Beyond Gossip, Good and Evil (and Illdoc at SXSW)

March 11, 2009

Hello world! I was trying to wait until I posted another video to give these news updates, but looks like I won't have time so here we go..two things:

1) I'm on my way to Austin this weekend, to take part in a panel at SXSW, so I hope to see some of you there! Below are the details, and we're hoping to have a meetup outside the festival as well so stay tuned for the scoop on that.

Can Social Media End Racism?
Room 8
Sunday, March 15th
11:30 am - 12:30 pm

The tangled issues of race and privilege in our society come to a boiling point on the internet. Exploring the complicated place of race in society, this presentation examines the ideas of race in the digital environment with a specific focus on social media.

  • Kety Esquivel - NCLR & Cross Left
  • Jay Smooth -
  • Phil Yu - Angry Asian Man
  • Latoya Peterson Editrix,

  • 2) And since my interview with Elizabeth Mendez Berry generated so much great discussion, she's written an in-depth follow-up commentary which you can read after the jump:


    Beyond Gossip, Good and Evil
    Elizabeth Mendez Berry

    The Bloods have a strict policy against domestic violence. That's what a 16-year-old male affiliate proudly told me last year before a weekly "gang awareness" meeting of about fifteen teens, most of them Crips, Bloods or Latin Kings, at a high school in Castle Hill, the Bron. That week, the topic was domestic violence, and several members of the group, including the 16-year-old, said that hitting a woman was never acceptable. Others argued that there were situations where it just couldn't be helped.

    The conversation turned to an article I had written about domestic violence in the hip hop industry for Vibe. The rapper Big Pun grew up near the high school, and his devastating abuse of his wife (which started when the couple was just 16) was described in the piece. "I heard she cheated on him," said the only young woman in the group, and others repeated some of the many rumors that swirled around Pun's wife when she told her story (up until then she had been Soundview's favorite widow). Several people enthusiastically launched into scenarios where it was OK to hit a woman. There were many. The bottom line: sometimes you've got to teach a woman a lesson if she gets out of line. It sounded like a man's responsibility.

    In the midst of the rationalizing, one usually talkative young man stood up and walked out. When he returned twenty minutes later, he quietly told the group that his aunt had recently been murdered by her abusive boyfriend. It was no longer a hypothetical conversation. The jokes stopped. Young men who were significantly invested in their inner gangsters gave them time off, and started talking about how domestic violence had affected their lives--and it had affected most of them. The young woman, who minutes before had been arguing in favor of beating females who didn't know their place, talked about how despite the rules, male gang members beat up on female gang members. Behind her swagger, she seemed anxious.

    Why discuss teenaged gang members when the issue at hand is a couple of unaffiliated celebrities? Because frank conversations like the one I described are rare, but they're crucial to stopping relationship violence and healing the wounds it inflicts not just on its victims, but on their familes, and even on abusers, many of whom grew up in abusive households themselves. Because of one young man's honesty about his own experiences, everyone else anted up. The conversation got past knee jerk reactions, and revealed some of the pain lurking behind them. It certainly didn't resolve all the issues that came up, but it was a start that gave a group of teens an opportunity to share the conflicting emotions they had about the issue.

    The Chris Brown and Rihanna Fenty situation reveals that dating violence starts early. Without intervention, it doesn't always stop. Homicide is the second leading cause of death of African-American women ages 15-29, after accidents (source:, and a woman's most likely murderer is her current or former partner. Sadly, when this issue comes up, conversations tend to follow two paths: blaming the abuser or blaming the victim, with little attention given to preventing future violence. In the Brown/Fenty case, it's "Team Rihanna" versus "Team Breezy," as if someone wins at the end. But everyone involved loses when violence is the response to relationship conflict. This isn't a men's issue or a women's issue--it's a community issue. That's why, instead of getting caught up in the gossip around this star-studded case, we need to start talking about what's going on among civilians.

    Young love is supposed to hurt a bit emotionally, but increasingly, it bruises. The Brown/Fenty incident happened at the end of National Teen Dating Violence Awareness week was ending, during the first year on record that teen abuse by both males and females has gone up. (though men's beatings are much more severe) Just two states, Rhode Island and Texas, mandate education about relationship abuse. (Break the Cycle, which fights teen dating violence, has a petition for more of such legislation).

    But it's not just teens who are dangerously in love. Women in Fenty's age category, 20 to 24, face the highest levels of relationship violence (source). And the U.S. Department of Justice recently reported that in 2007 intimate partner assaults on women were up 42 percent over 2005. Native American women face by far the highest official rates of domestic violence--almost double that of anyone else-- but African-Americans also face disproportionately high levels. And while working class and poor women face higher rates of reported domestic violence (source), it's a problem that doesn't disappear when the money's right, as is clear from the Rihanna/ Chris Brown case.

    Sadly, we seldom talk about abuse except when photogenic stars are involved, and the "conversations" around Brown and Rihanna are often uncomfortably shrill. Blogs like Racialicious and Afrobella critiqued the media and online responses to the case. On the one hand, some convicted Brown instantly. Presumed guilty in the court of public opinion, he lost lucrative endorsements and radio play. After the story broke on Feb. 9, there was a dominant point of view on two gossip sites with a mainly white female readership. Commentators on TMZ called Brown "a piece of garbage," "a thug," and "a vampire." At PerezHilton: "You cannot take the hood outta these rats. Enough said." Other fans launched a ruthless defense of the impeccably packaged good guy via a smear campaign against the self-professed bad girl. While "Team Rihanna" certainly had a presence on Bossip and Necole Bitchie, two sites popular with African-American women, a vocal group argued that a racist media had railroaded Brown. Instead, they tried and convicted Rihanna. Sample comments: "Caribbean women are crazy, she probably cut him." "This is a classic case of B.B.W syndrome BITTER BLACK WOMAN!!! She is straight trying to ruin him." On February 9, Bossip posted the headline: "Exclusive: Chris Brown Gives Rihanna Black Eye For Giving Him Herpes?!?!? And from Afrobella's round-up: "Its so stupid how if a man hits a woman its his fault and we should feel sorry for the woman. You all know how it goes, these hoes get snappy, she probably annoyed him and hit him herself. lol at everyone feeling sorry for Rihanna."

    Even outside the celebrity gossip cauldron, the alleged victim was allegedly guilty. I was on WNYC radio talking about the case and a psychologist called in to say that her young daughter had told her that Rihanna gave Brown Herpes, so violence was justified. I overheard the same thing from a group of Latino teens on the 7 train, and from a gaggle of NYU students. A friend called me, exasperated that everyone she talked to about the case (four educated African Americans) responded the same way: "I wonder what she did. She always rubbed me the wrong way," said one. "She must have hit him first," said another.

    Some softened their stance towards Rihanna when a photo, apparently of her bruised face after the attack, was leaked. Others did not. Posted on Bossip, Feb. 20: "Her face doesn't look much different than normal. Those contusions [are] probably the result of an air bag hitting her." Like many victims of abuse, Rihanna seemed to have taken Brown back, so to some, she now deserves whatever she gets. When an LAPD affidavit detailing the attack was posted on The Smoking Gun, there was considerable sympathy for what she had been through. But despite Brown's apology, some seemed more interested in an apology from Fenty: there were still plenty of amateur CSI enthusiasts dissecting the document to find inconsistencies in her story.

    Blaming the victim is nothing new. When my Vibe piece, "Love Hurts" was published, the women who spoke to me, wives and girlfriends of well-known rappers, faced rumors that nearly drowned out their allegations. The article sparked many constructive conversations, but other readers asked (loudly) why I aired the dirty laundry of beloved stars like Notorious B.I.G. and Big Pun. And for Pun's widow, it was her own community that reacted most harshly. Many Puerto Ricans saw her choice to share her story as an attack on their fallen hero; some criticized her and spread ugly rumors, but she had survived much worse. She'd tried to escape Pun three times, and he always tracked her down and dragged her back. When she was finally free to break her family's cycle of violence publicly, she spoke up.

    Since that piece was published, I've had the opportunity to talk about it in several youth organizations, where I've witnessed diverse responses. At one meeting, an older male "mentor" argued relentlessly that a woman who stays in an abusive relationship deserves whatever she gets. It's a popular position that puts the responsibility on the victim and not on the abuser or the community that turns a blind eye. It also ignores the complicated emotions that arise when you love your abuser. Many don't want to end a relationship-- they just want to end the abuse. At that same meeting, an 18-year-old confided that his girlfriend was physically abusive to him, something a counselor in the program had told me he suspected. The young man explained that he didn't want to break up with the mother of his child. He loved her, and when she wasn't angry, the relationship was good. She always said that she was going to change her behavior, but never did.

    In the wake of the Chris Brown and Rihanna incident, Jay Smooth interviewed me about Brown and Rihanna. After the video's Valentine's Day debut, it was widely circulated, and I got a strong positive response, but also plenty of static from the anonymous internet ether. My opinion on relationship violence, for the record: male or female, you don't have to be innocent to be a victim of violence. If you are in danger, I believe you should have the right to use reasonable force to get out of it. But beyond self-defense, I'm against retaliating with more violence-- I'm pro getting out of violent relationships ASAP. In the segment, Jay asked me to respond to the many women who argue that being equal means getting hit back if you throw the first punch. I said, "If I hit my husband, he has every right to be upset with me. But does he have the right to hit me back? No. Each person is accountable for his or her own response." I went on to argue that we need other ways of handling conflict (Counseling? Divorce?). This point proved very controversial. One person commented at "If a woman can hit a man whenever they feel like it than you're basically excusing violence against men or saying that men themselves should excuse it."

    When I wrote "Love Hurts," I did many more interviews than I could include in the piece. In most, men were the only physical aggressors, but a few of the women I spoke with raised their hands against the men they were with. They called what happened "fighting," not abuse. Some even threw the first punch. One told me that the scariest thing was waiting for the next attack, so she deliberately provoked it. A petite rapper's boyfriend beat her so badly that she miscarried his child, but when I spoke with her, she was almost convinced that it was her own fault, because she had been violent too. Some who posted about my interview with Jay would probably agree with her.

    The vociferous response to Chris Brown and Rihanna Fenty, and the range of perspectives on who has the right to hit whom, make it clear that we need to talk about this issue more often, particularly in schools. At the very least, ladies and gentleman, you may want to check your date's screen name to make sure you're playing by the same rules before that first fight. There's legitimate frustration among both sexes that women's violence goes ignored. There's also legitimate frustration that men's violence against women-- much more devastating in terms of hospital trips and homicides--gets minimized. Unfortunately, these concerns are often expressed at high volumes (or in BLOCK CAPS).

    Others would prefer not to talk about this issue at all. During a recent discussion about relationship violence and music on WNYC radio I mentioned that while reported rates of intimate partner violence among African-Americans are high, Latino rates are underreported. A male Latino listener wrote in and said I was stereotyping our community. As if on cue, right after the interview, I read in El Diario about a Latino police officer who had just been sentenced to 10 years for murdering his Latina cop girlfriend. "Communities find it easier to focus on oppression that comes from outside than on what we do to ourselves," Dr. Oliver Williams, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community told me for the Vibe piece. Recently, Racialicious's Latoya Peterson wrote in a blog post called "Fighting Sexism in a Community Assaulted by Racism": "I notice on a lot of threads men tend to become extremely defensive when women want to talk about things that are literally killing us.

    In the month since the Chris Brown and Rihanna case broke, bodies of women killed by their current or former intimate partners have piled up. An ex-cop was just arrested for fatally shooting his former girlfriend in Brooklyn. A young mother in East New York was killed by her ex-boyfriend, who also shot her new girlfriend LINK. In Birmingham, Alabama a man stabbed his ex-girlfriend and her three housemates to death. A woman in Michigan was shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend. In Tennessee, an 18-year-old wife was murdered by her husband. An angry ex in North Escambia Florida murdered a pregnant 19-year-old and her boyfriend. In Atlantic City County, a man stabbed his girlfriend to death and then set her condominium on fire, killing himself. An 18-year-old cheerleader was murdered by her boyfriend in Charlotte. On average, three women are killed each day by their current or former romantic partners. Those are just a few cases from the past week.

    Though they weren't profiled in People, these women are more than statistics. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, and they were shot, choked, stabbed, and burnt to death by men they dated or married. But just like there will always be people who believe that victims of police brutality deserved it, there will be those who blame victims of relationship violence for "getting themselves beaten." Blaming the victim absolves the abuser and isolates the individual case, making it easier to ignore the pattern that connects these deaths. Back in that room at Stevenson High School, the obvious response to violence against women for a group that had grown up in its shadow was clear: laugh it off, justify it, pretend it didn't affected you. For women in particular, there's a strong incentive to believe that you will only be attacked if you provoke someone, and that the women who get hit deserve it. If you ackrite, as Dr. Dre used to say, you'll be fine. But there was a young man in that room who had lost someone he loved, and he wasn't buying the bravado. He knew that she didn't deserve to be murdered by the man who shared her life and her bed. The other young people in the room knew it too, but in that intimidating environment, it was easier to act tough than to admit to shedding tears just a few years before when your father beat your mother. There's a lot of pain, a lot of baggage that needs to be unpacked in order to really heal, but it has to be done. Recent FBI stats on intimate partner homicide, from 2005, show that 1181 women and 329 men were killed by their intimate partners that year. So we can keep hypothesizing about who hit whom first in the Brown/Rihanna case or we can start dealing with reality. Relationship violence is killing our communities. Ignoring it won't make it go away.

    Posted by jsmooth995 at March 11, 2009 6:44 PM

    Elizabeth, thank you so much for both Love Hurts and the above. This is such an important issue in our society, and one that it is so difficult to talk about.

    Posted by: Jo at March 11, 2009 7:50 PM

    damn, good reporting. articulate and well researched. thanks to jay smooth for hipping us to the very smart, ethical and thorough reporting of elizabeth mendez berry. i admit i jumped right to the "chris brown is a baddie and i can't believe rhianna is setting such a bad example for young women." i now see the issue is far more complicated than who is the guilty party. i hope this message hits the population that most needs it, and that berry still keeps reporting with a strong, fair and informative hand.

    Posted by: m0ddie at March 11, 2009 7:54 PM

    This was a really thought provoking piece. The parallels between the attitudes toward violence against women in urban communities in the US and some parts of the third world are incredible.

    Posted by: TJ at March 11, 2009 8:24 PM

    Thank you, Elizabeth.

    That second-to-last paragraph is astounding and horrifying.

    Posted by: Susana at March 11, 2009 8:24 PM

    Any chance there will be a live vlog/stream of the event for us unlucky folks who won't be able to attend the meeting?

    I must say that CB is a total punk & I really dont care what happends to him or his career BUT I think it is interesting how the media has gone after him versus famous white entertainers who have been known to beat up women (perhaps the leak of the photo is causing the uproar and media frenzy). Also, I loathe that when this discussion is brought up it is directed at women as if the abuse is our fault! We need more forums where our grown ass men educate these young chucklehead boys on how to treat women/girls since clearly, their parents (more than likely their mom or grandma) and our society isnt doing a bang up job of it.

    Oh, and have lots of fun at SXSW!!!
    There's plenty of good Hip Hop shows to keep you busy I'm sure. : )

    Posted by: Leena at March 11, 2009 8:28 PM

    Thanks for the postings Jay. Enjoy South By Southwest. I believe the social media has already begun to end racism. And at the same time it reinforces it. I guess it depends on the channel, website or radio station you're tuned into.

    On the Elizabeth Mendez Berry piece, it's long overdue. It may be a male-dominated society from the top, it doesn't need to be one all the way down in the year 2009.

    Posted by: Jay B at March 12, 2009 1:06 AM

    Thank you for this, Ms. Berry. You have a true gift and it is inspiring to see the way you have put it to use. You challenge us all to stay alert and keep rethinking and reworking our beliefs and assumptions.

    Posted by: Jillian at March 12, 2009 1:13 AM

    Great piece. I am glad that this issue is getting more exposure and discussion, but sad that it exists to be discussed in the first place.

    It is crazy to me that some people think not having "the right to hit back" somehow means "a woman can hit a man whenever they feel like" and that it excuses the violence. As if the only effective way to deter violence is to respond in kind with more violence. See how crazy that sounds? Retaliation only escalates the situation further.

    Posted by: Alex at March 12, 2009 3:27 AM

    Gonna have to ask the same question as Leena,

    Jay, I know you've done the streaming from the radio studio, any chance we could get this for the panel??

    Posted by: Zuela at March 12, 2009 11:12 AM

    Thanks for running this. We need to have more level headed discussion of the matter.

    Posted by: Chris at March 12, 2009 1:55 PM

    I'm excited about your contributions to the panel at SxSW and I'm sad that I will not be able to attend (for I am a broke-a$$ and will not purchase wristbands this year). I do wish you luck, though! :)

    But I do want to thank you for continuing this very important dialog regarding domestic violence in our communities. I work in a non-profit, after-school program aimed at helping at-risk elementary school children and let me just tell you that this issue affects everyone, all colors and all ages. This let's-turn-a-blind-eye or maybe-she-deserved-to-get-beat mentality exists everywhere. I have 9 year-old boys AND girls defending Chris Brown and justifying his acts of violence. 9 year-olds.

    Chris Brown and Rihanna were to my students what Hannah Montanah is to her target demographic. They sing mostly G-rated songs that are fun and easy. In fact, in my program, when we need some popular music for any activity (music that is age-appropriate and not filled with curse words or terrible sexual innuendo), we tend to go the easy route and choose songs from both artists. (But you can't blame us. Our choices are limited) Needless to say, my students LOVE Chris Brown and Rihanna. I have the MASH games to prove it. So when this news broke, my kids went from wanting to write Rihanna letters of support and condolences after the first day, to "maybe you deserved it. Why did you cheat on him?" on the next.

    I tried to deal with this very important issue by bringing it up and letting the kids talk about it and, like I said, it went from "poor her" to "it's not fair. She made him do it." 9 year-olds. Nine.

    These children are just repeating what their parents are saying. And it's a disturbing reality.

    Elizabeth is right:
    "Relationship violence is killing our communities.
    Ignoring it won't make it go away."

    But I am at a loss to figure out a way to change it, especially when I go to work every day and see the bruises, wipe away the tears, and then hear these tiny children defend abusers. I just don't understand...

    Posted by: Diana S at March 12, 2009 9:59 PM

    Thanks for this blog today.

    Posted by: DangerAmy at March 12, 2009 11:00 PM

    Ya know, I just came over to see if the rumors I had heard on Racialicous about a possible SXSW live feed were true...and lo and behold, this awesome follow-up. Two words: Bo. NUS. Ms. Mendez Berry, once again I am so moved by your brilliant eloquence. Journalism is lucky to have you. Keep it up, hip-hop needs your voice.

    Posted by: Fiqah at March 13, 2009 9:17 AM

    Probably the best article I've read among the many dozens that writers have put out concerning Chris Brown's DECISION to abuse Rihanna. Thank you. Let's get this syndicated so more people can be exposed to the hard truths about relatioship violence. No more fluffy ignorant crap about this issue. Even Oprah can't get it quite right!

    Posted by: ceegray at March 13, 2009 11:03 AM


    Thanks for posting this piece, and thanks, Ms. Berry, for writing it. THIS is what hip hop journalism needs more of.

    Posted by: thewayoftheid at March 13, 2009 9:28 PM

    Thanks so much for the support, from women and also a special shout out to the men-- as a [male] friend of mine who works with abusers says, "the real problem is with the larger sect of men who excuse each others' behavior and give the so-called bad guy the ok to abuse by staying silent." Much respect to the men who do speak out, including your host, Jay Smooth.

    I wish I could afford to do more stories like this one for the interweb, but unfortunately I don't think Jay can afford to give me a salary or health care or an AIG-style bonus. Jay?

    @Diane S.: wow, tough situation. I'd say get professional help, because this is delicate. I would contact which has developed curricula for schools, or another agency that deals with relationship violence ( etc...)-- ideally a culturally competent org. When violence is part of children's lives and it's committed by people they love, distinguishing between "acceptable violence to teach somebody a lesson" and "unacceptable violence to teach somebody a lesson" has gotta be a challenge. Like I said at the end of the piece, I think that a lot of people are invested in believing that violence is the rational response to provocation-- the alternative is much scarier.

    Also: I just heard about this:
    It don't stop, so we can't quit. Please sign the Break the Cycle petition that's inside the article.

    Posted by: Elizabeth at March 15, 2009 11:37 PM

    What has two thumbs and is moving to Austin two weeks too late? This girl. Shoot. If there's any sort of streaming coverage or video of this event, let us know!

    Posted by: Katya at March 17, 2009 3:14 AM

    I praise God for voices like these in our communities. Don't ever stop. We got your back.

    Thank you, to you both. As a woman, a special thanks to Jay. It means so much when a member of the generalized oppressive group (men) is the one who brings up the oppression...

    Posted by: a.p. at March 17, 2009 2:29 PM

    I praise God for voices like these in our communities. Don't ever stop. We got your back.

    Thank you, to you both. As a woman, a special thanks to Jay. It means so much when a member of the generalized oppressive group (men) is the one who brings up the oppression...

    Posted by: a.p. at March 17, 2009 2:29 PM

    If this isn't ONLY a problem affecting celebrities or communities of color then why is it ONLY talked about when it's either a celebrity or rich person of color?!! Noone gave a rat's a## about domestic violence when it was white male celebrities such as Tommy Lee,Axl Rose,Danny Sullivan,Tom Sizemore,Ozzy Osbourne,and recent Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke. Or are black females only supposed to care when we are affected or when it has to do with hip-hop?!! And what disgust me the MOST is judgemnetal holier thans white people in the media and on message boards who self-righteously believe that there are NO negative misogynistic messages in country,alternative, or rock but that males in those music genres could NEVER be capable of that. That it must be 'those people' well congratultions on perpetuating the b.s. and hypocrisy!!

    Posted by: Lavern Merriweather at March 23, 2009 6:30 PM

    Lavern, there are no "white" people. You are grouping all these folks you've seen on the tv, who, no doubt, are judgemental and self-righteous folks, still you are grouping them altogehter based upon your percerption of skin tone. There is no White, just as there is no Black. There is no definition for either that can withstand even the most cursory scrutiny. That is not to say we live in a post-racial world. The evil that goes by the name racism is alive and well. Yet, race itself does not exisit, it is a completely made-up construct of classification for the purpose of dehumanization. The concept of race has no scientific or rational basis in regards to humans.

    Posted by: rawbylaw at April 29, 2009 3:26 AM

    "i`m chillin with nappy head hoes"
    I think that is not right to say b/c that is directed to black people.that was just worng to say.We came a long way form that i just didn`t like it. ms.waha

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