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FKA Twigs' lawsuit against Shia LaBeouf shows how racism makes it harder for a victim to leave

The artist's abuse allegations against the actor are a chilling reminder of the disproportionate effects intimate partner violence can have on Black women.
Image: FKA twigs
FKA Twigs attends the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles.Amy Sussman / Getty Images file

Too many of us know — or have been — the person who could say about a relationship, "He brought me so low, below myself, that the idea of leaving him and having to work myself back up just seemed impossible." But these particular words belong to recording artist FKA Twigs, and she said them in an interview she gave The New York Times about a lawsuit she filed against her ex-boyfriend, the actor Shia LaBeouf, alleging he was physically and emotionally abusive to her.

Those words resonate with so many people.

In the suit, Twigs — whose real name is Tahliah Debrett Barnett — recounts experiences where she says LaBeouf physically accosted her, forcibly locked her into enclosed spaces with him and socially isolated her from her colleagues and loved ones. (LaBeouf did not immediately respond to requests from NBC News for comment, but gave a statement to the Times in response to broad allegations about his conduct that said, in part, "I have been abusive to myself and everyone around me for years. I have a history of hurting the people closest to me." After reviewing the specifics in the lawsuit, he emailed the Times and said “many of these allegations are not true,” but that he intended to "accept accountability for those things I have done.")

The experiences she describes in her interview and her lawsuit are sadly not unique.

Twigs' account of her experiences began, as many similar relationships do, with her now-ex "love bombing" her — a pattern of intense romantic behavior intended to expedite the process of bonding and unifying between a couple. In some cases, it ultimately leads to an unhealthy and often abusive power dynamic, where the abuser excuses harmful behavior by using the earlier romance, including as a goal for the recipient to "earn" back through compliance. In Twigs' case, the love-bombing honeymoon period came to a halt a handful of months into their relationship, when she says she was ordered by her then-boyfriend to never look male waiters in the eye; she then taught herself to look at the ground whenever male waiters reached their table.

The cycle then allegedly escalated from there.

The experiences she describes in her interview and her lawsuit are sadly not unique. In the United States, 1 in 3 women will experience intimate partner violence and 1 in 10 men will. This experience is common enough for virtually all of us to know someone who has experienced or is experiencing soul-crushing violence at the hands of someone they trusted (or tried to).

The rates of intimate partner violence among Black women like Twigs, however, skew that average: 4 in every 10 Black women encounter domestic violence in their lifetimes. And although Twigs does not appear to allege that her abuse also took this form, their experiences often come bundled with degradation, among many other forms of psychological violence.

Marginalization tends to leave women of color more vulnerable to abusers who can endanger them without the risk of social intervention.

While that experience of degradation alongside physical violence is certainly not unique to Black women, there is something especially harmful about the way we experience it.

The more marginalized a woman is in society as a whole, the more susceptible she is to harm by a violent partner because the stereotypes that keep her marginalized also create barriers to getting the help she needs. When Black women are stereotyped as "feisty" or "angry" — as many women of color are — some people might believe we actually need to be humiliated or verbally abused by our partners to "keep us in line." If we are viewed by the broader society as "strong Black women," we might be less likely to receive help when we need it most — leaving us that much more in danger.

For an example of this, Twigs tells a story in her lawsuit of how, as LaBeouf attacked her in public at a gas station, no one bothered to intervene. She offers a very plain explanation as to why: "I'm unconventional. And I'm a person of color who is a female."

Women of color are already more isolated from mainstream society because we pray differently or look differently or love differently. But marginalization leaves people at risk beyond that: It also tends to leave women of color more vulnerable to abusers who only want to manipulate them and endanger their well-being without the risk of social intervention.

In her Times interview, Twigs said, "I'd like to be able to raise awareness on the tactics that abusers use to control you and take away your agency," but I think what she's doing by speaking out goes further than that. As a society, we need to all learn the signs of intimate partner violence — not for ourselves, but for the women in our lives that we love. And we must learn to empathize with marginalized women, to recognize the vulnerable position in which they find themselves because of that marginalization in which we all play a role, and listen, support and try to intervene on their behalf every chance we get.

Intimate partner violence is prevalent, insidious, often hidden and more often ignored, but we can stop it — if we listen to the survivors and not their abusers.