Beat it

A high school in Southern California has started a class on domestic violence and points to abusive gender relations being the most pressing issue facing the younger generation of African-Americans.

Published January 28, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

LOS ANGELES -- Domestic violence is now the subject of a high school class. The course, at SELF High School in suburban Irvine, started after a teacher reported seeing signs that her students were in abusive relationships.

Her students are hardly alone -- one third of all calls to Orange County's sexual assault "hot line" come from people 12 to 17 years old.

The course is not mandatory. All the students enrolled are young women, and their "homework" basically involves examining their own lives.

There is no gene for hitting people you care about. It's a learned behavior. High school freshmen are abusing their young sweethearts because they have seen this scene play out so often. It's a twisted version of "playing house," learned by children who are watching very closely. One student quoted in a Los Angeles Times story on the class said, "If I hadn't taken the class, I wouldn't have known I was in an abusive relationship. I thought it was normal."

I grew up in a "Crip" hood on the east side of Long Beach. I remember seeing a grown man hit a woman when I was 10 years old. My aunt and her boyfriend were drinking beer, talking and laughing while my cousins and I were playing.

Then she said something he didn't like. He reached back and slapped my aunt in the face so hard she flew out of her chair and onto the floor. The kids stood there, frozen. We were completely captivated. It was like a movie.

Finally, my aunt's boyfriend helped her up and offered a drunken apology. He began to cry, saying how sorry he was, saying how much he loved her. He caressed and kissed her cheek. They sat back down and started talking again.

We, the kids, returned to our play, as if the violence had simply been a compelling trailer for a soon-to-be-released film. It's not surprising, then, that when older boys in my neighborhood casually said, "I pimp-slapped that bitch," my cousins and I thought it was no big deal.

This does not mean that abuse is simply a matter of mimicry. The teenagers' behavior is a cry for help. Although it may sound strange, these boys who are hitting these girls are seeking some sort of affirmation, some sort of control, and will use the only weapon at hand -- their fists.

Unfortunately, one of the few avenues of control in sight involves young girls flailing in these same waters -- girls who are prone to abusive relationships because they are also seeking affirmation. The fact that society encourages women to seek approval from men exacerbates the problem. These girls observe that many of their adult female models have their identity tied up in pleasing a man -- even if a relationship with that man is not healthy. The girls look up and say, "Oh, this is how it works." They start looking for stability in the unstable boys who want to control them. It's a very dangerous formula.

The absence of boys in the domestic violence class is a major shortcoming, because the boys should be the focus in any attempt to address the problem. They are the ones who usually exert the physical and emotional power in the relationships. They are the ones who need to be checked the most forcefully. And men need to do the checking -- especially in the African-American community.

Far too many black boys get the message that being a man means "being able to control your woman -- by any means necessary."

Although I, too, heard that message, I have never hit a woman -- but I have come close. During screaming matches with girlfriends, I have started to move, but never followed through. My mother and sister saved me every time -- the wild-eyed "Don't You Ever Hit a Woman" speech was just frequent enough, and passionate enough, during my childhood to keep me in check as a man. They made me struggle to identify with the woman.

It is just this struggle that has become critical for black men of my generation. Times have changed. In the 1960s, the challenge was to get black people into political office. In the 1990s, the challenge is to fight for healthy relationships between black men and black women.

By Michael Datcher

Michael Datcher is a Los Angeles freelance writer and co-editor of "Tough Love: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur."

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