How Racism Impacts the Response to Emotional Abuse

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Within the context of immigration (particularly from the Caribbean), author Joan Wilkinson examines racism and emotional abuse. The findings reveal the need for more cultural sensitivity and awareness.

Canadian Statistics tells us that 29% of women have been victims of wife abuse. The immigrant woman is not excluded from this group. Frequently women who immigrate to Canada from the Caribbean are vulnerable to emotional abuse to the extent that it affects their ability to seek social support. They often find themselves in abusive situations in their home, at their place of employment or even in their churches.  Incapable of finding a safe way to escape their violent circumstances, many women blame themselves or may even rationalize the abuse they are experiencing, which, over time, results in significant impact on the self-esteem, self-confidence and/or the parenting capacity of these women.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of cultural awareness and systemic racism, those who are placed in positions of power aimed at protecting society, for instance in the legal and judiciary system, may react with indifference or ignorance. For example, a woman may be told that women from her culture are known to prefer men who abuse them. This lack of knowledge regarding abuse and its impact on the victim only serve to contribute to the immigrant woman's fear of reporting the various forms of abuse that have been inflicted upon her. As such, poor responses strengthen the feelings of distrust an immigrant woman has about various institutions, such as social work practitioners, the education and judicial systems.

From another perspective, the failure to establish a supportive workable intervention with an abused woman should be viewed as revictimizing her.  The response to immigrant women is often buttressed by racial stereotypes specific to a certain culture, and by societal norms that state women are supposed to be submissive. Often an immigrant woman is not aware of the societal support systems and is therefore unable to use them. The emotional abuse may also undermine her ability to seek economic independence. Unfortunately, she may soon forget her own inner resources and the resilience that helped her to migrate to begin a new life.   

Service providers such as counselors, police and settlement workers must consider the complexity of the issues facing immigrant women. They should possess knowledge of the woman's culture and understand each woman individually within her own cultural context culture in order to be effective, while avoiding stereotypes when dealing with women of colour. This awareness would facilitate a more effective intervention with this often hidden and misunderstood client group.