DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND THE SHACKLES OF THE SINGLE STORY
By: Jennifer Chen Speckman
Westside Domestic Violence Network
In her TedTalk titled, “The Danger of the Single Story,” Chimamanda Adichie discusses how she grew up reading British children’s stories where “they ate apples, played in the snow and talked about the weather and how lovely it is that the sun came out.” She discusses her experience as a young girl growing up in Nigeria, aware that stories included people that were not like her. When she came to the United States as an young adult, she discovered the single story that the Americans would have about her, one of beautiful landscapes, wild animals and incredibly senseless wars and violence; a land and a people waiting to be saved and pitied. When speaking about meeting her college roommate, Adichie states, “She felt sorry for me before she even met me.”
In our community, we have our own version of single stories. A tragic shooting happens and we desperately grasp for the one narrative which will help it all make sense and never happen again. Single stories exist everywhere. Black boys in hoodies are dangerous and must be shot. A woman who is abused by her partner is labeled as “co-dependant.” A boy learns that he must be aggressive to be a man. Undocumented families are a problem either to be eradicated, pitied or saved. As an Asian American woman, I am astonished how often people have marveled at how “good” my English is. Viewing a person through one lens, limiting that person to a single story, denies the person’s full human existence. Adichie makes the point that, “keeping with one story limits one’s ability to understand, engage or connect.”
So what does this notion of a single story have to do with domestic violence? Domestic violence is what people aren’t talking about. News stories reference estranged spouses, “high-conflict marriages,” or “custody battles,” but never domestic violence. In the discussion of differing priorities – whether it be gun violence, opportunity youth, mental health, education, or child welfare – it is essential to comprehend why it is so uncomfortable to acknowledge the larger picture – the one where the complexity of a domestic violence dynamic operating in a single household can wreak such havoc in the world. Prescribing a single story to the situation creates comfort. We pretend we know how things stand for other people. Assigning space for multiple stories opens our eyes to oppression, systemic failures, and incredible human cruelty. People don’t want to think about it. However, research shows us that we cannot ignore it and we cannot afford to assign a single story.
Adichie’s talk directly applies to the mission of the Westside Domestic Violence Network, which has long been dedicated to the hard work of sustaining a multi-systemic approach. The WDVN is more than a training entity. Our mission, since 1995, has everything to do with sustaining reality beyond a single story. The WDVN was created out of the understanding that no one person can be the solution to domestic violence because it is not a single story. The WDVN has been gathering people and engaging in collective impact for the past 18 years, eliciting a multitude of stories. But we have more to collect.
In our last conference, “Exploring the Status of Women – Globally, Locally and Interpersonally,” over 80 women and men gathered to examine political and personal stories to survey where we stand today. We did this because, if we do not know where we’ve been and where we are, how are we to know where we are going? In order to evolve as a community, we must challenge our default buttons and reject the single story in order to claim humanity for ourselves and each other.
The single story divides and silos us. We become locked in the stereotypes we have grown so comfortable with which have closed the door to communication. This exists as a personal and a professional challenge. When we come to the assistance of children and families who are experiencing domestic violence, how do we make sure that we are not operating on a single story? Do we approach the battered mother, and judge her to be a woman who failed to protect her children? Or can we take in the multitude of things she is doing every second of every day to navigate the complex landscape of coercive control she is enduring?
So where do we go from here and where do the solutions lie? First, we must come to the table with openness and curiosity to find our client as a multi-faceted human being, a full picture of historical legacies, power dynamics, social norms, political forces and personal perspectives.
The next step is to empower children, families and adults to find the multitude of their personal narratives. Research conducted by Sara and Marshall Duke at Emory University shows that children who have a strong sense of family narrative demonstrate greater self-confidence and resilience than those without. (“The Stories that Bind Us” New York Times). Historical contexts of oppression and resilience matter, and connection to those complexities result in empowerment. How are children to find their family narrative if their family is marginalized and shackled to a single story?
Finally, we must acknowledge that domestic violence exists in our society in part because of the oppression of the single story. The oppression of women and children has existed since the beginning of human history; not too long ago, women and children were considered property and what happened in the home was private. We cannot think that such oppression will be eradicated easily. The WDVN challenges the community to view domestic violence as a confluence of stories about power dynamics and oppression, permeating all elements of historic legacies, life, well-being, family and community. We ask that members of the community reflect and support every child’s and parent’s right to exist beyond a single story. The ability to allow for many stories ultimately will foster a community which is strong and empowered in mind, body, and soul.
The WDVN was founded in 1995 by Sojourn, a project of OPCC.
***This article was written in 2015. While the principle of going beyond a single story still holds, the author would like to acknowledge Adichie's problematic statements towards trans women in 2017 which, in fact, lay counter to the intention of this concept.
The Colors of Self Care
Particularly in the Westside of Los Angeles with our abundance of yoga classes, mindfulness groups and healthcare providers, we are prone to discuss health and well-being. And when considering the deep and difficult work we all do in the non-profit sector, the topic of self care inevitably emerges. Self care, like the yang to the yin of the melody of discontent, has become a new form of modern day feminisim, often bordering on the cult of positivity.
As a woman of color, particularly a first generation Asian American woman who could feel the reverberation of survival, poverty and hard work from a preverbal state, this dialog of self care made little sense to me. How do we reconcile a state of survival with spa days and bubble baths? And the very idea of the “self” exists as a Western concept in the same way that we create our world maps with the Americas in the center.
We exist in a world where the concept of self is a matter of privilege. By definition, those who hold privilege have the luxury of having a more humane and accurate “self” reflected for you. The Everyman, for example, is, well, a man. Which “selves” are most valued by society and granted the largest portion of humanity? People of color are still relegated to the roles of clowns and criminals in movies, having humanity that much more removed from them. So, how can we then, approach the idea of self care without reference to the intersectionalities of the self? The self as heterosexual, white male exists as a default button of assumptions, leaving the rest of us to translate into a language less spoken.
It wasn’t till I read this Audre Lorde quote, that a door opened and invited me in. “Caring for myself is not self- indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” (“A Burst of Light, 1988).
Moving the dial on the conversation on self care to include the realities of intersectionalities opened a world to me – permission to explore the self that is worthy of care. The defiance of caring for the self that has historically been devalued as a conscious act, created a expansive landscape before me for which I was invited and willing to explore. The conversation, like so much in the mainly white woman’s movement of feminism felt irrelevant to me until the definitions of the concepts stretched and widened to include the realities of many other movements converging to include whole people and whole communities. If we are to include women of color and communities of color in the feminist movement, we must include multiple issues echoing the sentiment expressed in “Learning from the 60s”, when Audre Lorde states, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Now that we’ve spent some time thinking of the “Self”, let’s analyze the idea of care. A child of the 90s, I remember distinctly my awareness of the disparity of care and of my own privilege as an American-born citizen when Proposition 187, the so-called “Save Our State” initiative, was proposed and passed. The proposition prohibited access to basic human “care” for those who were undocumented. This is just an example of the long institutional history of denying care as a method of oppression, sustaining power structures for those in the privileged categories.
On the flip side, women of color have held the burden of care for society historically. Nurses, house cleaners, home health care workers, nail salon workers, and kitchen staff have historically been women of color. So when we speak to women of color who have roots in these histories, and we speak to them of care of themselves, we must caution ourselves to avoid imposing an added burden of “care” without empowerment of access. In “For All We Care – Reconsidering Self-Care”, the author writes, “Self-care rhetoric has been appropriated in ways that can reinforce the entitlement of the privileged, but a critique of self-care must not be used as yet another weapon against those who are already discouraged from seeking care“ (www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/selfcare.php).
The care we receive is a matter of privilege. In the blog, “Lowendtheory”, the author writes, “Audre Lorde didn’t die a natural death. She died an institutionally produced one, a death that was generated at the level of social infrastructure ... The conditions that produced Audre Lorde’s death, in other words, might also serve as a reminder that in the aggregate, black women bear a disproportionate share of racial capitalism’s propensity to work its workers to death” (www.lowendtheory.org/post/50428216600/on-audre-lordes-legacy-and-the- self-of). This fact remains true decades after Audre Lorde’s passing. For example, according to the California Department of Public Health, “African American babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthdays” (www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/BIH/Pages/default.aspx). The conversation about self care must, like all of our conversations incorporate the reality that we are all subjected to the historical legacies of oppression. To do otherwise, signs on to this agenda that we are “color blind” and therefore, by resignation and silence, we subscribe to the very institution that creates the oppression.
In non-profit agencies, professionals providing direct services face daily challenges and frustrations having to do with systemic injustice. Too often an expression of this discontent results in a response from a manager or supervisor that turns to a line of questioning about how well the person is caring for themselves. “What is your self care plan and what coping tools are you employing”, can be the response. What we must understand is that a normative response to injustice is rage. The rage is functional to survival because from that inertia comes agency and action. When we meet that rage with a counter move that suggests that the emotion is unacceptable or not understood, in other words a message to “calm down”, we are imposing the same freeze response that lies at the foundation of experience of trauma survivors. Trauma does not sit at the root of “flight” or “flight”. Those are responses of agency -- normative survival tactics for danger and threat. To counter that agency with pathology, blame and denial is to create the very debilitating stance that mimics a trauma survivor’s inability to expel the energy without grave consequences. Rather than turning away from distressing feelings which are a natural reaction to distressing situations, we must collectively turn towards and the counter-move of self care, must include this collective motion. As stated in the "Crimethinc" blog, “This kind of care cannot be described in platitudes. It is not a convenient agenda item to add to the program of the average non-profit organization. It demands measures that will interrupt our current roles, bringing us into conflict with society at large and even some of the people who profess to be trying to change it” (www.crimethinc.com/texts/recentfeatures/selfcare.php).
So where does this leave us and what direction can we go? I propose that more questions should be the goal of self care and more action to challenge assumptions should be involved in that process. Is the goal of self care to preserve the self from the outside world, or is it rather to transform the self despite the currents working against our self? Personally, I would not like to simply conserve the version of “self” handed to me through the larger society. I choose, rather, a process that deepens and defines the self; the method involving connection, empowerment, liberation and finding one’s voice amongst the cacophony chorus of historical legacies.
Written for Westside Domestic Violence Network Fall 2015 Newsletter