I have seen the video of Ray Rice punching his wife, Janay, a dozen times in the past hour, and without even needing to change the channel. Commentators and guest contributors are throwing blame at Ray, the Ravens’ leadership, NFL Commissioner Goodell, and even Janay, for this horrendous experience and the way it’s been handled. Watching all of the news coverage, I think the most painful part for me is seeing the nation’s response. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen the word “stupid” used to describe Janay’s decision to stand by her family. Stupid, really? I don’t there’s anything stupid about loving who you love; about trying to protect your own dignity; about trying to keep your family’s difficult struggle out of public opinion. And then there are those people who say she is just staying with Ray because of his income. Didn’t they meet long before he signed with the NFL? My own partner is an NFL legend and I can tell you, I don’t love him more for it. Nor do I do the hard work associated with negotiating an intimate relationship, household, and raising children with him just because of his athletic accomplishment. It’s insulting to put such an oversimplified explanation around complex lives and relationships.
I do not condone Ray’s actions, but I know that this issue is difficult enough for a family to struggle through without having an entire nation watching and commenting from the sidelines. My heart goes out to you and your family, Janay.
As painful as this is, the very important topic of domestic violence bears discussion. Violence is more than a violation of personal space. It’s about power—mental, emotional and physical subordination of another person. This uneven power relationship locks into place a subtle understanding of roles, and those roles repeated over time shape how we perceive ourselves, our identities. In my own life, I was exposed to and the recipient of violent acts from a young age. I watched the roles played by the adults in my life—aggressor and victim, angry and helpless. My own experience of running away from the violence, seeking safety in shelters for battered women and children, engrained in me a running instinct that stayed long beyond my childhood years. I internalized what I saw through those young eyes and learned early in life that I *am* a victim—helpless, hopeless, voiceless and running.
Then I became an adult, and my first attempts at relationships were with abusive men. I’ve mentioned this to people over the years since then and, to a person, the response has been “I can’t imagine you settling for that kind of treatment. You’re intelligent, pretty and strong. Why would you be with a guy like that?” My answer: because I was still identifying with that long ago internalized view of myself. I had suffered from an erosion of my own self-worth and low self-esteem. I did not have other experiences upon which to draw, to look for models about on what a desirable and healthy relationship should be built. My victim-hood didn’t feel good, but it was familiar. It was all I knew, and not because I was “stupid”.
Why do I share all this personal information? I share my story because I am not ashamed of what happened *to* me. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not unworthy, unintelligent. My past isn’t a blemish, it just is. It’s taken me years to finally understand this—to believe it. Society’s messages have always been to “keep secret happens behind closed doors,” even when what’s happening is oppressive. But now I know better: Cycles of oppression don’t stop themselves. Intervention is required.Thankfully there are huge communities of people who are standing up and sharing their own stories of victory, without feeling ashamed. There are resources and tools for helping women who feel trapped or isolated, like the Aspire app, which provides informational resources and allows domestic abuse victims to immediately contact designated members of their support system when help is needed. There are also communities of allies, namely men who are more often the perpetrators of domestic violence, who have stepped forward and are making commitments to act in ways that ackowledge and respect individuals’ sense of self-worth and teach the same to their children. Here’s a wonderful example, from MochaDads:
I am so thankful that I was able to get physical and emotional dysfunction out of my life and now find myself in a healthy place, with a loving and like-minded partner, and sending consistent messages to our children about the inherent dignity of which we are all deserving (and should demand if it’s not forthcoming). I hope you, Readers, continue seeking or have found your own sanctuary; and then, in true leadership fashion, gently help others find their way.
Here is my leadership challenge, to myself and you: let’s be slow to assign blame and quick to show compassion. Let’s listen to understand, speak out again what we know to be wrong. When we do speak out, use constructive rather than destructive language. Finally, even if not today or on the issue of domestic violence, we have all been marginalized at some point in our lives, feeling voiceless and alone. Allies got us through those times. It’s now our turn to be an ally to others.