[TRIGGER WARNING. This is a very frank post on violence.]
So, last week Jill at Feministe has a post up on the first real-time spanking study.
Time Magazine reports:
[I]n the course of analyzing the data collected from 37 families — 36 mothers and one father, all of whom recorded up to 36 hours of audio in six days of study — researchers heard the sharp cracks and dull thuds of spanking, followed in some cases by minutes of crying. They’d inadvertently captured evidence of corporal punishment, as well as the tense moments before and the resolution after, leading researchers to believe they’d amassed the first-ever cache of real-time spanking data. [...]
The parents who recorded themselves represented a socioeconomic mix: a third each were low-income, middle-income and upper-middle-class or higher. Most were white; about a third were African-American.
Researchers broke down the data, detailing each spanking or slapping incident, what led up to it, what type of punishment was used and how much, how a child reacted immediately and then several minutes later.
“The idea is this data will provide a unique glimpse into what really goes on in families that hasn’t been available through traditional methods of self-report,” says Holden.
About a year ago, I got a request to talk about spanking on Racialicious, from the perspective of a black parent wondering why other black parents were so quick to put their hands on their children.
Renina has written about this in the broader context of policing masculinity with violence. She said:
In this video I just watched today a Black Uncle whoops his presumably 13 or 14 year old nephew with a belt for “Fake Thugging” on Facebook. He then forced the young man to put the video on Facebook. #triggerwarning.
I have long been reluctant to talk publicly about Black parents beating Black children, however, it needs to be done. Honestly, its one of the things that I have been scared to write about and I don’t scare easily.
bell hooks has said Black feminist’s lack of writing about how some Black parents, spank, whoop and beat their children is one of the ways in which Black Feminist have failed Black families. We analyze domination between men and women and Black folks and White folks and even global violence but we don’t closely analyze how parents dominate children.
Conversations around spanking, particularly in progressive spaces, take a very hard line around corporal punishment. Renee, of Womanist Musings, has written dozens of posts about why spanking is wrong. Some of the commenters on Jill’s post (somewhere back in the 100s) brought up differences in what is considered culturally acceptable. Most of Jill’s commenters came to an agreement dominating the thread – there is never, ever a reason to discipline your child physically. But most of these conversations assume certain things. That these are interactions solely between adult and child, and that generally, the household is in an atmosphere of peace. What isn’t raised is the reality of raising children in environments where random street violence or drug use is commonplace.
One of my favorite movies – we’re talking top 10 of all time here – is I Like It Like That, written and directed by Darnell Martin. There are a thousand and one reasons for why I love that film so much, but the scene where Chino (one of the protagonists) finds out his son has been dealing drugs and taking new clothes from the local drug dealer is one of them. The beginning of this has been removed due to copyright claims from Sony, but the action starts after Chino finds out that Lil’ Chino is dealing drugs, strips him of the shoes and jeans, and spanks him with a belt in the middle of the street. The sign Chino is holding Lil’ Chino up to is a memorial to his deceased brother, a cop who was killed by drug dealers.
Chino stops beating the kid who deals drugs (note – AFTER knocking the gun out of his hand) because he hears what the kid is saying. Through his tears, the kids is saying “he can’t hit me man – he’s not my father.”
Chino lets the kid go, and leans against the wall with his dead brother’s mural. He slams his fist against it – shame, rage, anger, frustration all play on his face. He walks away and the camera cuts to Lil’ Chino under the stairs, scared and remorseful, waiting for his mother.
This isn’t the end of the scene, but I want to stop here and talk about the fear and consequences in families struggling to raise their children against a backdrop of violence.
The assumption of peaceful environment probably makes sense. I grew up in a mostly peaceful area – you weren’t fighting for your life all the time, like my cousins had to. But at the same time, it was kind of unfathomable to me to not learn how to fight and defend yourself. I lived in DC around the time when they were warning parents to make sure your kids weren’t wearing brand name clothes (anyone else remember that?) because there were way too many crimes happening over Northface Jackets and Timberland boots. I couldn’t afford these things anyway, but wearing no brand names was a step to reduce the likelihood of violence happening to you, even if it didn’t reduce it completely.
So that’s one aspect of the question. Despite some parents desire to be peaceful, their children are still operating in a violent world. So even if you raise a home that is nonviolent, how do you keep violence away from your door? How do you teach your children to respond to a violent world? The idea that violence begets more violence is a true one – but at the same time, blocks and neighborhoods can be taken over by very small groups of determined and violent people. Suddenly, all the neighbors live in fear of a handful of people. That public spankfest Chino initiated in the video above would be really welcome in communities I know and remember, though some would probably cringe to hear that said aloud. But I think it’s important to reflect on the place that violence has in our lives, and ways in which we navigate its boundaries.
I’ve heard quite a few of the grown folks talk about gun violence by discussing the way fights used to work. A certain type of fight is prized above all others – the one on one show down kind of fight, just fists and stamina. The way they tell it, there was no need for gun violence since conflicts were resolved through fisticuffs. I don’t think reality was ever that neat or honorable. But earlier this year, I watched kids from a nearby high school gang up repeatedly on their classmates, 6-on-1, 8-on-1. Everyone in the neighborhood was concerned. On three different occasions, a child cut up my block, running for his life, pursued by an angry gang of classmates. Other times, the fights started a few blocks from school grounds. Each time, adults had to figure out how to intervene. We would all come out of our houses. Some neighbors took the initiative to call the police, which we all had mixed feelings about, but all of us together couldn’t have broken up a group of 30 or so kids. With smaller groups, a few of the adults would go out yelling. Sometimes I would come downstairs with my dog, who is a good visual deterrent, and who accidentally broke up a few of these when we were out on walks. But all spring, the violence kept increasing. Quite a bit of it made the news. I am not yet a parent, but I wonder about this often. How do I teach my child to exist in this world? And how do I teach them to defend themselves in environments like this?
But then, I need to flip the question around. For every child that is targeted by bullies, there are the children who are acting as the bullies. Or the young drug dealers. Or the young adults that got set in their ways and have grown up to be the drug dealers. So when you are raising a child, and they head down that path, I often wonder: what do you do when words don’t work?
I was raised by, with, and around black men. My father, uncles, cousins, grandfathers and their friends rarely ever disciplined us girl children – that was a task left to mothers and aunties. But the boys? The boys got in coming and going.
My cousin used to have to wake up at 7 AM on Saturday to cut the grass, and help do yard work. This was part of my father’s hopes to impart discipline, and he would often say things like “Real men take care of their responsibilities.” (This was probably a way to compensate for the fact that my cousin’s father was on and off drugs and in and out of jail for most of his life. It is very easy to start repeating destructive patterns.) I’ve overheard story after story from all of my grandfathers talking about their time in the drug game, why they got out, and why it isn’t worth it. I saw my uncles teaching them to play football, basketball, fishing – anything to keep them away from the streets of South East, Washington DC in the crack era and it’s aftermath.
So discipline wasn’t all physical. Large parts of it are modeling, intervention, appealing to reason. But sometimes, kids don’t want to hear it. And it’s one thing to ask an eight year old to heed what you say – yet another to ask a willful fifteen year old to do the same.
So what should parents do, when words fail and their children are on a collision course with the criminal justice system?
This problem becomes particularly necessary for communities in crisis. I wrote about NAACP’s report on Misplaced Priorities for the Root, noting:
In 1988 President George H.W. Bush created the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which was elevated to the Cabinet level during the Clinton administration. The policies championed by ONDCP actually opened the floodgates for nonviolent offenders to become institutionalized, a trend that resulted in the war on drugs taking an outsize toll on black and Latino communities, as well as impoverished communities around the nation. “Misplaced Priorities” reveals:
While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts. [...]
According to “Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America’s Prison Population,” if African Americans and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50 percent. [...]
There are a variety of reasons for racial disparities in the prison system — the NAACP cites disparate sentencing for crack- and powder-cocaine offenses and a greater focus of public spending on imprisonment than on subsidizing drug-addiction treatment. “Misplaced Priorities” also notes that low-income whites are starting to suffer also from the rise of incarceration culture; it is estimated that one in 10 low-income white males will also be incarcerated, some because of the rise of methamphetamine.
I am an adult now. Most of my friends (luckily) made it to adulthood with me. One was incarcerated. Most are now in the military, or working various jobs. Some have families. But it is always amazing to me how many of my black male and Latino male friends have had terrible, terrible interactions with police. Most of them were not doing anything in particular – when I was sixteen, my friend was harassed for sitting on a park bench with a discarded cup underneath it and was threatened with incarceration – he chose to end the issue by throwing the cup away, even though he did not place it there.
My other friends have drawn police interactions from speaking too loudly in public places; have been arrested over disputed traffic stops; have been dick checked* for drugs in their neighborhood since the officer claims they saw them throw drugs in the bushes after giving a friend dap. One of my friends was almost extradited to New York on someone else’s warrant for arrest. He was searched after running a stop sign, caught with a joint in the car (clearly, his fault), sent to lock up, tagged with the wrong name and social security number, spent 72 hours in jail begging everyone to believe him and to go check his ID in his wallet back at the precinct , hauled off to court anyway, and held until finally, some prosecutor decided to just run the check and found out he was not the person on his ID cuff.
And this doesn’t even start discussing all of the other things that happen. Women and transpeople in my neighborhood (many of the transkids are black teens) have also felt harassment from increased police presence and patrol. (This is why our neighbors has varying opinions on calling the police to intervene in the violence I referenced earlier.) DC also has a curfew in place for teens, meaning anyone who looks young on the street after midnight can be stopped and asked for identification. (This has happened to Renina.) We just have so many more encounters, and with every encounter is the chance that your life will alter forever. (R.I.P Oscar Grant.)
So the question for parents in these environments is a terrifying one – how do I prevent my child from being caught up in these huge systems, being caught up in this life that will ruin them?
To some, spanking is a cut and dry issue. Some will never, ever believe its necessary. Some people will never, ever believe you can raise a decent person without spanking. But its that scene from I Like It Like That that cuts the closest to how I understand why some parents choose hit their kids. Sometimes, you need your child to fear you because they cannot understand the consequences of the life they are choosing. I watched this happen time and time again, particularly with the men I knew. There was discipline, there were beatings, but then there were also those beatings with the undercurrent of fear behind them. Fear that you are going to lose control of your child to this other, evil, more seductive world. Fear that despite your best efforts as a parent, your child is heading down a path that leads to prison, drug addiction, or life as a drug dealer or street thug.
I know parents who regret not taking harder lines with their children. They watched them spend decades on drugs. They watched them screw up their own kids, throwing multiple lives down the toilet. They wonder where they went wrong, if they could have changed something.
I don’t think these parents are thinking “I should have kicked his ass when I caught him with weed back in the 8th grade.” But I have watched the desperation in the eyes of those who see that the streets are more alluring than the boring ass life of working hard at school and finding a job, and I can understand why people would turn to violence when words and logic aren’t enough.
I’m not saying I condone physical punishment. But I am not yet a parent, and I’ve never been confronted with those kinds of issues. I still carry scars of a parent’s abuse from my childhood, and spent the last decade on my own learning not to hit people. Not to solve problems with violence. Forcing myself to swallow all the things I want to do and say, because I’ve learned that a lot of what I internalized as normal is wrong.
If the choice ever came down to putting my hands on my child because I am fighting for their life? I’d probably do the same thing I’ve seen all my relatives do.
I’m ultimately not inclined to use any kind of violence other people these days. I know how seductive and easy that starts to feel, the exertion of control through physical means. And I know how easy it is to just allow yourself to react and react and react. So my solution is not to do it at all.
But I’m not going to take some Leave It to Beaver style moral high ground. I’m going to be raising black children, and I need to make sure they survive. If my child is on the path to start having run ins with the police, they’re going to have to go through me first.
Because unlike the criminal justice system, I care.
The problem, though, still persists. Violence is (at best) a temporary solution, and it carries with it a very high potential to slide over from discipline to abuse. So remember, the clip above? Lil’ Chino’s auntie, Alexis, is the one who takes the child and begs Chino to stop hitting him. She’s the one trying to reconnect Lil Chino with his mother. And she’s the one trying to advocate for not hurting the child – based on her own history as growing up with a father who didn’t want to accept that his little boy wanted to be a girl.
The story of Alexis is an interesting counterbalance to Lil’ Chino’s. Later in the story, after Alexis fights with Lisette about rejecting her son, she decides to confront her mother and father about her life, and how she has chosen to live as a woman. Her father comes to the door – and delivers a punch in the eye. Lisette is horrified – but Alexis points out that she was treating Lil’ Chino in the same way their parents treated them. To the viewer of I Like It Like That, stories of violence are told in complicated, complex ways. Should Chino have spanked his child on the street? Should Chino have spanked a child not his own, who was luring other kids to deal in the drug trade? In some ways, it was interesting to see how quickly that tough-kid facade fell away when Chino didn’t back down – which ruined his reputation with the other neighborhood kids. But by the same token, if we can accept that violence, the violence involved in trying to “save” a child, then how can we condemn Alexis’s father for trying to beat his queerness out of him? And if we say we accept no violence at all, how should Chino have solved the drug dealing problem? And, would he have been able to solve the situation without losing his son or becoming a casualty, like his brother?
Violence is a way of asserting power. Violence is also a method of communication. And this is what makes this conversation around spanking so complicated. The questions around spanking mirror the questions we have around use of force – and how we cope (both on a personal and a societal level) with the messiness of life.
*Edited to Add: A dick check is when police check your genital area for drugs. Occasionally, officers will do this in public, as a power thing or a humiliation tactic. It is normally done after someone is incarcerated, similar to the cavity check. Yes, the friend this happened to filed a complaint. No, nothing came of it.