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Race and Domestic Violence: How People of Colour Experience Abuse Differently

No experience of domestic abuse is the same. Violence against women is universal, but what abuse looks like and the impact it has is unique to the person living through it. Race and class add different contours to abuse that can impede an individual’s ability to get help.

Domestic abuse is woven together with common threads – isolation, gaslighting, control, dominance, erosion of selfhood – but people of colour experience it in different ways to their white counterparts. Domestic abuse has to be examined within the context of problems that disproportionately impact BAME people: low income, insecure housing, institutional racism, and limited life opportunities. Each of these factors coalesce to make it even more difficult for a person of colour to flee an abusive environment.

Unpacking the experience of BAME communities

BAME is commonly used to denote people of colour, but it’s important not to conflate their perspectives, or treat them as a homogenous group. Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities each contend with their own issues, and while there is overlap, an asylum seeker and a person of colour with British citizenship have distinct experiences with separate needs.

For migrants and asylum seekers, the government’s hostile immigration policy has instilled a deep fear of deportation that discourages them from seeking help for domestic abuse. Language barriers mute their voices, intensify their social exclusion and make it almost impossible for them to pick up a phone to dial a domestic abuse hotline. In cases of abuse, it’s vital that victims feel at ease with the people who can help them, but some support services struggle with representation and cultural sensitivity, which can make it difficult for migrants to open up about their experience. Many have little knowledge of their legal rights, and face the burden of wading through complex bureaucracy in order to access housing support, legal aid and refuge. Even the highly-anticipated domestic abuse bill fails migrant survivors. Their needs are treated as an afterthought, but if we’re serious about safeguarding all lives from abusers, we can’t leave anyone behind.

Austerity is hitting working class communities with a high Black and Asian population the hardest. The impact of underfunding trickles into all structures of society. With less money to work with, someone has to bear the brunt of the cuts and all too often, it’s women of colour who suffer the most. Insecure work, low-paid jobs, limited state support, and a lack of local support services can all prohibit women of colour from getting help for abuse. Institutional racism breeds distrust in the system that’s designed to help them. Time and time again, people of colour experience systematic oppression via policing, education and healthcare. People ask “Why didn’t she just leave?”, but how can someone leave when they fear racial prejudice from the people who are supposed to help? How can someone leave when their abuser appears more powerful than the system?

Debunking presumptions about race and abuse

There are many preconceived notions about abuse. Some people presume that abuse is only physical, that victims are oppressed minorities, and that violence against women is a result of outdated traditions, religions and cultures. When it’s convenient to distance one’s own culture from domestic violence, people tend to look at abuse through a racial lens, othering other cultures in the process, and absconding accountability on their own turf. But by pinning blame on other cultures, we deflect attention away from universal problems like patriarchy, sexism and the imbalance of power in society.

Domestic abuse isn’t a product of race, it’s a product of patriarchy. It’s a continuation of a belief system that raises men to believe that, by virtue of being born a man, they should be respected and obeyed. This doesn’t just breed a sense of self-entitlement, it keeps them boxed into a narrow idea of what masculinity is, and this endangers women, trans people, children and men.

Abuse doesn’t discriminate. Eradicating it demands an intersectional approach that is designed to address the ways in which race and class can fortify the barriers to getting help, from the ground up. Breaking down racial and cultural barriers is the only way support services can show that they’ve started listening to the needs of people of colour.

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Emma Mulholland

Full-time copywriter with a background in digital communications. In her spare time, she does comms work for several charities, and can be found reading, doing yoga, playing video games or tending to plants.

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