Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Perceptions of Domestic Violence: A Dialogue with African American Women

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

Perceptions of Domestic Violence: A Dialogue with African American Women

Article excerpt

Domestic violence undermines healthy African American families and communities. Although empirical research has accumulated over the past 20 years regarding African Americans and domestic violence, many questions remain about African American perceptions of domestic violence. Without understanding how African Americans understand domestic violence and perceive its impact, it is impossible to create effective programs and intervention strategies that fully address this critical dilemma. This article explores African American women's perceptions about domestic violence through three focus groups held at a New York social services agency.

Domestic violence poses serious mental and physical health risks. In fact, it is estimated that"more than 1.5 million women nationwide seek medical treatment for injuries related to abuse each year" (Stark, 2001, p. 347). Those who are abused can experience mental health issues, such as anxiety attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic depression, acute stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts and ideation (Schornstein, 1997; Valentine, Roberts, & Burgess, 1998).

Some physical consequences of abuse include rape, unwanted and aborted pregnancies, stress-related illnesses, increased substance abuse, pregnancy complications, suicide attempts, and homicide (McFarlane, Parker, & Soeken, 1996; Rodriguez, Quiroga, & Bauer, 1996; Stark, 2001; Sugg & Inui, 1992). The medical community has acknowledged the severity of health risks that result from domestic violence (American College of Emergency Physicians, 1995; American College of Physicians, 1986). In fact, "domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women between the ages of 15 and 44 and is more common than muggings, auto accidents, and cancer deaths combined" (Boes, 1998, p. 206). One of four women die each year due to domestic violence (Mills, 1998). Of women receiving emergency room services, 37 percent have been injured by an intimate partner (Rand, 1997) and "14% to 28% of women attending primary care clinics [and] 4% to 17% of women attending prenatal clinics" (Rodriguez et al., p. 153) have been identified as experiencing domestic violence. The costs of battering for health care are alarming. Partner abuse is estimated

"in the most severe cases ... [to] cost more than $44 million annually and result[s] in 21,000 hospitalizations with 99,800 patient days, 28,700 emergency department visits, and 39,900 visits to physicians each year" (Stark, p. 347). The general health considerations are staggering and even more alarming for African Americans.

Although domestic violence cuts across race, socioeconomic status, education, and income distinctions (Straus & Gelles, 1986), it has been estimated that African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of domestic violence compared with white Americans (Hampton & Gelles, 1994; Rennison & Welchans, 2000). The National Black Women's Health Project identified domestic violence as the number one health issue for African American women (Avery, 1990). Yet, African Americans do not necessarily perceive domestic violence as an issue of concern (Briggs & Davis, 1994; White, 1994).

In addition to the mental health risks, identity crises have been attributed to African American women experiencing domestic violence (Richie, 1996; West, 1999). African American women are at a greater risk than white women of contracting HIV as a result of domestic violence (Kalichman, Williams, Cherry, Belcher, & Nachimson, 1998; Wyatt et al., 2000). The proportion of deaths and serious injuries resulting from domestic violence is also greater in African American communities (Fagan, 1996). African American women are more likely to kill a partner and are, at the same time, twice as likely to be killed because of domestic violence than white women (Plass, 1993). Two explanations for this reality are that African American women are less likely to seek assistance for domestic violence (Staples, 1986) and they may not perceive themselves to be in danger (Browne, 1987). Addressing domestic violence must become a priority health issue in the African American community. The health concerns, both physically and mentally, are profound.


Socioeconomic status has been used to explain the high rates of domestic violence in the African American community (Asbury, 1999; Barnes, 1999; Hampton & Gelles, 1994; Hotaling & Sugarman, 1986; Lockhart & White, 1989; Uzzell & Peebles-Wilkins, 1989; West & Rose, 2000). Domestic violence in the African American community is often linked to poverty rates, in that domestic violence is more likely to occur for individuals with incomes between $6,000 and $11,999 (Asbury, 1999; Cazenave & Straus, 1990). Yet, Lockhart (1987) found that African American middle-class women were more likely to experience domestic violence than white middleclass women. Although there has been no empirical study to explain this phenomenon, it presents a paradox in comparison to earlier research. Tjaden and Thoennes (2000) stated that after accounting for sociodemographics, abuse rates were even across ethnic groups, reinforcing the concept that there is nothing in African American culture that promotes domestic violence (Dennis, Key, Kirk, & Smith, 1995). However, there are barriers that contribute to the perpetuation of domestic violence in the African American community. The literature review reveals four major themes related to African American women and domestic violence: inaccessibility of services, lack of cultural competence among service providers, racial loyalty, and gender entrapment.

Inaccessibility of Services

The inaccessibility of domestic violence services has been noted in the literature as a barrier to the receipt of services among African Americans (Joseph, 1997; West, 1999). Shelters and batterer's intervention programs are often geographically inaccessible and not community based (Asbury, 1987; Williams & Becker, 1994; Williams-Campbell, 1993). Inaccessible services are less likely to be used despite the need. Transportation constraints, lack of money to get to appointments, and fear of entering a perceived hostile environment often result in a decreased likelihood of African Americans keeping appointments and fully participating in services.

Lack of Cultural Competence

Lack of cultural competence has been noted as a reason that African Americans often do not complete or obtain domestic violence services (Asbury, 1999; Kanuha, 1994; Kupenda, 1998). Cultural competence can be defined as "a set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a system, agency, and/or individual to function effectively with culturally diverse clients and communities" (Rorie, Paine, & Barger, 1996, p. 92).

Often demonstrated by a lack of acknowledgment of differences or an inability to connect with the client, lack of cultural competence is counterproductive to providing services. Negative stereotypes or myths are often at the heart of a service provider's lack of cultural competence (Allard, 1991). One stereotype is that of the strong African American woman, who can sustain anything, has no fear, and can easily protect herself (Hill-Collins, 1991).

Shelters have denied housing to African American women for not sounding fearful enough or sounding too strong (Allard, 1991; Barbee, 1992; Kupenda, 1998; West, 1999). "In many minds a picture has been painted of Black women as hardened, tough, back-talking, strong, permissive, and undeserving of protection, women for whom blows might not be considered cruelty" (Kupenda, p. 8). Shelter workers have been found to make assumptions about the mental health needs and safety of the survivor based on this superficial stereotype. Lack of cultural competence results in differential treatment and oppressive practice measures. For African American women, this intentional or nonintentional ignorance serves as a barrier to receiving domestic violence services.

Racial Loyalty

An additional barrier to seeking assistance for domestic violence services is racial loyalty. Racial loyalty can be defined as an African American woman's decision "to withstand abuse and make a conscious self-sacrifice for what she perceives as the greater good of the community but to her own physical, psychological, and spiritual detriment" (Bent-Goodley, 2001, p. 323).

When the perception that racism is a more serious issue than sexism develops, African American women deny an equally important part of their identity (Crenshaw, 1994; Richie, 1996). As these women deny their unique experiences as women to protect their partners, they put themselves at a greater risk of physical harm and do not allow their partners to be held accountable for their behavior. This internal barrier undermines the woman's mental health, because it denies the differences that she experiences based on gender and creates feelings of confusion, guilt, and shame for differentiating between her needs and that of her partner.

Putting the needs of others first has been documented as one of the perceived roles of African American women (Hill-Collins, 1991). Many African American women hesitate to report domestic violence for fear of the discrimination and injustice that African American men often experience in the criminal justice system (White, 1994). Being acutely aware of police brutality and other forms of injustice, the woman forgoes her needs for fear of the criminal justice system. This increases her chances of physical injury and mental anguish. She is almost expected to sustain the abuse to protect the family, maintain the relationship, and spare the larger community of embarrassment, all the while denying her mental health needs and physical safety. Maintaining racial loyalty can have devastating physical and mental health affects. Yet, societal forces can also greatly affect African American women who experience domestic violence. The societal impact can be demonstrated through gender entrapment theory.

Gender Entrapment

Richie (1996) defined gender entrapment as "the socially constructed process whereby African American women who are vulnerable to male violence in their intimate relationship are penalized for behaviors they engage in even when behaviors are logical extensions of their racialized identities, their culturally expected gender roles, and the violence in their intimate relationships" (p. 4). Gender entrapment is learned and reinforced through societal expectations and intimate relationships. The theory provides a basis for understanding how African American women who experience domestic violence are further victimized by social structures. Specifically, gender entrapment theory illustrates the connection between African Americans, domestic violence, and the criminal justice system. Current trends reflect the ways in which the criminal justice system is working against African American women who are experiencing domestic violence. African American women are incarcerated at a higher rate than white women for domestic violence (Plass, 1993). In addition, African American men and women are more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than white Americans (Beck & Mumola, 1999; Fagan, 1996; Peterson-Lewis, Turner, & Adams, 1988; Richie).

Peterson-Lewis and colleagues (1988) found that African Americans distrust the criminal justice system and do not feel that they are treated equally. These perceptions of the criminal justice system are not without merit. Mandatory arrests have been found to be more often applied to African Americans in comparison with white Americans (Mills, 1998; Sherman et al., 1992).

Despite these connections, there is still a limited understanding of how African American women perceive domestic violence. This article is intended to fill that gap and provide a better understanding of this issue.


Data for this study came from focus groups conducted with 14 self-selected African American women. Convenience sampling was used to select participants for the study. I selected focus groups to allow the women to speak from their experience and obtain detailed information from participants (Krueger, 1994). Through the use of an inductive approach, the voices of the participants inform the theory and hypothesis. Allowing the stories of the women to be told through their voice was critical to fully understanding their perceptions.


A meeting was held with agency staff and key stakeholders to request their involvement with participant recruitment. The key stakeholders were recognized elders in the community. These individuals were identified through agency staff familiar with the community's informal network. Flyers were posted describing the study and requesting the participation of interested women. Verbal invitations were also used to encourage participation. Before the focus group sessions began, the informed consent forms were reviewed, discussed, and signed by the participants. Ground rules for discussion were presented.


I conducted three focus groups with individuals participating in recreation and counseling programs from a local social services agency in Central Harlem. This sample was not homogenous. Because of the small sample size, the description of the participants is presented by the total number of participants rather than by separating group results. There were six participants attending parent training classes and eight participants attending recreation programs open to the general public, such as African dance class. Of the 14 women, 12 had experienced some form of domestic violence. All the women identified having been threatened or put down by an intimate partner. Of the 12 women, nine reported having experienced physical abuse, such as being pushed, having limbs broken, and being hospitalized as a result of domestic violence. Six of the women were clients who had voluntarily obtained counseling to improve their parenting skills. The other eight women were attending African dance class and were not otherwise affiliated with the agency.

All of the focus group participants were mothers of children under the age of 12. Participants' ages ranged from 18 to 48 years (M = 31). Eleven of the women had a bachelor's degree or higher; three had completed high school.

Focus Groups

There were three focus groups. The first and second groups, composed respectively of seven and five women, were held on a weeknight in the evening. Three women attended the third focus group, which was held on a weekday at midday. The following definition of domestic violence was then provided: "Domestic violence is a pattern of assaultive and coercive behaviors including physical, sexual, and psychological attacks, as well as economic coercion that adults or adolescents use against their intimate partners" (Schechter & Ganley, 1995, p. 10). Participants were given an opportunity to react to the definition and were asked to respond to an open-ended question: "What are your perceptions about domestic violence?" Each participant was asked to share her opinions and perceptions about domestic violence and offer any other information perceived as relevant to the discussion.

Participants were eager to share their perception of domestic violence during the focus groups. To cross-check focus group discussion, participants were given a vignette concerning domestic violence to which they would respond. The vignette provides a scenario in which violence has taken place and then asks perceptions of the incident. Hilton (1989) developed the vignette and corresponding questions to test attitudes and beliefs about intimate and stranger violence. The tool required no adaptation, as it was culturally appropriate for the participants. After reviewing the vignette, participants were asked to comment on the seriousness of the violence, identify who they felt was to blame, distinguish how to respond to such violence, and determine the likelihood for further violence.


Each focus group lasted two hours and was not tape-recorded, at the request of the participants. I used note-based analysis to manage the data (Krueger, 1994).As part of this method, a field note reporting form was developed to analyze the data. The form separated comments regarding the vignette and comments from the rest of the focus group discussion. These remarks were then organized into two categories: key points and notable quotes. Immediately after each focus group session, I analyzed the field and observation notes, resulting in the identification of codes and themes. Responses were tracked by including notes in the margins. Data were then reduced to dusters, coded, and organized according to the codes (Huberman & Miles, 1994). Finally, in an effort to provide a visual element, the organized data, comments, and observations were plotted onto a large sketchpad.

Participant verification was then used to confirm that the analysis best represented the sentiments of the groups. Three group members, one from each group, reviewed the written report of the focus group sessions. They were in concurrence with the results reported.


I identified major themes from the note-based analysis, which resulted in the following four categories: perceptions of domestic violence, inaccessibility of domestic violence services, the need for public education, and the child welfare connection. The findings were condensed to represent the larger group in an effort to emphasize the themes identified.

Perceptions of Domestic Violence

I reviewed the definition of domestic violence provided and explained each component. After this review, the participants felt that the definition was adequate. As the discussion proceeded, they shared their feeling that beatings and abuse should be differentiated. One participant stated that "[b]eatings and abuse are two separate things. A beating is when someone breaks your bones or puts you in the hospital or if you're bleeding really bad. Abuse is like pushing, shoving, slapping," and verbal abuse. For these participants, a beating was escalated violence. As they saw it, this could be considered domestic violence. Abuse was defined as less serious. They suggested that social workers should be clear. Thus, if a practitioner asked one of these women if she was experiencing domestic violence, she would say no despite possibly being pushed, shoved, or slapped in the intimate relationship, because abuse and domestic violence were seen as two different phenomena.

Inaccessibility of Domestic Violence Services

Each woman could identify with feeling trapped and having nowhere to turn when confronting abuse: "If no one brings it up to me, why would I be stupid enough to bring it up to them? Besides what goes on in my relationship is my business." The need to conceal the abuse was often a result of not being asked about domestic violence or not knowing where to go for help. The women perceived domestic violence services as inaccessible, both physically and figuratively. They shared that despite their awareness of substance abuse programs and child welfare agencies, they could not mention an agency where domestic violence services were provided in the local area.

Others identified more structural issues: "The hours are usually with no evenings or maybe one or two nights a week. Then, I've got to pay money for me and my kids to get there. Do you know how much that costs?" The participants could relate to this statement and many could describe similar situations: "My worker referred me somewhere and there [were] no openings. That makes no sense." The inaccessibility of services referred to geographic distance, transportation issues, and practitioners making referrals to programs that did not have openings.

Public Education

In addition to barriers to access, participants stated their frustration with not having more information about domestic violence. One woman said that "this is the first time someone even asked [about domestic violence]. Lots of people want to talk about it." The participants felt that silence about domestic violence should not be taken as a sign of disinterest. Instead, they recognized the problem of domestic violence but did not see a forum for safely discussing the issue.

It is interesting that there was a public education campaign taking place on domestic violence. When asked if they had seen any of the billboards and posters, all but two commented "no." Some of the participants talked about their desire to see posters with African Americans on them. Another stated: "I wouldn't want to see black people on a poster [about domestic violence]. We're always represented like that. I'd rather see a positive message. Show me the alternative [to violence]."

Negative perceptions of African Americans in advertising and the media were a big concern to the participants. It was important to them that African Americans be portrayed positively. They did not seem convinced that public education advertisements would be developed that could expose the issue and not demean the community.

The participants also talked about the need for information at an earlier age: "What about young girls? They should be talking about domestic violence in high schools. Start with them," Not only were the women concerned about teenage girls, many described their own experience with partner violence as teenagers. Some described witnessing such violence with adolescent girls in their lives. Regardless, it was clear to them that public education needed to target young adults, with an emphasis on young women.

The Child Welfare Connection

The participants were adamant about their apprehension about discussing domestic violence with child welfare workers. One woman described an experience with her children after child protective services found out that she was in an abusive relationship:

   I didn't tell them [child protective services] because
   I knew what would happen. They told me I
   couldn't take care of my kids if I stayed with him.
   Do you know they took my kids? It took me six
   months to get them back. Now when the worker
   comes to my house, my kids hide.

The women with connections to the child welfare system spoke candidly about their distrust of social workers and lack of willingness to provide information about domestic violence in an effort to keep the family together. They did not feel that social workers were working with them. Instead they expressed feelings of alienation from practitioners.

One of the women posed a question: "What if the man is going to hurt you and your kids and you want to stay with him? If you won't leave for yourself or your kids then somebody's got to look out for the kids. Right?" The complexity of the issue was further illustrated by a participant:

   Would they take a little white kid whose parents
   have money? No, but it's easy to do that with little
   black kids. All I'm saying is if you're going to take
   my kids, then you should take everybody else's
   kids too. If not, then don't tell me you're taking
   them because I can't protect them, because that's
   a lie. You're taking them because you can.

The women could not separate child removal because of domestic violence from race and class. Each woman agreed that lack of money made a difference and that their race was equally as important.


In considering the findings of the study, it is important to first recognize its limitations. First, African Americans are not a homogeneous group (Brice-Baker, 1994). For example, there are many cultures and immigration statuses within the group. Therefore, one cannot generalize the findings to all African Americans. Second, because of the self-selection process, it is possible that those who elected not to participate could have offered a different perspective. Third, the small sample size and use of convenience sampling does not allow generalization of the findings to a larger population. Fourth, the use of note-based analysis can be seen as a limitation, because it may not provide the same accuracy as tape recordings. Despite these limitations, there are some key findings that can help social workers engage this population of women with greater success.


These focus groups were conducted to better understand African American women's perceptions of domestic violence. Indeed the findings reaffirm issues discussed in the literature and present additional concerns.

Culturally Competent Public Education

The participants saw a need for more media attention to this issue that targeted the community. They identified three key points: (1) domestic violence is a serious issue in the community; (2) services and information are currently lacking; and, (3) more effort needs to be placed not only on providing such services, but also on educating the community about this issue. The women felt that an increase in public education on domestic violence would enhance advocacy efforts to increase domestic violence services in the community and would increase awareness of services available.

Public information about domestic violence must take place using a culturally competent approach and multigenerational methods. These participants made it clear that public education should take place in churches, barbershops, and beauty salons. The message should provide a sense of what a healthy relationship is, providing a more balanced and positive perspective of African Americans. Public education initiatives should also be age appropriate, implying that teachers become better educated about domestic violence and more ready to serve as a resource. Church clergy must be prepared to speak and act from a violence-free perspective that promotes equality in relationships. In essence, one cannot educate the community without also educating those leaders who influence their daily lives.

Language in Domestic Violence

The very language of domestic violence intervention needs to become more culturally competent, with understanding of key terms clearly identified between the social worker and the client. Addressing domestic violence as solely a woman's issue alienates a large contingent of clients, particularly African American men. The historical and cultural experience of people of African ancestry supports the idea of approaching the issue from the perspective of community and family (Akbar, 1981; Boyd-Franklin, 1989; Carlton-LaNey, 2001; Dennis et al., 1995; Martin & Martin, 1995). Although African American men must be held accountable for their behavior, the community approach is more culturally competent and produces a more positive outcome by not placing blame but promoting the idea that the men accept responsibility for their behavior. As the women suggested, there is a community interest in discussing domestic violence so long as there is safety in sharing.

The women identified the need to clarify terminology used in domestic violence services and not make an assumption that words mean the same thing to all people. Understanding that some women may differentiate between abuse and beating is important. Social workers should ask the client to explain what she means when using certain words. A lack of understanding of terminology could mean the difference between safety and fatality.

Perceptions of Domestic Violence

It is critical to understand how the client perceives domestic violence. This may require workers to help clients first describe the situation before identifying it as domestic violence. Although it is important to help the client put the abuse in the larger context of domestic violence, it is far more important to begin where the client is and allow her to define her reality. The participants identified the need to protect the image of the community, demonstrating the persistence of racial loyalty despite personal physical and mental health risks. Two techniques were identified to address racial loyalty.

First, the worker may need to accept that the client may have internalized traditional sex-role stereotypes and could see the violence as a man's right to keep order in the home (Bent-Goodley, 1998). In other words, the social worker cannot simply assume that the client sees the violence as being wrong. Instead, the social worker should help the client empower herself by exploring sex-role perceptions and expectations of the relationship. Providing clients with information that is not judgmental allows them to analyze and think critically for themselves with more information at their disposal. Again, helping the client define her own reality and connecting that with the larger context of violence against women can help social workers better understand and connect with African American women experiencing abuse.

Second, providing the woman with more information so that she can make an informed choice is critical. Limited information creates limited responses. In addition to being aware of the nuances of racial loyalty, the practitioner must be prepared to acknowledge it, empathize, and respond with targeted information.

Child Welfare System: Differential Treatment

The women identified differential treatment by the child welfare system as a major impediment to seeking help for domestic violence. It is important to note that child protection services is not mandated to be called for reports of domestic violence in New York.

Although differential treatment in the child welfare system was not the intent of gender entrapment theory, there are noteworthy linkages. The participants' perception of the child welfare system was that it penalized them for being poor, African American, and abused. This perceived differential treatment is not totally ungrounded. The literature reports the higher out-of-home placement of African American children as a result of domestic violence (Edelman, 1989). People who are poor and experience domestic violence are more likely to experience child removal (Findlater & Kelly, 1999).

With the higher proportion of African Americans who experience poverty, this perception of being treated differently can be a result of socioeconomic status or race. The women were sophisticated enough to recognize this. Examining the continued differential treatment of clients based on what they perceived as racial profiling in the child welfare system poses serious questions. Developing systems that track such incidences could be one way of monitoring worker activity. Models have been developed to educate child protective services workers about domestic violence (Magen, Conroy, & Tufo, 2000). Domestic violence training should be a part of child welfare training and staff evaluation. Informing clients of their rights concerning this issue might be an additional solution for identifying individuals who are discriminatory and helping clients feel empowered.


Community-focused public education initiatives could be one form of intervention for social workers. By partnering with community organizations and working collaboratively with key informants, social workers have an opportunity to engage in prevention and education activities uniquely designed for the population.

Social workers can also clarify terms and ascertain the client's interpretation of language before completing assessments. Seeking clarification can allow the social worker to understand fully the client's perspective and possibly reduce miscommunication.

As part of an option-building profession, social workers can provide available and community-based options and resources to women. Having options allows clients to seek assistance when they are ready, in environments that are not perceived as hostile.

Social work administrators and supervisors can establish mechanisms to track cases of domestic violence and conduct training on domestic violence that also explore cultural nuances, worker perceptions, and ethical dilemmas. It is important that training and tracking are connected with staff evaluations to assess the effectiveness of these administrative efforts.

Additional research is indicated in light of the findings from this study. Future empirical research could focus on a larger sample size that includes a diverse population of African Americans across gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and immigration status. Comparative research that examines the respondent's perception of differential treatment in the child welfare system also warrants further investigation.


Domestic violence continues to be a serious issue in the African American community, with mental and physical health consequences that can have tragic results. The findings point to a need to better understand domestic violence from the client's perspective and to respond to persistent systemic barriers to receiving services. Much of what was reported is consistent with the literature, acknowledging the often devastating effects of the intersection of gender, race, and socioeconomic status (Crenshaw, 1994). Similarly, the findings support the importance of understanding racial loyalty in an African American woman's decision to pursue outside support for domestic violence. It is clear that the mental health needs of the woman continue to come second, at best, to not publicizing these intimate problems. This is further exacerbated by what these women identified as racism and discrimination at the hands of social workers. The importance of fully understanding client perceptions of domestic violence and the need to address the barriers discouraging African American women from seeking assistance is clear.

This study fills a gap in the literature and can be useful to those who engage African American women experiencing domestic violence. It provides a unique opportunity to hear their voices and points to the need for further dialogue and examination with African Americans about this critical issue. There is a willingness to address the issue when approached openly and in a nonthreatening manner. A Ghanaian proverb says, "The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people." Only with a deep concern for healing families and communities can social workers have a positive effect on the healthy preservation and violence-free existence of all people.


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Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, PhD, LICSW-C, is associate professor, School of Social Work, Howard University, 601 Howard Place, NW, Washington, DC 20059; e-mail: The author thanks Dr. Gladys Walton Hall for her support and feedback on this article.

Original manuscript received June 26, 2001 Final revision received December 18, 2001 Accepted April 9, 2002

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