A few months ago, my social media feed was flooded with the hashtag #MeToo, after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted:
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Milano’s tweet caught fire all over the internet, receiving more than 25,000 retweets and 54,000 likes — sparking conversations about sexual violence and assault on a larger scale, the effects of which are still ongoing.
These conversations about sexual assault are necessary for change, but they left out the very person who started the Me Too movement.
The first woman to say “Me Too” in response to sexual violence was Tarana Burke, who came up with the phrase in 2007. Burke had first-hand experience of the trauma of sexual abuse in her youth.
As an adult, Burke created the organization Just Be Inc. for the health and well-being of young women of color, and established the Me Too movement — 10 years before Milano’s Tweet.
Milano did not credit Burke until much later.
This type of co-opting of a movement is nothing new within the Black community, says La TaSha Levy, an assistant professor in American Ethnic Studies at University of Washington.
“When Black women tell their stories they don’t get heard. They don’t get a platform,” Levy said. “When Black women tell their stories a lot of times, their theories, their frame works are co-opted and stolen, really.”
Levy says the popularity of the movement is partly due to the adoption of it by white women, who took on the phrase without acknowledging where it came from.
“We wonder if there would be all this national spotlight on the lives and stories of Black and brown women,” she said.
“There has never been a moment it seems in our history and our culture where white women as a group have understood or empathized with the type of oppressions that (Black women) have suffered.”
Black women’s sexual victimization is complex and unique. During slavery, Black women were victims of sexual violence, rape, and assault, and were portrayed as “Jezebels” who were promiscuous, tempting and hypersexual.
This negative stereotype still persists today, with negative effects for black girls and black women. Many are sexualized at a very young age and are blamed for the harm committed against them.
The National Black Women’s Health Project reported that approximately 40 percent of Black women reported being sexually assaulted by age 18.
That same project found that for every African-American or Black woman who reported her rape, at least 15 others do not report theirs.
“Black girls are seen as the aggressor and told that they are too fast. There are a lot of layers that show the sickness in our culture,” Levy said.
She added the Black community has not done enough about addressing sexual violence, because of the fear that it will take away from the fight against racism.
“There is a long history of Black women organizing and creating collective spaces for healing for self-empowerment, but always the challenge has been that the Black communities and families have not been addressing the problem,” she said. “We are often told that it’s a distraction, that it will hurt the cause.”
Black women can feel pressured to stay silent to protect their aggressor, ashamed to speak or made to believe that the incident wasn’t important enough to report.
“For Black women talking about these things can be difficult because of the backlash that they may receive adding another of scrutiny and condemnation that Black men have to endure,” she said.
I conducted an informal survey of Black women in Seattle, and a little more than half of the women reported in my survey had experienced sexual assault, violence or harassment and almost all of them decided not to report it.
In my survey, the women said that they felt ashamed, didn’t know their resources, didn’t realize that they had been assaulted or were too scared to report.
The women in my survey also said that the Black/African community typically brush sexual assault and violence under the rug, blame the victim, and insist that the women not “bring shame to the family.”
In addition, race and gender can play a role in reporting assault. Trans Black women are also often excluded because too often the discussion falls under a male and female gender binary. This silencing occurs despite the fact that Black LGBTQIA+ are also disproportionately victims of sexual violence and assault, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Feminism is supposed to encompass all women, but it often excludes Black women, women from the LGBTQIA+ community and other women of color. Feminist groups that address the issues of women of color include Black Women’s Blueprint and Tarana Burke’s me too movement.
Malcolm X recognized how Black women are marginalized in many different communities.
“The most disrespected woman in America, is the black woman. The most un-protected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America, is the black woman,” he once said.
Black women have been made to shrink themselves and often have to silence themselves. This may be due to backlash or because their voices, pain and struggle will not be heard.
The co-opting of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is just an example of this. We need to listen to Black women and young Black girl’s voices and take them seriously.
Next time, you hear the stories of sexual violence remember whose voices your hearing and those you’re not. Ask yourself why.