Matthew Hunter: Chris Brown and the power of patriarchy

BY MATTHEW HUNTER

Published March 12, 2009

When I first heard that Chris Brown allegedly abused Rihanna, my response was only slightly less judgmental than my fellow feminists. The incident, if allegations from the Los Angeles police report are true, included Brown trying to push Rihanna out of the car. When that didn't work, according to an affidavit by Los Angeles Police Detective DeShon Andrews, he “took his right hand and shoved her head against the passenger window.” Then he started punching her while he drove, getting blood on her clothes and the vehicle. He continued the beating after she threw his keys out of the car.

I tried not to jump to too many negative conclusions. Even when the pictures of a terribly bruised Rihanna were released, it is possible that tmz.com received digitally altered photos (Rihanna — The Face of a Battered Woman, 2/22/2009) that “enhanced” Rihanna's swelling. Nevertheless, with the reports and the pictures all pointing to physical abuse, I couldn't help but be reminded of the black community's association with patriarchal violence.

In her book, “Feminism is for Everybody” feminist and social activist bell hooks asserts that patriarchal violence in the home “is based on the belief that it is acceptable for a more powerful individual to control others through various forms of coercive force.” She uses the term patriarchal violence as opposed to domestic violence because unlike domestic violence, patriarchal violence reminds us of its connection to male domination. Regardless of Brown's actions, it was acceptance of this male domination that led some to defend his actions.

According to msnbc.com (Kanye West defends Chris Brown, 3/2/2009), Kanye West told a VH1 “Storytellers” audience, “Can't we give Chris a break?” He likened Brown's alleged mistake to O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson's infamous alleged mistakes. Latimes.com quoted one Brown defender (Readers defend Chris Brown in the Rihanna incident, 2/13/2009) saying, “I'm still going to support Chris Brown until the end... Obviously, she provoked him and everyone makes mistakes so I'm not going to down talk him nor try to bring him down like the white media.” It seems there are mixed responses from the black community.

The media has posed some important questions. Is Brown's “mistake” a one-time thing? Is something Rihanna did to Brown grounds for the alleged pummeling? Is the “white media” conjuring negative images against Brown? These questions must not be ignored, but accurate answers can’t be found in the simplistic context of domestic or patriarchal violence. Only a racial lens can give clarity to the profound nature of patriarchal violence within the black community and how whites respond.

Transforming the conversation of domestic abuse into one of black patriarchal violence, as Frank Roberts of thedailyvoice.com claims (Why We Can't Support Chris Brown, 2/24/2009), immediately roots the discussion “to a longer history of sexism and misogyny; to a history which has systematically preconditioned us to believe that physical violence is a sane and natural way to put a woman 'in her place'.” In other words, when blacks are a part of patriarchal violence, they are instantly connected with certain representations of blacks that, while representing a minority, still predominate many impressions and stereotypes of the “violent nature” of blacks. The so-called “white media” did not hesitate to pathologize Brown's actions as such. Mtv.com published an article days after the incident claiming that Chris Brown was haunted by his family's history of domestic violence. Instead of this analysis, we could simply condemn patriarchal violence and those who endorse it. If it is implied that Brown's violence was passed down, then by the same logic, Brown, black men and their progeny are doomed to a legacy of violence.

Many media outlets glorify the black pimp, a lifestyle that includes, as a requisite, patriarchal violence — or as self-proclaimed pimp Ice Tea puts it, “Bitches get smacked”. In bell hooks' book “We Real Cool”, she documents these historical and current images of patriarchal violence. While she holds blacks responsible for the images they personify, she holds whites responsible for endorsing these images and helping to make violent representations as opposed to more positive ones. The more these prominent, negative images are endorsed and personified, the more they seem to take form, enforcing the illusion that black men are particularly violent.

The above context is necessary to understand the depth of Chris Brown's alleged actions, Brown and Rihanna's subsequent alleged reconciliation and the black community’s responsibility to respond to these issues. If Brown is guilty of assault and violent threats, we must not give him a break. But we must not pathologize him and other black men as if he is a part of a legacy of black patriarchal violence. If we learn that Rihanna did “provoke” him, we must strongly question the implications of justifying brutal violence as an appropriate response to an annoyance. Strife as a result of patriarchal violence could, as bell hooks puts it, “ignite the flames of a gender war so intense that it has practically consumed the historical memory of black males and females, working together equally for liberation, creating love and family and community.”

This memory is the image that should dominate impressions of the black community. But instead, black patriarchal violence and an appropriate response still troubles the black community, and many whites still endorse the most negative historical image of blacks.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.