Rihanna, Immigrant Status, and Domestic Violence
Al Green. Justin Timberlake. And Boyz II Men singing back-up, with nary a close-up of them. This ”group” performance at the Grammys should have signaled to me that something was gravely amiss. I couldn’t imagine anyone planning that performance. But how could I guess the next day’s headlines? Chris Brown charged with domestic violence! The woman in question? Apparently, his girlfriend Rihanna. (Both were scheduled to perform at the Grammys that night but cancelled hours before the show, hence the hastily pulled together group of Green and company.)
The 19 year-old Brown is being investigated for domestic violence and has been charged with felony criminal threats. The shattering picture of Rihanna delivered to the world by TMZ graphically illustrates and appears to confirm that Rihanna is the victim in this case. Many commentators have noted that Brown has accused his mother and former step-father of abusing him. Brown’s step-father denies this claim but if true, such a history certainly is an explanation of, but a poor excuse for Brown’s behavior.
But what explains Rihanna’s behavior? This is likely not Brown’s first abusive act; possibly the worst, but not the first. Given that the superstars were dating for about a year, Brown might have shown his true colors a long time ago. Why would Rihanna continue to date an abuser? Why does anyone remain in an abusive relationship?
I have never thought of the similarities between me and the singer who just turned 21 before now. We both came to live in the U.S. in our teens—me at 18 and Rihanna at about 16. And we both moved here from small countries in the Caribbean: me from Guyana and Antigua, and Rihanna from Barbados. (Like mine, her mother is Guyanese). Unfortunately, that is not the end of our similarities as I too was in an abusive relationship when I was Rihanna’s age. As I think of myself when I was a teenager, and new immigrant to the U.S., I can’t help but wonder how that circumstance fits into the equation. How might Rihanna’s immigrant status be related to her relationship with an abuser?
Moving—in either direction—between third world or developing nations and first world countries can create tremendous culture shock. Every now and then I try to guess the number of ”American” words and phrases that I have learned in the decades I have lived here, such as men named Richard are sometimes called Dick. There are experiences that are so truly foreign like snow, freeways, living among millions of people.
Unless you have experienced such a transition it may be difficult to understand that many basic aspects of life can become a challenge when you move to another country. For example, I was very much into exercise when I moved to New York from Antigua. In Antigua, I jogged on the beach or on the streets and lifted weights at a backyard gym. Upon my move, I bought the weight bench and weights that I could afford and quickly discovered that they were woefully inadequate. I tried running on the road in New York. In January. Once. That was enough for me to accept that my warming body enveloped in frigid cold is intolerable. Not being able to afford the cost of a gym membership and unable to navigate the transportation issues, the question of how to stay physically fit in the U.S. remained unresolved until I moved to California.
If I could not navigate something as simple as working out, can you imagine how daunting the idea of dating was to me? With major differences in speech, fashion, weather, transportation, population, and food, to name a few things, dating was beyond me. I could not decode the non-verbal cues in my new environment; I could barely fathom the verbal ones. Therefore, it was a relief to move a platonic friend into the boyfriend category. At least I could continue to focus college without having to try to figure out dating in the U.S.
Unlike other abused women I’ve read about, I never believed any of the ridiculous and clearly abusive things this man said to me. And given that like many abusers, he became out-of-control gradually, my youth and ignorance encouraged me to believe that he would change. He didn’t. And I felt too out of my depth living in New York to know how to handle this. It’s hard to imagine that I would have put up with such treatment in Antigua. I knew that world and felt confident there. Here, there were too many unknowns.
With her heavy Barbadian accent (I remember Jay-Z mocking her at the American Music Awards), Rihanna probably feels very much out of her element in the U.S.. And while superstardom must buy her lots of “friends”, I bet superstardom is just another arena in which she feels foreign. Maybe like me, she was glad to have some aspect of her life in America settled.
Obviously one does not have to be an immigrant to be abused. I don’t know if statistical evidence indicates that there is a relationship between being a recent immigrant to the U.S. and abuse, but I do wonder whether immigrant women are more likely to be victims of abuse.