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«GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? When She Fights Back Leigh Goodmark† INTRODUCTION I. THE ...»

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While many victims of domestic violence bear the burden of remaining silent about their abuse, African American women may feel particularly pressured to keep their affairs private. African American women may feel that to break the silence is to bring further shame and disapprobation on African American men from the wider society.127 In communities that stress that “racism always trumps sexism,” African American women are warned that to disclose the violence to authorities would mean “putting another ‘brother’ in prison.”128 Women who have reported violence by African American men to state actors have been criticized for racial disloyalty and accused of perpetuating and reinforcing negative stereotypes of African American men as violent.129 Despite the many harms visited upon African American women through its operation,130 this “political gag order”131 contributes to African American women’s reluctance to reach out to state systems for help.132 Given the culture of secrecy that surrounds domestic violence in many African American communities, African American women are often deeply conflicted about turning to the legal system, and their relationship with the system is an ambivalent one. Many African American women make conscious choices not to call the police or invoke the legal system.133 Their reluctance, in 152; see also Joseph, supra note 120, at 167 (inferring that African American women fight back as a coping response, as opposed to white women, who seek the assistance of social services agencies); Moss et al., supra note 117, at 447 (arguing that historically African American women have needed to defend themselves because society has provided little systemic assistance).

127. See Jo-Ellen Asbury, African-American Women in Violent Relationships: An Exploration of Cultural Difference, in ROBERT L. HAMPTON, VIOLENCE IN THE BLACK FAMILY: CORRELATES AND CONSEQUENCES 89, 100 (1987) (pointing to African American women’s reluctance to expose African American men to “ridicule” as a reason for their silence); Carolyn M. West, Domestic Violence in Ethnically and Racially Diverse Families: The “Political Gag Order” Has Been Lifted, in DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AT THE MARGINS, supra note 63, at 157, 158 (referring to minority community pressure not to speak out on intimate partner violence as a “political gag order”).

128. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 643.

129. See Lisa M. Martinson, An Analysis of Racism and Resources for African-American Female Victims of Domestic Violence in Wisconsin, 16 WIS. WOMEN’S L.J. 259, 264 (2001). For low-income women living in public housing, this problem may be particularly acute. African American women who turn men in to the police are labeled “snitches,” which can make them more vulnerable in the projects.

Websdale, supra note 124, at 147.

130. As Tricia Bent-Goodley explains:

When the perception that racism is a more serious issue than sexism develops, African American women deny an equally important part of their identity. As these women deny their unique experiences as women to protect their partners, they put themselves at a greater risk of physical harm and do not allow their partners to be held accountable for their behavior. This internal barrier undermines the woman’s mental health, because it denies the differences that she experiences based on gender and creates feelings of confusion, guilt, and shame for differentiating between her needs and that of her partner.

Bent-Goodley, supra note 120, at 309 (internal citations omitted).

131. West, supra note 127, at 149.

132. As Marilyn Yarbrough and Crystal Bennett explain, “These women have been told by their mothers and grandmothers to be strong, this has happened before, just go on with your life” rather than reach out for assistance. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 643.

133. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 96. Some studies show that African American women are more likely to call the police for assistance than white women; others suggest the opposite. Belknap & Potter, supra note 38, at 562. But see Joseph, supra note 120, at 166 (finding that significantly more white than African American women reported violence to the police, brought charges in court, or sought restraining GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 99 part, stems from the perception that the legal system has not met the needs of battered women of color. As Adele Morrison explains, “[B]ecause of racial privilege, the law better serves white women than women of color. This is not to say that white women are perfectly served, or even well served, by domestic violence law, but that women of color are disserved, or even harmed, by the current legal system.”134 Kim, a battered African American woman, recounted

her decision not to call the police in an interview with sociologist Beth Richie:

Call the police? Never!... [I] just never could really trust that they would help me and not just use my 911 call as one more excuse to beat up a Black man... I learned early in my life the cops were dangerous to my people. They were to be avoided at all costs.135 Even if women like Kim do call the police, a timely response is far from certain. Social scientists have suggested that stereotypes depicting African Americans as more prone to violence than whites have depressed law enforcement and judicial responses to violence in the African American community.136 Stereotypes of African American women abound and have the potential to undermine the claims of African American battered women in the courts.





Marilyn Yarbrough and Crystal Bennett describe “three common stereotypes ascribed particularly to African American women”: Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire.137 Mammy, derived from the historical depictions of female domestic slaves, is a nurturer, “ready to soothe everyone’s hurt, envelop them in her always ample bosom, and wipe away their tears.”138 Jezebel, “the bad-blackgirl,” uses her sexuality to entrap men and to extract what she wants from them.139 Yarbrough and Bennett describe Sapphire as “the wise-cracking, ballscrushing, emasculating woman” who “lets everyone know she is in charge.”140 orders). Susan Miller suggests that women of color may be less likely to call the police because of concerns about the treatment of nonwhite men, cultural norms, or the need for the abuser’s income.

MILLER, supra note 86, at 8.

134. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 97; Morrison, supra note 51, at 1063-65; see also Ammons, supra note 60, at 1025 (“The justice system has not rushed to protect black women who have been beaten.”).

135. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 95. In Neil Websdale’s study of poor African American women in Nashville, Tennessee, one respondent explained that some African American women will not call the police to the projects because doing so means giving up the very little privacy that these women have, or because the women are involved in other illegal activities. Websdale, supra note 124, at 145.

136. Darnell Hawkins argues:

Unless persisting ideological constraints are confronted and challenged, increasing official intervention in domestic violence will merely result in an unequal race-of-victim based pattern of intervention similar to that found in the handling of nonfamily criminal violence.

That is, black and poor victims of family violence may be ignored and most prevention efforts targeted at the white middle-class.

Darnell F. Hawkins, Devalued Lives and Racial Stereotypes: Ideological Barriers to the Prevention of Family Violence Among Blacks, in VIOLENCE IN THE BLACK FAMILY: CORRELATES AND CONSEQUENCES 189, 200 (Robert L. Hampton ed., 1987).

137. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 635-39.

138. Id. at 635-36.

139. Id. at 636.

140. Id. Black women are often seen as “loud, stubborn, talkative, aggressive, and argumentative,” and some police officers believe the “‘matriarchal myth’... that Black women are naturally aggressive GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM

100 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism [Vol. 20:75

These stereotypes pervade popular representations of African American women; as a result, “many people find it difficult to appreciate the diversity of African American women and instead impose identities based on negative stereotypes.”141 These stereotypes generally harm African American women, but two of them pose particular challenges for battered African American women who fight back. A victim who judges stereotype as a “Jezebel,” for example, might find the credibility of her claims of abuse questioned. The historical link between Jezebel’s promiscuity and dishonesty has meant that “African American women were not, and often are not, portrayed as being truthful and, therefore, they could not be trusted.”142 And who would believe that the “evil, bitchy, stubborn and hateful”143 Sapphire was actually a victim of abuse? The strong, angry face Sapphire presents to the world is the diametrical opposite of the paradigmatic victim. A victim labeled a Sapphire-like woman would have a difficult time convincing the legal system of her need for protection even if she took no defensive action; if she fights back, she may have no chance at all.144 Studies show that African American women may find their credibility sharply questioned by judges and jurors.145 “Whether she is plaintiff, defendant, or witness, the African American woman in the courtroom faces numerous and domineering,” making the officers less likely to believe claims of abuse. Harrison & Willis Esqueda, supra note 37, at 132.

141. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 639. Other scholars have pointed out variations on these themes. See, e.g., Allard, supra note 37, at 200-04 (discussing images of African American women in the media); Ammons, supra note 60, at 1049-56 (listing various stereotypes of African American women); Moore, supra note 35, at 302-03 (describing the depiction of African American women as “angry, masculine, domineering, strong, and sexually permissive”); Morrison, supra note 51, at 1106 (explaining that when women of color are seen as too strong to be victims, there is no reason for the legal system to protect them). These stereotypes are not simply imposed by the majority culture; they are also accepted by African American women. See, e.g., Moss et al., supra note 117, at 445 (discussing African American women who described themselves as strong and as fighters). Some researchers have studied the implications of internalizing these beliefs. See Hampton et al., supra note 119, at 548 (discussing a 2000 Bell and Mattis study on the psycho-cultural implications of African American women’s internalization of the belief that they must be strong regardless of the consequences). These stereotypes may also be reflected in court opinions, which “have a potential to de-emphasize the individual story of the legal subject and to emphasize stock stories, which are partially built upon oppressive stereotypes.” Mario L. Barnes, Race, Sex, and Working Identities: Black Women’s Stories and the Criminal Law: Restating the Power of Narrative, 39 U.C. DAVIS L. REV. 941, 967 (2006).

142. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 638.

143. Id.

144. RICHIE, supra note 52, at 113 (arguing that “racial stereotypes of African American women as aggressive and unfeminine fed into a biased response” from the legal system); see also Natalie J.

Sokoloff & Ida Dupont, Domestic Violence: Examining the Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender— An Introduction, in DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AT THE MARGINS, supra note 63, at 1, 5 (making a similar argument). As Harrison and Willis Esqueda explain, “[R]esistant Black women may be subject to increased derogation and blame, a notion supported by recent research that indicates that resistant Black women are perceived as less truthful than resistant White women, and in some cases as more deserving of abuse than White women.” Harrison & Willis Esqueda, supra note 37, at 133. Similarly, Shelby Moore explains that whites “fear black anger.” Moore, supra note 35, at 334.

145. See Ronald L. Ellis & Lynn Hecht Schafran, Achieving Race and Gender Fairness in the Courtroom, in THE JUDGES’ BOOK 91, 113 (2d ed. 1994) (discussing the bias against black victims of domestic violence).

GOODMARK.7.11.2008 7/16/2008 12:44:53 PM 2008] When Is a Battered Woman Not a Battered Woman? 101 obstacles to being considered a believable, reasonable person.”146 By virtue of the color of their skin, argues Professor Linda Ammons, African American women are “suspect, unless they prove otherwise.”147 African American women who fight back are the most suspect of all: “Black women who dare to resist a domestic assault are less likely to be considered truthful when giving testimony concerning the assault than passive Black women.”148 Stories about negative interactions between African American women and the legal system are common. Janet, a battered African American woman who

went to court for assistance, described her experience:

When I finally went for help they asked why I waited so long.... I could tell that the judge didn’t believe me, especially because he went on and on about how I “seemed so smart and all.” Now what’s that supposed to mean? That he’s dumb? I don’t want any white judge talking about my man that way. Or did he mean that the sisters... are dumb? Either way, it was a put-down that I didn’t appreciate at all. So to answer him, that’s why I didn’t go for help sooner.149 Such experiences can have long-lasting ramifications; after battered women learn that the systems put in place to address the violence against them are not responsive to their needs, they are less likely to turn to those systems a second time.150 Given that the legal system is the primary means for responding to domestic violence in American society,151 the unavailability of that system as a real option for African American women may leave them grasping for other alternatives to address the violence they face. Forced to choose between continuing to be battered and seeking help through a racist system that might find them culpable for the violence against them, African American women may see fighting back as a more attractive alternative.152

146. Yarbrough with Bennett, supra note 50, at 647.



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