column

Why Black Women Are Speaking Out on Domestic Violence

When the media is silent, black women take to Twitter to tell their necessary stories.

by Tari Ngangura
Jul 18 2017, 3:47pm

Art by Noel Ransome

On April 10, Cedric Anderson, walked into an elementary school in San Bernardino, California and fired six shots from his six-shot revolver, reloaded, and then turned the gun on himself. His bullets struck and killed his estranged wife, Karen Elaine Smith, while she was teaching. Eight-year-old Jonathan Martinez was also killed, and nine-year-old Nolan Brandy suffered injuries but is now in recovery.

According to Gun Violence Archive, in the first five days of 2017 there were 315 reported incidences of gun violence across the United States. This fateful shooting in San Bernardino comes a little over year after another San Bernardino shooting left 16 people (including both perpetrators) dead. It's easy to file this tragedy under the perils of lax gun laws leading to unnecessary deaths. But the killing of Karen Elaine Smith by Cedric Anderson is also a case of domestic violence, something that's only been somewhat highlighted. When the victim is a black woman, as Smith was, it is even harder to convince the media to take notice.

Three days into 2017, Shanna Desmond, 31, and her 10-year-old daughter Aaliyah, were killed by her husband, Lionel Desmond in Nova Scotia. In February, Shaquenda Walker, 24, and her mother Deborah Walker, 55, were both fatally shot by Shaquenda's boyfriend while her children were present. The following month Quanta Nashall Chandler was killed by her ex-boyfriend following a nine-hour hostage situation in her house. Two days after Chandler's death, Shanice Williams was killed by her boyfriend while their child was present. And less than a week later, Dr. Sherilyn Gordon-Burroughs, a transplant surgeon was shot and killed by her husband after a five hour stand-off with police. On April 9, a day before Smith was shot and killed, Alicia Trotter was kidnapped and later killed by her boyfriend, who also killed himself after a police chase. And last month, Charleena Lyles was killed by police after she reported a robbery. A public defender alleged police, in an earlier incident, had pulled their guns on her in a domestic violence call.

This rising trend of black women being killed by their intimate partners, particularly through gun violence, is something that has been consistently under-reported. A 2010 study on the racial and ethnic representations of lawbreakers and victims in crime news, by the US National Center for Biotechnology found that when a story described a female victim, it was highly unlikely they would identify her by name if she was black or Hispanic. "News stories are more likely to identify the victim as white, consistent with racial privileging, normal crimes, market share and power structure arguments," the study said. White females are among the least likely groups to be victimized by violent crime, and yet they make up the majority of news stories because of the higher regard placed on white lives as opposed to black and Hispanic women.

The Violence Policy Center (VPC) an American non-profit organization, found that "black women are disproportionately impacted by fatal domestic violence." The VPC also reported that, "Black females were murdered by men at a rate of 2.19 per 100,000, more than twice the rate of 0.97 per 100,000 for white women murdered by men" in 2014. In the CBC's documentary film The War at Home, it was revealed that on average, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. That's at least one death every week, and on average at least 362,000 children in Canada witness or experience domestic violence. A 2009 Statistics Canada study found that 15 percent of Aboriginal women reported having been abused by a current or former spouse, compared to six percent of non-Aboriginal women.

These are staggering numbers and there is a culture of silence and shame surrounding the issue of domestic violence which is further complicated when we include intersections of race in the conversation.

Tired of being erased by the media, black women have instead turned to Twitter to share their stories. Britni Daniell, entertainment and culture director at Ebony, started a thread focused on putting a spotlight on the stories of black women killed as a result of domestic violence. In less than two weeks her tweets received more than 4,000 likes and retweets, with many adding their own stories of survival, or names of women killed and not seen in the media.

Another popular Twitter user, Feminista Jones, is responsible for creating #YouOkSis. A hashtag where women (predominantly black women) check in on each other or bring light to the physical, emotional, sexual and/or domestic violence they have faced. It also serves as a reminder that another black woman's name has become synonymous with violence. This hashtag joins the rallying cries of #SayHerName, another Twitter phenomena that asks people to say the names of black female victims of police and domestic violence.

In a Twitter thread Feminista Jones said, "#YouOKSis focuses on the untold experiences Black women have with gender-based violence, namely street/sexual harassment and domestic violence." The thread highlights the fact that society never asks black women if we are OK. No one checks in on us but us. Going through this hashtag on your Twitter timeline, on the same site where well-known media hubs are tweeting their 10th 'in-depth' piece on Coachella fashion, and asking if pregnancy helped Serena Williams win the Australian Open is an easy sociological study into what society and media view as being important and what isn't.

Institutionalized racism guarantees that the lives of black women are seen as having substantially lesser value. When the media erases our experiences this sets up a framework that excludes black experiences and leaves us in a position of having to be our own keepers of the gates; finding different avenues to raise awareness. Borne out of circumstance and desperation black people have turned to non-traditional methods of storytelling, so as to document the reality of living while black. Twitter has emerged as an eco-system of aggregated socially aware users, who have seen the faults in the traditional methods of documenting news and found a faster and more efficient way of spreading information.

Twitter had approximately 328 million monthly users during the first quarter of 2017. In a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, 40 percent of young black Americans (18-29) use Twitter, compared to 28 percent of white Americans of the same age. Trolls and Trump can make it a toxic zone of bigotry, but more times than not Twitter is taking notes, filing names and holding people accountable.

Black female victims of domestic violence are failed and forgotten or jailed and criminalized. The social bias that exists when it comes to who is seen as a victim and deserving of empathy and protection, run along strict colour lines that create boundaries around who gets media exposure and who receives proper justice. Social media has become the outlet for the black SOS with the hope that our anger will elicit some type of response from city officials and hopefully pique media interest.

With media being one of the pillars of our society, when black trauma is not recognized it clearly sends the message that we are not a part of society. And so we painstakingly do what needs to be done for our own. Because when justice can't be achieved via the state, sometimes it looks like trending name.

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