What I learned from the women of Detroit
Policy governs how much of our public resources we are prepared to invest in addressing gender-based violence. And the policy of gender-based violence is fraught with blame for victims. When public officials classify intimate partner violence as a private matter, victim blame becomes embedded in our structures. This is also seen in our calculation of the cost of behavior to individuals and to society in general. Classifying gender-based violence as a private rather than a public problem has many effects. This reduces the importance of the problem and serves as an excuse for the lack of public funding for solutions. We tell ourselves that it is not so bad. And then we ignore the costs in human lives and human resources that this entails. Personalizing the impact of gender-based violence is a kind of denial that allows us to say to ourselves “it’s not our problem”. Why should public funds be spent on individual personal issues? Labeling intimate partner violence as a private matter has a social effect – stigmatizing victims and marginalizing them in our communities. All of the above reductive approaches to gender-based violence demean women who experience abuse, silencing witnesses in a preventive manner.
Blame on the victim plays a role in the bribery of gender-based violence. But it’s never more of a problem than when it happens to survivors of intimate partner violence, who often face sexual assault, emotional abuse, beatings, and financial extortion from their partners. Shame, for “allowing themselves to be victimized”, by friends, family members or people they turn to for help can further trap them in situations of violence to which they are attempting to. escape. I had read about this part of the cycle of violence as well as the role perpetrators themselves play in trapping victims of gender-based violence. But I hadn’t witnessed it until 1992, in a shelter for what we then called “battered women” and their families in Detroit.
Women in Detroit
THELong before I visited Detroit, this was a big part of my imagination. As a place of near legendary status, for the economic opportunities and the music it has created, Detroit is important especially among black Americans. Its spectacular prosperity in the first half of the twentieth century, shared by the blacks who landed there during the Great Migration, and its spiraling economic decline in the second, which hit black neighborhoods hard, make it a true example of the American urban history. I have now visited Motor City twice, and both of my experiences have been beyond my imagination. I had grown up in Oklahoma, a black kid in a rural community with a population that was as white in the 1950s when I was a kid as Detroit was black in the 1990s.
Even with the downturn in its economy, the city had an appeal. My ancestors were not part of the Great Migration that brought families north to escape racism and restrictions on our basic rights. To those who have joined the crowd that has left, mobility has given them a newfound freedom. Many were only a generation of severe blows for being captured on the land of their slave owners. When I studied the limited section on the Great Migration in my American history class at my small town rural high school, I wondered how my life could have been different if my mother had been drawn to Chicago or Detroit. as many girls and women were. Migration to the north was not something my family experienced firsthand, but it was part of my history as a Black American and part of American history. Many of their families had arrived in Detroit decades earlier, seeking the freedoms they could only dream of in the South. They wanted more for themselves and their children. The toll that racism, dating back to slavery, inflicted on migrants to the North was palpable and lasting. But stories about the cost of gender-based violence on the bodies, families and entire communities of black women were largely unspoken, often relegated to the experience of slavery. During this visit to Detroit, what had been an ongoing tax on black America, the unrecognized price of domestic violence, was evident on the faces of women in a domestic violence shelter. Like their mothers before them who abandoned their homes to escape Jim Crow laws that threatened lives and stifled freedom and opportunity, children led women in Detroit shelters to abandon their homes to escape a threatening abusive partner. their life, their freedom and their opportunities. . The first danger was imposed by the state. Too often this latter danger has been overlooked by the state.
If my family had moved north, would my chances of being a victim of domestic violence and ending up in a shelter have increased? Intellectually, I knew that victims of domestic violence came from all walks of life. From my experiences with the Norman, Oklahoma Women’s Center, I knew that women in small towns and rural areas were abused. But during that brief moment, I thought that somehow the circumstances of living in an economically depressed city were the cause of the violence instead of one more thing that made it difficult to escape. of some victims. And while it does play a role in intimate partner violence, including options for escaping it, financial hardship is not a determinant of who is abused.
Sandra Kent, a native of Detroit and a nurse who worked on reforming the state’s healthcare system and devoted her free time to women’s empowerment and community service, organized my trip to what was once the Black mecca. More than the attraction of my fictionalized images of the Great Migration, it was Sandra’s passion for the Motor City that persuaded me, with a simple phone call, to go there. Buckets of ink had been spent to describe Detroit’s various woes: job losses, failing schools, abandoned homes and devastated neighborhoods. But rarely has the media I read focused on the wounds the city’s woes have caused to women whose livelihoods and bodies have been threatened by the economic downturn. After landing at the airport, our first stop was a trip to a local shelter for women victims of domestic violence, where I met a group of abused women who chased them and their children away, from their homes and brought them to a shelter with other similar women.
Maybe it was anxiety, but for a moment I wondered what I would say when I got to the shelter. For a year I was talking about gender equality and women’s empowerment. A speech was not appropriate. But I was out of my comfort zone. I had never spoken to a group of survivors. Although I served on the board of directors of a local service provider for victims of domestic violence in Norman, where I lived in 1992, I had never visited their shelter. For reasons of confidentiality and security, not all council members visited the house where women who had no other place to go were sent.
Sandra explained to me that the women had watched Thomas’ audience. As with women around the world, senators’ dismissive and hostile reactions to my experience of harassment resonated with them. How many times have they been asked why they don’t just leave at the first sign of abuse? The connection between me and them was clear. And upon reflection, I realized that in order to believe in their own ability to get through this dark time in their life, they needed to see me as a survivor. I also realized that I needed to see them where they were on their journey – as victims, survivors, or somewhere in between. To understand the complexity of gender-based violence, I needed to know what it was like for them to experience physical and emotional trauma and having to decide whether to stay or leave. To really understand, I had to hear how, in the face of trauma, they decided to call the police, where they would live if they had to leave their home, what might happen to their work and relationships, and most importantly if their children suffered more harm. All the emotional decisions, but all the decisions with concrete consequences that had to be dealt with even as their bodies suffered from the blows and their brains were on alert for the next blow.
On a cool, sunless day, I and about two dozen black women who had mustered the courage to escape domestic violence, we sat in gray folding chairs. The setting was austere, but the security the women found was enough to keep them there for the time being. Facing each other in a circle provided a feeling of intimacy that made me uncomfortable at first. But there, I heard and felt face to face how this threshold question posed to victims (Why didn’t she just go?) Persists long after they have found help. Even the people who love them question the credibility of survivors to make sense of their own stories. The economic turmoil facing the city made their personal struggles for survival even more difficult to overcome. Many shared, through tears, the guilt and responsibility they felt for being beaten. They talked about what they wanted the most. Most of their desires were pretty basic: being able to wake up in the morning, prepare themselves and their children for the day, and get home from work safely. They also wanted to know that they were valued members of the community.
Of To believe, by Anita Hill, published by Viking, a brand of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Anita Hill.