by Guest Contributor Costa Avgoustinos (Pop Culture and the Third World)
There are two interesting links floating around in regard to Chris Brown’s Grammy win and return to the spotlight/ people’s hearts. One is a great article by Sasha Pesulka entitled I’m Not OK With Chris Brown Performing At The Grammys And I Don’t Know Why You Are Either. The other is 25 Extremely Upsetting Reactions To Chris Brown At The Grammys, a series of screenshots of tweets from women professing that because Chris Brown is attractive, they would be happy for him to beat them.
It’s interesting to compare society’s reaction to celebrity attacks on women to celebrity attacks on racial minorities. As Pesulka maps out in her article above, when Chris Brown assaulted girlfriend Rihanna society’s reaction was mixed–a lot of people came to Brown’s defence, a lot of people demonised Rihanna, a lot of people thought it was a private matter so blame shouldn’t be placed publicly and, after all that, a lot of people welcomed Brown’s return to the spotlight. In contrast, when Michael Richards went on a racist rant using the N-word, or Mel Gibson went on a racist rant (or, I guess, several rants) against Jews, society’s reaction was a lot more uniform: ‘You’re a jerk, we’re putting your career in the toilet, and that’s where it will stay forever.’ Why is Chris Brown allowed a come back, but Michael Richards and Mel Gibson are not?
I don’t make the comparison to try and rank racism against sexism or to argue gender-based violence is in some way more or less acceptable that race-based violence. That would be useless and stupid. Nor do I think the issue is one of ‘Sticks and Stones’ versus ‘Names That Hurt Me’–that is, that Richards and Gibson deserve less grief simply because, unlike Brown, they themselves didn’t cause physical harm. Again, stupid. But I think something can be learned from comparing our reactions.
Several commentators have pointed out a divide between how White mainstream media and Black media have approached the Chris Brown incident. White, mainstream media, from Jezebel to Good Morning America, has been pretty much anti-Brown since all of this happened. Black media, from NewsOne to Bossip, has been more reserved and seems more willing to forgive and move on. I would wager that this is in part due to Black media being uncomfortable participating in the perpetuation of the ‘violent Black man’ cliché, and the witchhunt that often ensues by the mainstream media with a bit too much eagerness. Or perhaps, as Dr Oliver Williams, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community, has stated, perhaps it is because ‘communities find it easier to focus on oppression that comes from outside than on what (they) do to (them)selves.’
This reminds me of bell hooks’ take on the OJ Simpson trial. During the trial, the (White) mainstream media were eager to make the story about race. Was it a Black versus White crime? Are Blacks more violent than Whites? Further, people were more inclined to take sides in the OJ Simpson case based on their race rather than their sex (this video shows Black women in a women’s shelter, themselves victims of domestic violence, cheering OJ’s not guilty verdict as they watch the live coverage on TV). bell hooks makes the point that whether OJ’s race has anything to do with the crime is dubious at best. What was known for sure, however, was that it was a case of male violence against women, something that happens systemically and routinely in society. Why wasn’t the focus on this? Why does discussion of race overshadow discussion of gender? Are we more comfortable to talk about Black v White crime than Man v Woman crime?
While there are a lot of factors as to why we seem to prefer to talk about race over gender (and connected to this, why Chris Brown has been able to return to the spotlight somewhat more easily than Richards or Gibson eg. a culture of acceptance of domestic violence in the hip-hop industry; the backing of Black media outlets; the fact that Chris Brown, unlike Richards and Gibson, is young and in his marketable prime), I think one factor that does not get enough attention is the public/private divide. That is, I think that often race-based violence is seen as a public sphere issue, while domestic violence is perceived as a private sphere issue.
We think that if violence is occurring between a man and a woman in a relationship, the appropriate thing to do is to let them deal with it themselves (check out the quotes collected by Pesulka article, such as Lindsay Lohan stating after the incident: “I have no comment on that. That’s not my relationship. I think they’re both great people.”) When race-based violence surfaces, however, that’s usually a crime between strangers, so society has more of a right to get involved and allocate blame.
The problem with this, however, is that male violence against women is not a private affair. It’s systemic. It doesn’t just grow out of the specific dynamics between two lovers. It grows in the society that schooled these lovers on what’s appropriate and acceptable before they even met.
How you fight the embedded gender inequality and awful gender preconceptions in our society that leads to the male violence that occurs behind closed doors is tricky. A good start, however, is that when it bubbles up into the public sphere, like in a celebrity scandal such as what happened between Rihanna and Chris Brown, it’s important we send the right message in a clear unified way to every abused wife and girlfriend watching the scandal, that mirrors their own life, unfold: that it’s wrong, that you deserve none of the blame, and that as a society we’ve got your back.
For this message to be sent clearly, we need to ensure the conversation does not get knotted up into racial politics if it can be avoided. Because the result of this is too often that Black women are put in the awkward position of having to choose between their race and sex; Black male aggressors are given the leeway to portray themselves as victims of oppression to garner sympathy and avoid honest self-reflection; and non-Black people are left scratching their head on whether they can call out Black male violence when they see it or suspect it without fear of being labeled racist.
After all this, the message is as good as lost.
(Image Credit: The Superficial)