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Reclaiming a movement: Tarana Burke’s ‘Me Too’

‘Me Too’. The movement aimed at exposing sexual violence. A movement that has been described as a ‘watershed’ moment for sexual assault survivors and their perpetrators, covered by Time in their ‘Time’s Up’ issue that has had a lasting global impact. A movement that went viral in 2017 when Alyssa Milano tweeted her followers to use the hashtag if they had ever been a victim of sexual assault. A movement that was actually founded by African-American activist Tarana Burke a whole decade before, in 2006.

The fact that, up until I attended a talk called ‘From Slavery to Me Too: Women’s Voices’ in 2018 and despite completing my BA dissertation on Black women in James Bond, I didn’t know that a Black woman founded the ‘Me Too’ movement a decade ago stumped me. I felt ashamed, and was also deeply concerned by the fact that nowhere in Milano’s tweet was there any accreditation to Burke. Taking to the internet and reading article after article, watching TED talks and going down Black feminist rabbit holes, what I found had greater racial implications than a mere lack of ‘credit’ could suggest.

Tarana Burke initially started the movement in 2006 after her own experience of sexual violence, incensed by the commonality of everyday sexual violence against women in the African-American community. In her words, Burke “launched the ‘Me Too’ movement because I wanted to find ways to bring healing into the lives of black women and girls” (TED talk, 2019), 60% of whom will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18. Burke reiterates that this movement was about those communities under the highest risk, who amongst Black women include

– The indigenous women who are 3 and a half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group

– people with disabilities who are 7 times more likely to be sexually abused

– the 84% of transwomen who will be sexually assaulted this year.

Sexual violence faced by Black women reveals a disappointing and damaging truth about the society we live in. There are staggering amounts of racial stereotypes and destructive representations of Black women that create an environment where violence against them is naturalised and overlooked, something that civil rights activist and Black feminist critic Kimberle Crenshaw Williams has extensively talked about in her work with the legal system. Having been on the legal team for Anita Hill’s 1991 case against Clarence Thomas, Crenshaw has pointedly written on Burke’s work and inadvertently on ‘Me Too’ when writing of the “unique vulnerability” of Black women that continues to be ignored, and the struggle many Black women face in being

trapped between an antiracist movement that foregrounded black men, and a feminism that could not fully address how race shaped society’s perception of black victims”.

The #MeToo movement that exploded on Twitter however, featuring as part of everyday conversation on sexual assault within the media, doesn’t seem to encompass any of this. The ‘Me Too’ movement was founded by a Black woman boldly stating ‘I’ve experienced sexual violence too’; a response to decades of Black sexual assault survivors being structurally ignored and silenced, despite Black women being targeted at disproportionately higher rates. Yet the names most popularly associated with Me Too in recent media have been those of Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Taylor Swift, Megyn Kelly, and of course Alyssa Milano. White women have come to dictate the discourse surrounding the movement, with the very founder Tarana Burke being relocated to the inner pages of the ‘Silence Breakers’ issue – for apparently the front page was taken up by too much star power to leave room for the founding (Black) mother. The article that accompanied this cover, ironically highlighted the entirety of the problem that it inceptively perpetuated, stating that

“When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who’s been quietly enduring for years.”

Is this claim stating that highlighting white actresses’ stories and their stories alone is going to change the reality for the sexually abused cook? Or the maid? Or the single mother? All of these women who, by implicating their social rank, are therefore most likely politically, economically and socially disadvantaged women of colour? Unless the white movie stars are platforming women of colour voices, experiences and injustices, I struggle to see how they are making it easier for women from lower socio-economic backgrounds to receive protection or justice.

The movement itself arguably failed to consider even Black movie stars, for Lupita Nyong’o’s self-written testimony published in the New York Times (yet failed to be vehemently picked up by other news outlets?) was almost all but ignored, with Salma Hayek stating that Weinstein publicly rebutted their allegations because “[Women of Colour] are the easiest to get discredited”. Even more damagingly, when Aurora Perrineau’s rape allegations against Girls writer Murray Miller surfaced (in the form of her leaked police report), self-proclaimed feminist Lena Dunham publicly lied in a counter- statement aimed to discount Perrineau’s testimony. Dunham later came clean in a public apology. Using her industry name and privilege, the Me Too movement saw a white female actress lie to discredit the rape testimony of a lesser-known actress of colour; a situation so far removed from Tarana Burke’s original intentions for ‘Me Too’ that the ‘movement’ is almost unrecognisable, calling into question whether the two can or should remain synonymous at all.

Whereas Burke and other Black feminist activists’ intentions are to dismantle the structures of white privilege that benefit from the subjugation of women of colour, the co-opted ‘Me Too’ movement and the press surrounding it has done nothing but re-package those structures under the catch-all title of ‘exposing’ sexual misconduct. But against who?

Since the start of the transatlantic slave trade, Black women have been systematically abused and assaulted by men of all races – with these perpetrators going largely and historically unpunished. The law has long been racially prejudiced against Black women, and this can be seen as soon as one starts looking into their rape cases (a sad truth that one must go looking, for consumerist news media have decided they are not headline-worthy). One case recently unearthed by Black historians, activists and writers is that of Recy Taylor. In 1944 Alabama, 24 year-old Recy Taylor was walking home from Church when she was abducted and gang-raped at gunpoint by six white men. Following the horrific incident, she took her case to court, where it was tried by an all-white, all-male jury, who dismissed the charges after all but five minutes of deliberation. The physical evidence and multiple witnesses were not enough to permeate through the multiply sexist, racist walls of the jury box; a sad truth that continues to shape the climate of silencing around Black women’s experiences today.

Russel Simmons, with 18 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual misconduct from mostly Black women, has not been held accountable by either the legal system or the media. And only now, after 25 years of sexual abuse and paedophilia charges against him, after the release of documentary series Surviving R. Kelly was there an, albeit too brief, moment of media outcry against the R. Kelly, that at present seems to have died down just as quickly as it started. As of March 2021, Kelly is in jail still awaiting trial.

With these cases in mind, as well as the thousands of non-celebrity crimes of sexual abuse against Black women, it is clear that the #MeToo movement has been propagated by white feminism, and by the neoliberal emphasis on individual voices rather than collective communities, and so continues to fail Black women. Journalist, poet and activist Asha Bandele summed up anxieties that have been building by Black civil rights activists, saying

Afropunk: “I have my concerns about the ownership of that movement publicly being in the hands of white women. I don’t know that white women have ever led a movement that secured people outside of their own.”

Bandele is referencing some of the feminist movements of the early 70s and 80s in the US, which saw a predominantly white brand of feminism supposedly calling for the liberation of all ‘women’, but not advocating for the rights of Black women at a pivotal time in US history when Black women were at the intersection of two movements (the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist movement) but saw the intersecting gender and racial oppressions unique to them largely ignored by both. Unless more pressure is placed on media outlets and white activists to do justice to the most marginalised groups, the groups whose voices have been historically stifled, then a ‘movement’ such as Me Too, rather than highlighting real structural problems and pushing for change, will stagnate into a ‘moment’, passing and not progressing, and inevitably leading to the repetition of the same cycle of violent silencing for generations to come.

By Tzeitel Degiovanni

Tzeitel is the co-founder of The Solidarity Collective and an LSE Gender Alumni. Originally from Malta, she specialises in the way cultural stereotypes manifest themselves within organisations, the media and politics. Tzeitel currently works in diversity and inclusion advocacy for the UK workforce.

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