What we can learn about anti-Black violence by studying abuse

*Editor’s Note:  Though this article places relations between Black and white people within the context of intimate partner violence (IPV) and domestic abuse, the author and editors in no way wish to minimize the experiences of people who have been and/or currently are in situations of abuse.*

By Idiley

After white supremacists beat a group of anti-racism activists with torches, they were not arrested and even organised again the very next day. For most white people, the prevailing narrative seems to be that this violence came from nowhere. But as a Black woman who attended a PWI, I am not surprised that this level of shocking and traumatic violence occurred.

Black people know that physical violence of this degree is not random; there are stages before racist violence becomes physical.

When white supremacists like Dylann Roof or James Alex Fields kill, white media quickly deem their actions spontaneous, and subsequently diagnose them as mentally ill or emotionally unstable.  

These attempts to protect white innocence are unproductive and serve as a form of denial that merely perpetuates the problem of anti-Black violence.

Violence is a planted seed that is fostered and grown over time. Violence has roots so that even if we cut the weed, it re-grows as if it never left. While my intersections continuously place me in situations of violence, domestic violence trainings gave me insight on how violence functions. Psychologist Lenore Walker outlined how this looks through her Cycle of Violence theory regarding domestic abuse. There are three stages of the cycle; the tension building phase, the violent episode phase, and the honeymoon phase.

The idea that abusive relationships are always following a path of violence is something we need to understand about white America’s constant interaction with Black people. At the end of the day, this is an abusive relationship. Of course, there are clear departures in this comparison, one being that Black people in America never chose to be with white people.

While a lot of toxic relationships start off seemingly good and spiral downwards, from the beginning of our interactions, Black people were locked in an overtly unhealthy and toxic power dynamic with white people. The context is different, as well as the scale, but violence’s manifestation remains the same. It is important for us to be able to recognize abusive dynamics even when they are not physical so we can protect ourselves in all situations.


The Tension Building Phase

In this stage, the victim is weary of setting off their abuser, who is demanding, controlling and deflects responsibility for their abusive actions. The victim compromises beyond what’s fair and healthyeven to the point of negotiating against their self preservation.

When Trump announced his presidential campaign, white nationalists and conservatives rejoiced believing that he was their salve after years of oppression and erasure. White liberals and moderates believed it best we befriend those white nationalists.

The reality of their actual power and influence was ignored, and the targeted victims of white violence were told to “not become the hate we despise so much.” In the tension building stage, racist violence is normalised. This is where the culture of violent anti-Blackness is sustained.

Normalisation of this sort involves defending racist free speech that was never at risk. It involves telling Black folk that there are specific ways to dress, talk, and walk in order to remain safe from police.

It looks like negotiating what little space we are given, or else we’ll face the wrath of the state. This is the stage where violence builds, grows, and organises under the safety of “well-meaning” whites who will defend white supremacists’ “right” to take up even more space.

The Violent Episode Phase

In this stage, the victim feels trapped and helpless, and will either hit back or submit. The abuser becomes openly violent often without any legal or social consequences. This empowerment can come from themselves, their social circle, and/or society.

In regards to American racial violence, this empowerment comes from Fox News and Brietbart, and CNN and “#LoveTrumpsHate.” It comes from All Lives Matters and un-contextualized MLK Jr quotes. It comes from every single time people expect Black folks to be “non-violent” in a violent country. These white men are empowered by the society we all live in, but white people never have an issue with it until their blood is spilt, and even then, it’s a negotiation.

White people “in the middle” are passive participants in this violence. They don their safety pins and put #BlackLivesMatter in their social media bios, all the while actively gentrifying Black neighbourhoods and call the cops on Black youth.

The very same people who gave room for this violence to grow and organise are shocked when it peaks. The very same people who had the power to stop it fall right into line with the idea that violence randomly and suddenly occurs. This surprise is not only disingenuous, but also shows that they thought the best of these white supremacists. They thought that these men would just march and organise and never get physically violent.

Much like an abuser’s charm, white supremacists stay charming white liberals. White America assumes good of white supremacists  so much that when their violence does peak, even then it’s not their doing. It’s a “mental illness” or a poor, lonely, angry child who needed people to show them love and care.

These attempts to justify acts of explicit racist violence removes accountability for those who could’ve stopped it, and also for those who were active participants.

The Honeymoon Phase

In a violent relationship, the third phase often quickly follows the violent episode. This is known as the remorseful/honeymoon phase. In regards to American racial violence, this honeymoon phase almost always occurs after the assassination of a Black liberation leader.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a perfect example of this. After his murder, the state positioned themselves as his biggest ally. They created a holiday, a parade, and plaster his quotes everywhere. Let them tell it and you’ll hear that they always loved him, they always believed in his dream… Even though they did none of those things and still don’t.

At this stage, abusers are self righteous and forgetful of the level of violence they exhibited.

They promise to change while also deflecting blame from themselves and onto their victims. White America loves claiming that MLK “died for” whatever the fuck, willfully forgetting that they were the ones who aimed the gun. White America gets pressured into “changing” and then passes laws to support Black folks… that they then spend years quietly tearing apart. White America says they’re sorry and they denounce these violent actions… Only to enable the build up the next day.

Victims at this stage are relieved. They try to be preventative and adjust so to not have to deal with the peak violence again.

We take solace in having had a Black president and the MLK holiday. We are grateful to have “equal rights.” We give our teenaged children more than just the sex talk, but also the police talk. We tell our babies not to “give them a reason”…

And the cycle continues.


We are expected to continue to engage in this cycle, in this abusive relationship with white America, through responding to this violence with “love” and “kindness”. We’re told to “not stoop to their level” and to be “the bigger person”. We’re told that white supremacists are the way they are and we must coax them out of their ways, but in naming this violence as cyclical and intentionally abusive instead of spontaneous and reactionary, we are able to then approach it differently.

Author’s Bio: Idiley is a Somali-Canadian immigrant who’s found a home in the Black Mecca of the South. She is a recent graduate, a sometimes writer, and a full time goddess.

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