The volume of victim-blaming sentiments expressed in reaction to the video of Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, Janay Rice, is not surprising. The question of why she subsequently married Rice, or more generally why victims of domestic violence stay with their abusive partners, is arguably the most common question asked by both well-meaning allies and men who deny the frequency and severity of men's violence against women (in the latter case, usually followed by statements that men are victims too, erasing the impact of men's violence). Fox News anchors' defense of Ray Rice and the minimization of his violence was easily anticipated. Largely, rather than ignorant curiosity, the tone of media stories and online comments has consisted of statements of judgment toward Janay Rice. I'm not sure the intent of the asker makes a difference. The answer is widely available with a two-second Google search. Or, starting yesterday, on Twitter.
What I found astonishing and disheartening was how widespread victim-blaming reactions were – even by people whom I thought would know more about the power and control dynamics present in an abusive relationship. Janay’s actions have been dissected to determine whether she struck Rice first, spat at him, was yelling and/or using profanity, or was inebriated at the time. Some of the same people who condemned the New York Times for characterizing Michael Brown (killed by Ferguson, MO police) as "no angel" are quick to question Janay Rice's actions in the moments before Ray Rice struck her unconscious. Damon Young, writer for Ebony.com, pointed out these contradictions better than I ever could:
I wonder if they realize saying “She might have hit him first” is no different than saying “Well, Michael Brown might have been high.” I wonder if they know that thinking this is all just a plot to disgrace Black men is the exact same thing as thinking George Zimmerman was just persecuted by overzealous race-baiters. I wonder if they’ve grasped that their unblinking support of Rice, even in the face of overwhelming visual evidence, makes them spiritual twins with the Staten Island teachers wearing t-shirts in support of the precinct that has seen two unarmed Black men die at their hands in the last year. I wonder if they realize arguing it was a fair fight between Janay Palmer and Ray Rice -- who, along with being a professional football player, is a trained boxer -- is as stupid as arguing Michael Brown was “armed” because he was 6’4 and 300 pounds.
As with the intense scrutiny of Brown's actions and character, the attacks and examination of Janay Rice miss the point. Just as the mass incarceration of Black men evidences systemic racism in our society, men's violence against women is a social problem much larger than whatever happened in that particular elevator. The intuitive reaction to protect a Black man from being maligned in the national media as a monster is well-founded. My (not yet published) research reveals systemic differences in online news articles about White and Black male celebrities who perpetrate domestic violence. We also know that Black perpetrators of violence face greater sanctions than White abusers. The defense of Black men at the expense of (Black) women who are victims of domestic violence is a trap of simplicity which obscures the reality of the intersectional nature of oppression.
In order to be heard, survivors have been vocal on Twitter this week using the hashtag #WhyIStayed. Their collective reaction to build community and fashion whatever megaphone they can in order to be heard is critically important. It educates well-meaning individuals about the complexity of domestic violence (although, I doubt it does anything to silence those deeply committed to misogynistic ideology). It brings survivors' reality out of the shadows -- to quote Vice President Joe Biden, reflecting on the 20th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act: "The only way to change this culture was to expose it . . . the best disinfectant is sunlight." Yet, this is still a defensive action, a response meant to justify women's actions and their agency to survive.
Real progress would be evidenced by a national conversation about how we are all part of the problem that perpetuates men's violence against women. We are part of the problem when we lose sight of the bigger picture and narrowly focus on a snapshot in time of two people in an elevator. We are part of the problem when we don't challenge friends' Facebook posts that judge Janay Rice for wanting the violence against her to stop but not her relationship. We are part of the problem when we're quick to judge survivors' actions. We are part of the problem when we argue violence against women is a problem within the NFL and ignore the larger scale of the social issue. We are part of the problem when we demand a one-size-fits-all solution. We are part of the problem when we opt to stay silent when a colleague uses fancy language to repeatedly make victim-blaming statements. We are part of the problem when we promote marriage as a solution to men’s violence against women. We are part of the problem when we call for strong criminal sanctions without listening to what survivors of domestic violence need and want. Continuous rehashing of the video, especially without moving to constructive solutions, is part of the problem.
Alternatively, we are part of the solution when we donate to victim advocacy groups. We are part of the solution when we ask friends about their relationships and truly listen. We are part of the solution when we advocate for policies that support survivors of domestic violence. We are part of the solution when we demand funding for research that identifies and evaluates prevention strategies. Real progress on this issue would be meaningful societal action to work to prevent men's violence against women and pervasive efforts to be part of the solution.