Pop Culture, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

What Does “Responsibility” Mean To You?

Imagine that you have a female friend. For the sake of this hypothetical, lets say that this friend’s name is “Bihanna.” Bihanna’s been your homegirl since you were kids, and although she has a tendency to act out and show her ass in public, you know that deep down she’s a sweet girl with a big heart. Some time last year, Bihanna was beaten up pretty badly by her then boyfriend, “Piss Clown,” while they were on their way to Waffle House. Now, that they actually fought didn’t really surprise you. Both Bihanna and Piss Clown have volatile personalities, and mixing them together is like Black and bleach or bathtub water and live toasters. But, you were surprised by how thoroughly he kicked her ass, and the more details you learn about the story, the more you realize she could have very easily died that night.

Piss Clown was Bihanna’s first love, though, so although the obvious choice was to leave Piss Clown alone forever, Bihanna just couldn’t stay away from him.

As her friend, you can see how this relationship may likely end up, and you’re worried about her. But although you advise her to make better, wiser decisions—but only when she asks—it’s her life, and ultimately she’s going to do what she wants to do.

After several months of going back and forth, Bihanna finally gets back with Piss Clown. You know it’s an awful decision—a decision that turns your stomach when you even think about it—but, again, she’s her own woman, and aside from offering an opinion—an unsolicited opinion this time—there’s nothing you can do.

So, they get back together, and things seem to be going well. He’s turned over a new leaf, and she’s as happy as she’s ever been.

Then, a few weeks later, you get an early morning phone call. It’s Bihanna’s mom. She’s distraught, so distraught that you already know what she’s going to tell you before she even tells you.

Bihanna was killed the night before. Piss Clown killed her during an argument, before pulling the trigger on himself.

As her friend, you’re obviously going to experience a gamut of emotions—sadness, anger, despair, etc. But, one feeling will supersede them all. A feeling so intense that it might paralyze you today, and stay with you for the next few decades.


No, you didn’t kill your friend. And yes, you did warn her of what was likely to happen. But, you are going to feel responsible, like you could have and should have done more to prevent this. And, the guilt stays with you because you know it’s true. There are actually things you could have done, and you spend countless hours thinking about those things. Rewinding and replaying scenes in your head until you’ve exhausted every option and thought of every single way you could have saved your friend’s life.

Now, although this was (obviously) a hypothetical, I’m certain many of you reading this have had similar things happen to you—a situation or scenario where you assigned yourself a responsibility for an unfortunate action after the action occurred despite having nothing to do with the actual action.

I’ve done it before myself, and the same mental gymnastics occur each time:

1. See a person close to you doing something you know will end badly.
2. Give a half-assed effort to stop them because, ultimately, you can’t tell an adult what to do. You may care about them, but you’re not responsible for them.
3. Witness the thing ending badly.
4. Feel retroactively responsible for not preventing it.

What’s most fascinating about this way of thinking is how it exposes our schizophrenic relationship with the concept of responsibility. We know that we’re not supposed to be responsible for certain things while also possessing the knowledge that we’ll definitely experience some serious PTRD (Post-Traumatic Responsibility Disorder) if what we think will happen actually happens. Basically, we have separate logical, intellectual, and emotional definitions of responsibility, and they tend contradict each other.

This schizophrenia doesn’t just occur when dealing with situations dear to us, either. There are situations where we may be legally responsible for a person we justifiably feel no logical, intellectual, or emotional responsibility for—i.e.: a bartender in trouble for serving a patron who was already drunk—and other situations where we allow a politically influenced definition of responsibility to override what we intellectually know to be true. (This occurred in the comments here yesterday, as a couple people argued that a woman who chooses to sleep with—and have unprotected sex with—a man who already has 10, or 15, or 30 children isn’t just as responsible as he is for the mess he’s creating in the community.)

Maybe responsibility is just an elaborate Rorschach test where our arbitrary definitions of and feelings about it say more about us than anything else. But, while this may be true, it’s still not right, and—if she could—Bihanna might agree.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Filed Under:
Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • nillalatte

    Habits are hard to break.

    • nillalatte

      Sorry. Wordmess hates on me.

    • Val

      Especially habits involving love.

      • Aly

        …or lust.

        • Keisha

          Especially lust! :-/

    • Rewind

      Humanity’s excuse for everything.

      • Tristan

        God know my struggle doe

        • Rewind

          So does the Devil. But it is ok, because we all got to live and learn.

  • nillalatte

    Habits r hard 2 break.

  • The Human Spider

    “Bihanna” and “Piss Clown”, huh? If that ain’t the perfect example of “thinly veiled”, then I dunno what is.

    Thing about it is, people are still going to do what they want. All you can do is offer the best advice you possibly can. What they choose to do is up to them.

    You hope that “Bihanna” make the right decision, and that “Piss Clown” has learned their lesson. Even if the statistics prove contrary…

  • Charcoal Burnt Brother Lover

    Tired of the media analysis on Chris Brown and Rihanna scenario! Like DONE! Her decisions, her responsibility! She is fully aware of the consequences, that MAY occur-her latest interview gives insight on this. In any case, she is an adult, who is capable of making her own choices, which in some quarters, in light of what happened, have been deemed as being “irresponsible”. Chick could give two phakks-again, see her Rolling Stone interview.

    As a friend, my only obligation to you is to be just that- a great friend. However, I cannot make decisions for you. What I can do is give you my advice, in hopes that it will prevent you from falling into a deep well of misery and misfortune. Any resulting decisons made or action taken is not my responsibilty but yours.

    • Val

      Yeah, for the most part I’ve tuned out all the Robyn/ CB noise. I already know what’s coming. It’s just a matter of when and where and how bad.

      • Todd

        Let’s just hope Rihanna survives the firestorm. *smh* Just my lust that arguably the most famous person from my dad’s homeland right now is known for being a victim. FEEL the PRIDE! *smh*

        • Val

          I think that’s the point of what Robyn is doing. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim.

          • Todd

            I see your point, but pride can get you got. Discretion is the better part of valor.

    • Rewind

      I keep wondering, who is worse for the Chris Brown/Rihanna scenario: them, for dragging all of their business in the spotlight and then getting pissy that no one will give them room to live their lives, OR the rest of the world for being so starved for distractions because life is shytty that people need desperately to critic the lives of people they never ever ever ever met and never will be in the leagues with?

      I’m going with the second option, cause it just shows how sad people are today.

      • Winning Yve


        It’s interesting how everybody without a shadow of a doubt knows the right answer for Rihanna and she STILL doesn’t give a fuck. Why is their relationship so important? As the economy struggles the media only gets worse with these useless desperate grabs for your attention to distract from some actual issues going on.

        I don’t toss and turn at night when my friends are out somewhere being just as grown as I am. Let folks make their decisions. No one is fast enough to out run consequences. Let that shit be.

        • Rewind

          Exactly, life is too real to worry about people living in La La Land. They will get what is coming to them.

        • Kema

          “It’s interesting how everybody without a shadow of a doubt knows the right answer for Rihanna and she STILL doesn’t give a fuck. ”

          I love this about her!

      • keisha brown

        i vote part one. if you dont care what people think and wish people would drop it WHY DO YOU KEEP TALKING ABOUT IT. take a page from Bey/Hov.

        • Charcoal Burnt Brother Lover


          I do want to make a correction though, Bey has been TALKING a LOT and unnecessarily so, lately. Chick is out hurr talking bout she wants to make love to her husband, what in the phakkery? Who are her peoples? @I am Your People, come get yo pippoz!

          • Winning Yve

            Oooo no. Bet/hov are not the example. Their teams are just as guilty of throwing out teasers whenever one of them has a project to promote. They use their relationship to boost their image just like Rih and Chris. Jayonce are pushing the perfect ultimate woman idea and the baddest realist nigga bags the best high quality bitch idea. The two most amazing people on earth found each other and we should feel blessed and honored to live in their time. Chrianna is promoting troubled young love defying the odds and the yolo way of life. I assure you it is all thoughtful marketing.

            But I do wonder if it discussing it fuels the fire or would the madness go on regardless. Idk.

      • Rewind

        @ Keisha, I would agree with you, but they do what they do because they get paid for it. All those interviews, all those photos, they make money off of it. So it pays to keep being tabloid news, but what’s a regular person’s excuse? Normal people get nothing out of it except talking points, and I’m not seeing how that pays anyone’s bills.

      • kidsister

        Ri Ri is the one always doing interviews about it. CB never wants to talk about it. I think Larry King was his one interview where he willingly talked about it. Other than that, he was throwing chairs out of windows when people brought it up.

        • Angel Baby

          LOL right! I haven’t heard Chris talk about Ri in like 3 years! Pictures/music = yes, but interviews = no…silence.

  • Malik

    Depends on your perspective in life whether or not you’re responsibility. If I was in that scenario I do believe I soldier some of the blame. People ultimately make their own individual decisions and so on and so forth, however it is extremely hypocritical in my mind to talk about all the tragedies in life and not be willing to set forth within your own life to help people in need (micro or macro).

    • Wild Cougar

      In this scenario to feel responsible is to speculate that more words or actions would influence her. If you know you have that much influence over a person that you can make them do what you want them to do, then yes, you are responsible. But in this case you’re just pretending you are more powerful than you actually are.

      • Malik

        Then i should of done more and better.

      • LMNOP

        I don’t know, if you’ve really done all you could to try and help your friend, then even if things end tragically you know you tried. And you probably would still play it over and over in your head wondering what you could have done better or differently. And I don’t think that is just thinking you are more powerful than you are, it is analyzing your actions and trying to identify what you could do better if a situation like that happened again.

        I think it makes sense to err on the side of *trying* to make a difference. Maybe you won’t, but maybe you will. If you don’t even try to help, you definitely won’t.

    • Rewind

      The problem is people are not aware how limited their responsibility actually is in life. If you see someone being attacked in the street, you are not obligated to help, but if you choose to accept the responsibility, you clearly make a big difference in the scenario. But if you find someone falling in with a bad crowd and they won’t listen to your protests, you are no longer responsible. You did your part. Any guilt one would feel afterwards is based on pure selfishness and not really on the actual problem.

      • Charcoal Burnt Brother Lover

        Interesting Rewind that you bring up a scenario about seeing someone being attacked in the street. You certainly aren’t obligated, BUT, I would love to hear about your views on the photographer who clicked away as a man was pushed onto an oncoming train, sometime last year.

        From an ethical standpoint, I found him SOOOOOO disgustingly irresponsible…..I mean he could have ATTEMPTED to help, by rushing to his aide instead of clicking away the unfolding scenario. It was a BIG payday for him. Humanity sometimes is sickening. Maybe, I’m being too emo.

        • Rewind

          I agree with you. When I found out about the photographer, I was angry because he actually said “he took a picture so the flash from his camera could alert the train engineer to stop the train”…as if somehow that actually makes sense. He did it for a photo-op and he definitely got it.

          But that’s a phenomenon of shared responsibility, where nobody wants to do anything because they assume someone else will. And like I said, he wasn’t obligated to save the man’s life, but it sure as hell would have made things different if he tried.

      • LMNOP

        but obligated by who??? I mean sure, you don’t have a legal obligation to help, but a lot of people would feel a moral and ethical obligation to act. And that is where the guilt about not acting comes from, acting in a way that is not consistent with your own values and feelings of moral obligation.

        • chameleonic



          i personally wouldnt say its guilt, its more like reasoning myself to go against my moral and ethical nature. guilt doesnt happen because i give more than my all. heartbreak happens. then apathy.

        • Rewind

          Maybe you misread me. The kind of obligation you speak of is merely a choice. One can choose to act based on principles and morality, but it is still a CHOICE. You are not being forced to do it, there are no laws that say you must, and I’m sure it doesn’t directly impact one’s spiritual status, but nonetheless the choice has significance.

          I got hit by a car once as a kid. The driver was morally and legally obligated to slow his car down but he sped down a street and hit me. He was morally obligated to check on my health since he hit me, but in truth, he could have just sped off and not have given a damn.

          • LMNOP

            I’m pretty sure he was legally obligated to stop and check on your health too. Otherwise that’s a hit and run, right?
            But what I was trying to say is for me, and many other people, I have an obligation to myself to try to do the right thing that is at least as important as any legal obligation I have. Not everyone feels this way, obviously, which is why it’s important to have laws, but a lot of people do really hold themselves accountable to their own conscience and/ or God.

  • That Ugly Kid

    I tend to ignore my friends’ problems if they ask me for advice. Like, I hate when people ask me for advice, don’t follow it, then when sh*t hits the fan, come back and ask me for MORE advice. I don’t feel responsible for anything I didn’t cause/have a hand in. Even if someone died. If I know that I did all I could, I don’t feel guilt. I just get angry.

    • chameleonic


      i have a date. im not gonna listen to you but i am having a problem choosing which flavor lotion to use. im gonna go with chocoberry snowcone, can you just make me feel good about my decision? i could really use the confidence justin case my date doesnt like it and everything goes horribly wrong.

      pleeeeeeeease. [*caresses the hand i put your friendship bracelet on*]

    • Kema

      “I don’t feel responsible for anything I didn’t cause/have a hand in. Even if someone died.”

      This is my line of thinking. I can feel bad for you but I will not feel responsible.

    • Rewind

      Me too. All my life, I’ve been the problem solver. I’m usually right whenever people ask me for advice. Then they don’t listen, and realize the scenario I told them comes true, and then they become angry at me because I was right. So I’ve stopped doing it, because this shyte is too good to be free.

      *plays Silk Da Shocker – It Aint My Fault*

    • Keisha

      I may have to start doing this…I spend way too much time and energy trying to help others who don’t listen.

  • chameleonic

    responsibility means a lot of things and it really cant be set in stone an actual, all across meaning. i believe people know cause and effect. i believe people know the effects their actions will have, so, i believe when an action is taken it is up to person to own up and go through the process of dealing with the consequences.

    this process embodies hard work, suffering, discomfort, the acceptance of harsh and personal truths and is an existence of unpleasant personal accountability. when you can avoid such a reality of life you can put the responsibility on others.

    i believe this is where people become mentally eroded: when they are allowed to avoid the reality, when they are enabled to circumvent the cause and effect/process of consequences, and when they are allowed to put the process off on someone else.

    when this is allowed to happen across sweeping populations and especially over extended periods of times, what happens is, a larger force has to sort things out. a person who is equipped has to step in and make things right because you are now mentally incapable of assigning yourself the task of correction. i also think this is a responsibility.

    if i have the power and the know and the means, i have the responsibility to step in. i have the responsibility to act. but i also think this has its limits because of the strain, fatigue, and the possibility of stretching too thin.

    this is how governments and nations fall. this is why responsibility also means punishment. regulation. boundaries. laws. you have the responsibility to ensure stability and security, even if it means dumping cause and effect onto to the people who expect you to take a bullet for them. this is why, ultimately and eventually, human beings are held responsible for the cause and effect of their own actions.

  • Val

    Sometimes a friend can be involved in something so self-destructive that all you can do is walk away from the relationship. And then you hope that will shock the other person into seeing the error of their ways.

    Conversely, a (true) friend should not get into situations so dangerous that it causes their friends to go through hell worrying about them.

    • Todd

      The key word is hope. Some people need to hit bottom before they actually get what they’re doing.

      • Val


      • LMNOP

        The problem with waiting to hit rock bottom is there is pretty much always further you could fall, so you might think “wait, wait, I’m not at rock bottom quite yet, I can see something even further down..” but you never know when the next thing you hit is dead.

    • Kema

      “Conversely, a (true) friend should not get into situations so dangerous that it causes their friends to go through hell worrying about them.”

      1) Danger is subjective
      2) That sounds too much like living life to suit others.

      But then again if they are (true) friends they are probably entering the same type of dangerous situations.

      • Val

        “Danger is subjective.”

        That may be at the core of this. I think this is especially true when we make friends in adulthood. We don’t know all the details of how someone was raised. So their danger threshold might be very different from ours.

    • Rewind

      Depends on how you look at it. Most people are unaware of how their actions affect other people, so no matter how strong the relationship, most people can only concentrate on themselves. It isn’t until destruction is complete that people realize what they’ve lost.

      I’ve learned to let go of the idea of what a “real friend would do”, because that’s basically extended your opinion of what a person should be to YOU rather than seeing the person as they really are.

      • Val

        “Most people are unaware of how their actions affect other people…”

        I’m not sure I agree with that, Rewind. I think people know. They are just hellbent on having and doing what they want. It’s not until all hell breaks loose that they begin to care what others thing because they need help at that point.

        • Rewind

          Not to be arrogant but I know I am right on this. I’ve seen it so many times. Many people sincerely are do not know how all of their actions affect others, mainly because they have tunnel vision and only pay attention to themselves.Some people may be aware and just don’t care, but quite more often than not, they are not aware of the extent of the damage they create and how it affects other people

    • AYFKM

      I agree with you, Val. FRIENDSHIP is a responsibility. If a friend of mine is doing anything that will jeopardize their or my freedom and/or safety, then you cannot be my friend. I have a friend who was a victim of RH/CB level of domestic violence. I was away at college for most of their relationship but one of her friends who was here tried to intervene during a particularly nasty incident. The boyfriend knocked the intervening friend’s (a female!!!) tooth out. Do you think that influenced the “victim” to leave him alone? Nope. If you’ve found a love so good that you’re willing to get a beatdown to keep it that’s on you. Just don’t ask me to get jumped in with you.

      • Val

        ” If a friend of mine is doing anything that will jeopardize their or my freedom and/or safety, then you cannot be my friend.”

        Yep, I learned this lesson a while ago. It can be difficult to walk away but sometimes that is the only option.

  • msdebbs

    That guilt is no joke. I watch my sister make mistake after mistake after mistake and sometimes after warning her that she’s about to walk off a cliff and she does it I feel bad like it’s my fault.

    • Val

      I think there is a different dynamic when it is a family member than a friend. And one is liable to go much further trying to protect a family member.

      • Keisha

        My friends are my family. There is no separation. As for feeling guily, I never do. I’ll tell them repeatedly what I think. Whether or not they choose to listen is on them…my conscious is clear.

  • msdebbs

    moderation??? really?

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