Racism and #MeToo: How The Founder of the Most Influential Women’s Rights Movement in 30 Years Got Erased From Its History

Racism and #MeToo: How the Founder of the Most Influential Women’s Rights Movement in 30 Years Got Erased From Its History

Born in the Bronx, she became interested in the well-being of marginalized young girls from an early age. She moved to Selma, Alabama, in the late 90’s, and was even a consultant on the 2014 movie Selma.

She created the nonprofit “Just Be” in 2003 for African American girls ages 12–18, and started “Girls For Gender Equality” in Brooklyn.

She’s been on the cover of Time magazine, won the Ridenhour Prize for Courage in 2018, and was the guest of Michelle Williams at the Golden Globes.

She also created #MeToo in 2007, a decade before anyone else was talking about it. Her name is Tarana Burke. Never heard of her? You’re not alone.

Most people think #MeToo was created by Hollywood actresses- specifically Alyssa Milano-after they revealed they too had been victims of Harvey Weinstein, following the exposé by Ronan Farrow in The New York Times.

When Alyssa Milano tweeted for women to add #MeToo to their posts if they had been raped, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed, for many people it was the first time they’d heard of the idea, and credited the concept in its entirety to the actress. Those who knew she was not the originator of the concept were swift, and occasionally severe, in correcting her. In her defense, Ms. Milano set the record straight fast and named Tarana Burke as the originator. It was not the fact that Milano had overlooked Burke that was problematic — she literally didn’t know who the women was. The problem was that very few people cheering for #MeToo did.

Why It Was Founded

Tarana Burke founded #MeToo to bring together marginalized women who had been sexually assaulted, women who were the least likely to seek, or receive, help. She recognized that in disenfranchised communities all over America, women who would never have called the police had little or no access to help or resources if they were raped. Many had come to expect sexual violence as part of their lives. Burke founded #MeToo not so much to solve the problem, as to say “hey, me too, you’re not alone” so that young women in these communities would feel normal and like they had someone to talk to.

The movement has moved away from that message, and Burke is not necessarily enthused about it. It’s clear that taking #MeToo global has been great for women, but Burke is still unsure about its popularity.

In The Nation’s “Tarana Burke Says #MeToo Should Center Marginalized Communities”, when asked why she was troubled that the conversation was moving in a different direction, she stated, “I mean moving away from marginalized people. And to some degree, it’s still happening. The conversation is largely about Harvey Weinstein or other individual bogeymen. No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they keep bringing it back to individuals… It defeats the purpose to not have those folks centered — I’m talking black and brown girls, queer folks. There’s no conversation in this whole thing about transgender folks and sexual violence. There’s no conversation in this about people with disabilities and sexual violence. We need to talk about Native Americans, who have the highest rate of sexual violence in this country. So no, I can’t take my focus {off} marginalized people.”

Again, #MeToo was originally founded not so much to solve the problem, as to make victims feel less alone. Burke expounds, “We have to start talking about nontraditional methods to pursuing justice…The process was you had to go to the local police station, report the crime, and then they would make a referral to the rape-crisis center. I was appalled when I learned that. That’s a big hurdle for us, because we don’t trust the police….” Burke is also concerned about rehabilitation of offenders, so the process doesn’t keep repeating itself. In all likelihood, both victims and offenders will live in the same neighborhood, or even the same household, most of their lives. That’s an entirely different scenario than what faces victims in wealthier neighborhoods who pursue justice through traditional means.

How and Why African American Women Are Left Out of the Discussion

Intersectionality is a topic that cannot be avoided in a discussion like this, however I’m not going into the detail. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the basic definition is that people experience multiple levels of identity simultaneously, and cannot be reduced to one of those categories alone. A black woman is not only a woman, she’s black. She’s not only black, she’s a woman. And she is discriminated against as both simultaneously, and in a way neither of the other two disenfranchised communities can truly understand as she can. Further detail can be provided by African American feminists; it would be swerving out of my lane to whitesplain the topic to those who understand it better than I do. There are many women, and some on medium I’m sure, who are far more knowledgeable on the topic, and whose voices on the topic are more valuable than mine. Hopefully they can go into further detail.

White feminism however has a long ugly history of excluding women of color. Elizabeth Cady Stanton crusaded for the right to vote while bemoaning the fact that black men had something she didn’t. Black suffragettes were asked to march at the back of white suffragette parades. And when asked to include racism in their message, early white feminists declined in order “to keep the message from getting muddled.” In other words, to make sure they could continue to attract racist white women who might otherwise be interested in suffrage.

Going Forward

While a lot of changed, and a lot has not, it’s not really that surprising that a black woman in America would lose control of her own message. While I personally don’t think we should walk back #MeToo, I DO think we need to remember where the focus originally was. The problem Burke cited still exists, and #MeToo hasn’t done much to elevate it. We should remember to make minority women a central focus of #MeToo.

And to never stop pointing out opposition to #MeToo is not only sexism, it’s also racism.

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Brigette Schoenung

Brigette Schoenung

Writer, M.A. European History, www.blinkcharging/blog, https://www.instagram.com/brigetteschoenung/ feminist, student of life