“It’s Not My Birthday & I Don’t Want Cake”: On Rihanna & Chris Brown

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Rihanna and Chris Brown are working together creatively, and also rumored to be back together. Click here for more on this.

For those already familiar with the current situation:

First, Let me say this: she is a grown woman. She can make her own choices. Perhaps before we step up to condemn her choice, we might pause to consider the undertones of this discourse that denies Rihanna her right to forgive or engage Chris after his transgressions. It seems to have a strikingly similar undertone to the idea that as a woman, she is not intelligent enough to make up her own mind. And we all know where that logic has led us to, don’t we?

Second, if there is one thing that I learned in my time teaching batterer’s intervention courses, it is that many women do not not always want their male partner to leave, so much as they want the abuse to stop. That is in of itself a tough pill to swallow, especially to those who purport to believe that an act of physical violence in a partnership commands departure and is irredeemable.

However in the real world, a lot of heterosexual women in this country are abused by their male partners and not leaving for a variety of nuanced and complicated reasons, perhaps most obvious among them a legal system and community that will not protect or support them.

So while it’s easy for many to say,  “If he hits me I’ll leave” the conditions that intimate partner violence creates are often a lot more complicated. It would seem our overly simplistic and condemning attitudes towards this phenomena may truly reflect how little we understand about the psychological and emotional nature of physical violence and the complexities of how humans conceptualize love.

We may also want to step back and consider how our judgmental attitudes of victim’s choices (“Why you didn’t leave? It’s your fault!”  “You went back? How could you be so stupid?!” )  contributes to increased feelings of shame for many women and men who don’t feel they are able to leave, or are afraid to do so, a  shame that isolates them further from the community at large.

Third: Should America forgive Chris brown? That question seems to have popped up everywhere. My response to that is:

A. Will that create safety for Rihanna? Yeah probably not, so why is that seemingly every one’s top priority?

B. Forgiveness is for the person who is doing the forgiving. It’s to help them release that pain from their heart. Not for the person who is being forgiven to be able to trollop along unhampered by his past choices.

That being said, I don’t believe that we should be rushing to ask a culture where violence against women is so endemic to quickly forgive what Chris brown did. When you hurt someone, you don’t get to dictate the timeline upon which their healing happens.

However, I do believe owning what we have often projected onto Chris (our collective frustration with violence against women) could become a useful channel for us to direct our energies, even as I am clear that Chris made his choices and people being upset with him is just a burden he is going to have to bear.

Fourth: Dear Racism, please recognize the ways in which you subconsciously influence the vast majority to dramatically over enforce and penalize men of color for their transgressions. And when you do that, could you avoid using the “Black hetero men are an endangered species who can do no wrong because Racism is so bad and hetero black men don’t oppress nobody because they are the holy kings of “dick land” theory”?

And could you also, while you are it, maybe come up with some transformative justice models? Models that potentially facilitate community understanding, education, instead of pointless punitive justice?

I know that’s like, all antithetical to who you are an stuff, but If you could do that before lunch that would be so wonderful and you would totally suck a whole lot less. Thanks so much.

Fifth: One of themes that seem to run rampant in the twitter and media discourse is the feeling that Chris has not been accountable to his violence.

Despite serving his sentence, there is a deep sense of rage at what many perceived as his half-witted apology and subsequent reckless behavior. This, in my opinion reflects a broader issue of our culture and our understanding of what constitutes “accountability”.

It also invokes the age old patriarchal question, “Can men change?”

For the former, one has to wonder, if he gave a more “heartfelt” apology would he be excused? Was a more convincing performance all that was necessary? Would that have soothed the rage? What does accountability for Chris really look like? And who should be sufficed here? The general public, or the woman who was a victim of his violence?

For the latter, it is clear to me that men can make different choices. But I do believe we need to ask; will this culture support him in making different choices? Is the culture invested in looking at the psychological roots of what leads men like Chris to make violent choices everyday… and change it? Perhaps not.

And as long as that is the case, using Chris as a projection board for our collective rage at the continued horrific rates of violence against women is not serving us any purpose. Sure it may be ego gratifying, but I feel like a more pressing endeavor could be to look to the many young women and men who have so easily “forgiven” him.

Could this easy “breezy” apologetic attitude be reflective of the reality that we now have a culture where dating violence is normalized? How else do we explain a twitter hash tag #HeCANBeatMe? Not to mention penetrative sex being called every violent word possible (which the remix with Rihanna & Chris portrays perfectly) from “cut”, “hit” “beat it up” “Kill it” and “smash.”  Pop songs about love sound more and more like war every day. And that should be frightening to us all.

I feel within this there is an opportunity to engage each other and find out just what exactly is happening in our sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and cousins relationships (and our own).   I feel there is an opportunity in this mess, to continue to have conversations with our families and communities about violence in relationships, and to query with even more depth how we can create accountability.   It has also given us a chance to recognize a phenomena that, in actuality is much more common than we would like to believe.

-Yolo Akili

Follow Yolo on twitter: @YoloAkili

*Shout out to my bestie Moya Bailey, for one of many conversations that led to this post!

LINKS: (Disclaimer: None of the following links or organizations are affiliated with YoloAkili.com or this article. They are simply provided for resources.)

Incite! Women of Color Justice

AVP (Anti-Violence Project)

Domestic Violence Resource Center

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Men Stopping Violence

The Line





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  1. Wow this is probably the most real, and well thought out analysis of abusive relationships that I have ever read. You do an amazing job of describing the many causes, complexities, and contradictions that make up abusive relationships; and illustrate how forgiveness and accountability operate within and outside of patriarchy. Also I really appreciate your focus on the damage that shaming causes. Thank you so much for writing and sharing! I will be reading this over and over again, it sparked a lot of thoughts and resonated deeply <3

  2. To be honest, I don’t know how to hold in tension my belief in redemption and my sense that folks shouldn’t live their lives with the stigma of the stupid choices they made as a teenager/young adult AND the profound political realities of violence in Black women’s lives. I’m not sure that I want to hold these things in tension.

    My Black feminist ethics suggest that healing and wholeness have to be possible for folk of all genders in our communities, both perpetrators and victims. But I am left unsettled by the quickness and ease and bravado with which these two have chosen to reconnect. Just last year Chris Brown was tossing chairs through windows. This year they are sharing birthday cake. Hmmmm…

    Forgiveness may be fairly personal and private, but accountability requires community. And because domestic violence is such a huge problem in our broader Black racial communities, I understand the desire to want Chris to be accountable to all of us. But even if not to us, certainly to his adoring fans. More than anything, I want him to use his power and influence with them constructively. I want him to care about them in the ways that they clearly care about him. Prior to losing Whitney, I wouldn’t have thought that all these anonymous people were making investments of care in particular entertainers, but given my own fairly surprising sense of grief over Whitney, I’m rethinking that position. I think for many folks, Chris Brown (though not Rihanna) continues to be a person deemed worthy of care; I think he reminds them of cousins, brothers, friends, etc.

    My thoughts are disjointed so I should stop. But I am profoundly unsettled. As a childhood survivor of domestic violence, what I know is that a firm black and white stance (against DV, no negotiations) was critical to the survival and health of my family. So while I recognize the complicated realities at play here (and in my own life), I’m unsure where Breezy is concerned what to do with them.

  3. it’s so obvious this was written by a) a male-identified person in b) organizer circles that harbor loads of abusers who can talk pretty.

    1. Thank You.
      Abuse of women by men should be no more tolerated than abuse of blacks by whites.
      Could you imagine such a “nuanced” tone being used to discuss forgiving racist attacks?

  4. Thank you! This is the first article that I’ve really appreciated on the subject. Until now, the only ones I have seen have just been 110% anti-Chris Brown sentiments.

    1. I agree that his apology was total b.s. He had a chain made that said oops! which I diltneiefy didn’t find funny at all. It makes me so mad that he nearly killed Rihanna and only got 5 years of probation and community service. I also don’t get why he still has so many fans, especially female fans. It’s a very sad commentary on our society that he will probably have a huge comeback album and will remain popular. I hope not but I fear that’s what the case will be. Perhaps I would try to understand his side/past if he had shown true remorse but to me hasn’t at all. He needs to be sitting in a jail cell not in his penthouse.[] Reply:August 31st, 2009 at 9:16 PMIt is also sad that the media is giving him so much positive media coverage. Female fans will forever love him because lets face it some women love to be beaten. They like when a man can take control even abusing them physically. I am sure you might have heard the expression if he doesn’t beat me he doesn’t love me’. Women are to be blamed sometimes.There is no way you can give a guy the impression that lifting a hand can be an option to settle any issue. God forbid this should have happen to any other woman.[]VA:F [1.9.11_1134]please wait…VA:F [1.9.11_1134](from 0 votes)

  5. It is important to reflect on how this does affect young men and women who model the behaviour of people they admire or look up to. When young women are not identifying relationship abuse as something to avoid or work out through community intervention or education, there is definitely an issue. We consume Rihanna and Chris Brown. We consume their performance. Dialogue IS necessary to address the fact that some major trend setters in our culture are unintentionally creating a climate of dangerous tolerance for the idea of a man physically abusing a woman he “loves.” This relationship is public; if that has enough socializing effect to cause girls to say things on Twitter like, “I’d let Chris Brown beat me up anytime” and “He can beat me up all night if he wants” and “Chris Brown can beat me all he wants. I’d do anything to have him” and “Chris Brown could beat me all he wants. He is flawless,” then we need to have some serious dialoguing with youth so that they understand that regardless of the nuances of a relationship, physical abuse is not acceptable, period. That is important to help create communities of people who choose not to turn to violence as a form of expression, and it would help teach people that if they do see relationship abuse or experience it themselves, that it must be addressed and not ignored or forgiven without genuine rehabilitation.

  6. This is a very thoughtful article on this whole Rihanna, Chris Brown mess. It certainly has me thinking. I love your point about forgiveness. That is a bitter pill to swallow because I am so angry at what he did to her, and what countless other men do to women all over the world. But, it’s her decision to forgive, or not. A friend who went through an abusive relationship also mentioned wanting the abuse to stop, and a desire to still be with the abuser. I still don’t get that. The abuse will only stop with the abuser gone, that’s how I see it I guess. Thanks for this. You’ve given me plenty to ponder. We must do better as a nation to support and victims and prevent violence against women. It’s getting ridiculous what men(and some women) get away with in this country.

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