Mansplaining, Black Women and Media: The Not So Curious Case of Stephen A. Smith

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This past Friday, veteran sports commentator Stephen A. Smith sparked a firestorm of controversy around statements he made on ESPN’s “First Take” on domestic violence.  In his discussion with Skip Bayliss around the two-game suspension the NFL gave Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice last week for knocking out and dragging his then fiancee’ (and now wife), Janay Palmer, out of an elevator, Smith attempted to say something insightful on the prevention of domestic violence.

“What I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family, some of who you all met and talked to and what have you, is that again, and this what, I’ve done this all my life, let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”  The core premise of his otherwise meandering statement was crystal clear:  Victims need to make sure they do their part not to provoke an attack.

The response to his statement on social media was swift and furious.  For hours he was barraged by men and women of all races on the fallacy of his position.  And when he followed up later on Twitter, he mansplained how his words were taken out of context while essentially doubling down on the one that got him into trouble in the first place:  “But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong being done upon them?” 

Smith stepping into a pile of ish when it comes to women isn’t new. In the past he’s tweeted support for known perpetrators of abuse such as Floyd Mayweather and when former football player Chad Johnson was arrested for headbutting then wife Evelyn Lozada, he diverted attention from Johnson’s attack to his victim by saying, "There are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there. I'm saying, "Can we go a step further?" Since we want to dig all deeper into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her? .... She is the one that is seen on TV constantly having to be restrained from physical confrontation ... because she isn't someone who knows how to walk away."

But the purpose of this article isn’t to explore the pathology of Stephen A. Smith. It’s not to outcry the fact that Rice was given a lighter sentence for abusing his wife than players receive for testing positive for marijuana. 

There is a problem in the media, and SAS is just a prism.  There is a fundamental disrespect in the industry for Black women that is revealed whenever a commentator, be that man or woman, negates our value and essentially says we are responsible for our abuse.  In fact, the media is an industry that REWARDS violence, misogyny and racism. Case in point:  look at the plethora of reality television spinoff shows given to the female cast members who exhibit the most violent and dysfunctional behavior.  And in spite of his pattern of vilifying victims of abuse, it was quietly announced this weekend that SAS will soon be hosting his own show on SIRIUS radio

Smith’s comments, while disturbing and irresponsible aren’t an anomaly. They are a reflection of the lack of value the media places on Black womanhood in general.  They are a mirror for the values of the men who run these companies, the talent they employ, and our society's views on women and violence at large.

Just look at how the media has covered the murders of Renisha McBride and Rekia Boyd.  The bias against domestic violence victim Marissa Alexander or how the murder/suicide of Kasandra Perkins and her estranged boyfriend, NFL player Jovan Belcher played second fiddle to his tortured state of mind when he shot the mother of his child 9 times.

I could cite example after example of media bias to support my assertion, but I don’t have all night. The real question is why does the media continue to minimize and devalue Black womanhood?

There are a confluence of factors that contribute to the issue, profit, racism and sexism being the easiest to point a finger at.  But when it specifically comes to violence against women of color, the omnipresent victim blaming or worse, complete erasure of the victim in the news, this largely stems from the values of the individuals who run these institutions. Our culture’s demonization of Black women is rooted in one’s own experiences and values around victimization as well as living in a culture that rewards violence and blames its victims. 

The lack of compassion, understanding and ultimately, justice for Black female victims of violence is reinforced by values and patriarchal beliefs that are constantly being communicated to us through mass media.  The vast majority of our current media representations portray us as violent, materialistic, hypersexual succubus’s whose sole mission in life is to exploit the men in their lives for economic gain.  The reality is that it is we, Black women, who are being economically exploited.  We comprise 70% head of households. We are largely charged with the primary care of our children. We have historically carried a financial burden far heavier than what is equitable or ethical.  This isn’t conjecture…it’s a fact.

We need to stop mansplaining away abusers’ behavior by suggesting victim provocation.  We need to come together as individuals, family members, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states and as a nation and adopt a zero tolerance approach to the abuse of women.

Influential individuals with the platform size of Stephen A. Smith, and media conglomerates (who give out lucrative contracts to violence slinging “talent”, irrespective of gender) perpetuate a climate of disrespect, mistrust and condemnation of Black women. And we need courageous, progressive members of the corporate media machine to stand up and demonstrate through their programming and talent choices, that Black women have value.  For at the end of the day, the primary media message abusers are receiving is that not only is their behavior justified, but that it is ultimately acceptable.

Until then, domestic violence will continue to flourish. And that is simply unacceptable to me. And it should be for you, too.

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Sil Lai Abrams is a writer, inspirational speaker, domestic violence activist, and author of ‘No More Drama.' She is also the founder of Truth in Reality, a media advocacy organization committed to changing the way Black women and interpersonal violence are portrayed on reality television. Follow her on Twitter at @Sil_Lai.

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