By Joelle Piercy, MSS, MLSP, LSW
SPEAK Outreach & Education Coordinator
In recent months, Safe+Sound Somerset released both our Anti-Racism Commitment and an article about how racism impacts survivors of abuse on their journeys to safety and healing. Since then we continue to receive questions from community members about the connection between racism and domestic violence, and how anti-racism intersects with our domestic violence response services. By understanding how racism impacts our clients, our staff, and our communities at large, we become a stronger and more effective organization. Beyond that, if we fail to address racism in our office policies, our client services, and our community education programs, then we are upholding the language of oppression and racism itself.
A society where racism exists is also an environment that tolerates domestic violence, both by creating inequitable conditions (i.e., poverty, substance abuse, homelessness) that contribute to domestic violence rates and by providing a framework for the abuser. Both racial violence and domestic violence use similar tactics and the language of power and control. Domestic violence is a pattern of behaviors that someone uses to gain power and control over their partner. We cannot end domestic violence if oppression in any form still exists, because the language of oppression is adopted by abusive partners to excuse and justify their actions. An abuser can also use social structures of sexism, homophobia, social stereotypes, and classism to trap and isolate survivors.
People of color have been sharing their stories of racial trauma for centuries. This trauma is re-lived and perpetuated every time we learn of another POC being killed by the police, someone is accused of being a terrorist because of their religion or color of their skin, or someone hears, “I don’t see race,” suggesting that this POC’s lived experiences aren’t true or relevant.
By saying that race is not a problem or is not important, one engages in the gaslighting of POC. Gaslighting is a tactic that is used to make someone feel like they can’t trust their own sanity by lying to them or dismissing their feelings. People of color speaking out about their experiences of racism may encounter gaslighting through comments such as, “You’re overreacting,” ”Why does everything have to be about race?” and “If you’d just follow the rules, you would be treated alright.”
Safe+Sound Somerset actually hears similar language every day recounted to us by clients. Survivors often hear the following gaslighting phrases from their abusers after incidents of violence – “You’re overreacting, you’re not that hurt,” “See, I brought you flowers. Why do you always talk about that time I hit you?” and “If you just followed my rules, I wouldn’t have to hurt you.”
If a client comes to us with a history of relationship trauma, we believe them. We don’t act as fact finders trying to prove the abuse happened, and we don’t accuse survivors of overreacting. Survivors often come to us with relationship trauma that is intertwined with racial trauma, as we discussed in this previous article. Just as we believe clients’ stories about domestic violence, we believe their stories about racism and how it shapes the decisions they make and the options available to them. And, since we believe these stories and experiences, we work to eliminate the obstacles that racism poses to the recovery of domestic abuse survivors.
Similarly, our staff members – a talented and diverse group of individuals – must also feel safe in our organization so that they can be the best employees possible for our clients. Our anti-racism commitment includes the understanding that employees bring with them their own experiences with race and racial trauma, and Safe+Sound Somerset must actively work to ensure that we are not even unintentionally contributing to the silencing of POC in our staffing, organizational policies, client services, or our organization’s responses to national current events.
Domestic violence response organizations are in a unique position to contribute to the anti-racism discussion. The language of respect, equality, and safety that we use to talk about healthy relationships can act as a foundation for talking about a respectful, equal, and safe society. When we speak to local teenagers about healthy relationships, we use a Rights and Responsibilities framework. It boils down to a simple concept – you have a right to be safe and to live free from abuse, just as you have a responsibility to not abuse others, and to treat others in a safe and respectful way. These rights do not have to be earned and can’t be taken away, even if someone has made a mistake. That everyone, regardless of their race, identities or mistakes, has the right to lead an abuse-free life is a central tenet of domestic violence prevention.
Through our anti-racism commitment, we embrace the responsibility of ending oppression and racism of all types as a necessary part of our mission to support survivors of abuse and their families, and to end domestic abuse once and for all.
If you or someone you know if experiencing domestic abuse, or you have questions about domestic violence or our services, reach out to Safe+Sound Somerset’s 24/7 call and text hotline at 866-685-1122. Additional information is also available at www.safe-sound.org.
Nnawulezi, N. A., & Sullivan, C. M. (2014). Oppression within safe spaces: Exploring racial microaggressions within domestic violence shelters. Journal of Black Psychology, 40(6), 563–591. https://doi.org/10.1177/0095798413500072