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#metoo and Women of Color: What's Missing from the Outcry

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

Anand Purohit

Since October 2017, the #metoo campaign has pervaded social sites, dominated political discourse, and prompted a global movement against sexual harassment in the workplace. The movement was precipitated by a scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. On October 5th, several prominent actresses revealed that Weinstein had sexually harassed them. In the following days, other actresses confirmed similar experiences. By the 10th October, more than a dozen women had publicly accused Weinstein of sexual harassment. The unfolding scandal revealed the striking prevalence of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. As an increasing number of entertainers bravely shared their stories, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag #metoo, suggesting that “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote 'Me too.' as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”. Within one day, the hashtag had been tweeted more than 500,000 times. The massive flood of tweets did in fact reveal the tremendous magnitude of the problem; with the hashtag rapidly spreading, people truly began to understand the prevalence of sexual harassment. Importantly, the #metoo movement also revealed something else: the impact of power dynamics on speech.

While the #metoo movement is commonly attributed to Alyssa Milano, it was actually started more than a decade earlier by black women’s rights activist Tarana Burke. Indeed, MeToo was the name of a movement designed to support women of color who had been sexually assaulted. As Burke astutely points out, women of color often lack the resources to have their stories told. You see, sexism and racism are both tools of oppression, and women of color find themselves at the intersection of these two modes of oppression—doubly oppressed due to the combination of their ascribed gender and race. The dual nature of their oppression means it is inherently harder for them to seek justice, compared to white women. For example, institutional racism makes it more difficult for black women to access support services or receive fair treatment within the criminal justice system. Moreover, due to decades of racial injustice at the hands of law enforcement officials and court systems, women of color often distrust the very institutions that are supposed to help them. Further still, women of color may face language barriers which make it difficult to share their stories. Unable to rely on supportive institutions and/or unable to communicate with these institutions, women of color are less likely to report instances of sexual abuse. The MeToo campaign was intended to raise awareness for these silenced women. It was a movement specifically designed for people of color, precisely because people of color need it most.

Revealingly, the movement received little national attention and gained little political traction. There was no viral hashtag. There was no outpouring of support for these victimized women of color. There was no worldwide boycott, no demands for institutional reform, no cool pins at award shows saying “time’s up”. During the 10 years of its existence, the movement went relatively unnoticed. Indeed, the MeToo movement did not rise to prominence until a series of absurdly wealthy, predominantly white women co-opted the movement to raise awareness about their own experiences as sexual assault survivors. Hence, the MeToo movement has revealed more than just the prevalence of sexual assault. It has also revealed our willingness to ignore a movement when it primarily concerns women of color, and our willingness to vehemently support a movement when it is revealed to benefit wealthy whites. It has revealed the unique power of wealthy white women to elevate a cause, where women of color cannot. From this, the question inextricably arises: given that wealthy white women evidently have the power to draw attention to issues in ways that women of color cannot, do wealthy white women face a moral obligation to use this power in certain ways? It would not be appropriate to attempt to answer this question within the confines of a short online blog post. However, it is a question that all white women must consider. The MeToo movement has revealed more than just the prevalence of sexual assault—it has revealed, to white women, their own power. It has laid bare the extraordinary capacity o wealthy white women to enact change where women of color cannot. The MeToo movement demands that they recognize this power. The question remains, how will they use it? It may be the case that MeToo has catalyzed a new wave in feminism—a wave in which white women act upon the intersectionality they so desperately insist they understand.

Jan 29, 2018

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