Solidarity Opinions

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.

Solidarity Opinions

Dating the Boy who bullied me: Growing up with body hair

When I was 12, my childhood crush was, in my opinion, the 12-year-old version of Zac Efron, albeit with a little (lot) more baby fat. I fancied myself quite the Gabriella, and for two years I watched him like all the other blonde girls in the class, waiting till he’d look at me. In Year 8, my teacher finally put us next to each other in History, much to my elation. I made funny jokes, helped him with things he didn’t know and soon a little bond formed. Yet this joy was not unadulterated, for whenever those weeks came where my school jumper wasn’t washed, or was creased, or was IN THE WASH, I panicked. Usually, whenever I pointed over to something in his textbook, I would pull my jumper sleeve as far down as it would go over my arms and hands, which naturally have dark black hairs on them. The weeks after I waxed weren’t a problem, getting out my smooth, hairless arms wherever I could. But the weeks where the timing didn’t match up… when my jumper wasn’t there, when my hairs had grown back. Those where the weeks I dreaded. I would sit in that hour-long History slot sweating, hoping and praying he wouldn’t see the thing that, in his eyes, would make me gross, unattractive… that would literally de-gender me. One week where I couldn’t fathom him catching a glimpse of my arm hair, I took my epilator, sat on my bedroom floor, clenched my teeth and turned the machine towards my arms, ripping out the long, fine hairs follicle by follicle, and feeling like I was going to pass out in the process.

The boy ended up liking me back, and we ‘dated’ for three BBM heart-filled months. When things ended, however, he became my bully. Him and his friends set their sights on the easiest insecurity and attacked. Chants like ‘cold and hairy’ to the tune of ‘Black and Yellow’ became custom, launched at me whenever I entered and left the classroom. ‘You’re so hairy’, ‘why are you so hairy?’, ‘you look like a gorilla’… it went on for a long time. ‘Boys will be boys’ I was told, and the comments received from the white head of year when I reported the bullying is a story in itself about the perils of growing up as a girl of colour in a school run by white people.

Fast forward to 18, and suddenly I became ‘exotic’, ‘beautiful’, ‘spicy’. I was dark and different, but in a palatable way. In the way that becomes sexualised and exoticized when it comes with a pair of breasts. My eyebrows were threaded, my hair was straightened, and though I told myself I’d stopped caring so much what people thought of my body hair, I still wouldn’t wear a skirt on those ‘bad’ days. My Year 8 crush, who had since been shipped off to boarding school, as well as some of those friends, ironically started to like me themselves. Despite the torment and the verbal abuse, I still liked him. Which speaks to the root of this piece. Why? I still wanted him to want me. When we started dating again at 18, when he told me he loved me and lost his virginity to me, I was caught in this awful space -between a sadistic validation and a resentment that I still needed it.

What does it do to a woman when she engages in relationships with those who have racially rejected her? With those who have othered her body, only to go on to colonise it? And what is at stake when talking about empowerment politics and body positivity when for your entire life those you are attracted to have been telling you that your body is gross and unfeminine, and yet when it is bleached and waxed, it is unreservedly desirable? At 23, I ask myself why just living in my natural body, without plucking and pruning and bleeding, is such an act of protest? Is seen as so radical and a gesture of great defiance and one I must explain and justify – rather than a happy acceptance of my body, just the way it is.

One day when we were packing up his things for university, I found his old leavers shirt. Funnily enough, amongst the bullying and name-calling, I hadn’t signed it. But whilst looking for my non-existent message, I found another one. It read “remember the hairy jokes”. A dull ache. He immediately cut it out of the shirt, but as I stood watching him snipping away with shame in his eyes, I wondered whether I should remember them too?

10 years later, I still do. They remind me that whether I like it or not, my body is a politic and my body hair is a battleground for so much more than I gave it credit for. And I am actually really proud of that.