 study about African American women and violence in the media found that “the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions minimized the seriousness of the violence, portrayed most of its victims as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolved the perpetrators of responsibility” in TV news coverage of Freaknik, an annual “spring break” event that drew African American college students from across the U.S. to Atlanta, Georgia in the 1990s.
In other words, the media portrayed African American women who suffered violence at Freaknik as having provoked it through their supposedly excessive sexuality – it was their own fault that men beat them, you see, because they were overly sexual, or Jezebels. Consequently and appallingly, the perpetrators didn’t receive as much blame for what happened.
Gina McCauley of the blog What About Our Daughters suggested that another stereotype may be at play here: that of the strong black woman or possibly the Sapphire, “the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge.”
McCauley believes that Brown may be profiting from a mindset common in the black community which says that black men can get away with nearly anything and that it’s black women who are responsible — even when violence is exerted against them.
“We always blame black women when something goes wrong,” McCauley explained. “And we hold them to a completely different standard than we hold black men and boys to. And so while Chris Brown isn’t responsible for any actions, at his own hands, the girl — in this case, Rihanna — is always held responsible. And it doesn’t matter if she’s a poor black girl in the middle of the hood, or one of the most famous and probably commercially successful artists on the planet. She’s still a black girl, and she’s still responsible for every single thing that may happen to her in life.”
McCauley says that young black women tell themselves they are invincible as a coping mechanism and that, if they admit that Brown was to blame for beating Rihanna — a wildly successful young black woman –, black women must also admit that this violence can happen to them, a notion that would destroy the myth of the strong black woman that so many of these girls have internalized.
McCauley made sure to point out that this is not young black women’s fault:
“We don’t have conversations with girls about violence,” she says. “We don’t say, ‘How do you navigate interpersonal relationships with boys?’ I think the only message that young girls get consistently about relationships is don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant.”
The bottom line
What makes the Rihanna-Brown incident so important is that it is high-profile. The point isn’t Rihanna or Chris Brown — the point is that we need to have a real conversation about domestic violence and how to prevent it and address it. The point is that by excusing or glossing over Brown’s violence (because of his past or the popularity of his music or whatever reason), we are sending women and young girls — but especially young black women — the perverse message that it’s okay if they get beaten and that their aggressor may ultimately not even be held accountable for his brutal actions.
Like McCauley wrote,
Somewhere right now, a group of women in real life is trying to convince a woman or girl that it is perfectly permissible for her “man” to beat the living snot out of her. They are trivializing the abuse and providing arguments for why she should stay.
Celebrating Chris Brown’s musical abilities despite his violent tendencies past tells women that getting beat up by a significant other is not a big deal. This message is being yelled especially loudly at black women.
We need to change it.