The Real Origins of #MeToo
We all remember the Twitter firestorm of Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift in summer of 2015 where Swift, Minaj, and a bevy of other celebrities joined in on the “catfight”—as described by The Independent—surrounding that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. Quickly after Swift’s “Bad Blood” was nominated for MTV’s Music Video of the Year, Minaj tweeted that if a video celebrated “women with very slim bodies,” it would receive the top prize nomination. Soon Swift, a self-proclaimed feminist, interpreted the tweet as an insulting reference against her, but she missed the point entirely.
The “Anaconda” artist was not throwing petty, jealous jabs at Swift but instead commenting on the routine exclusion of black women from recognition in awards shows even as white feminism was celebrated.
This fall, the discredit of women of color in the feminist narrative occurred again.
On the cold morning of October 11, I woke up and scrolled through my Instagram. The first post was from actress and model Cara Delevigne, the picture stating, “Don’t be ashamed of your story/ It will inspire others,” but it was the long caption that captured my attention. In that post, she joined the many female celebrities publicly vocalizing their experiences of prominent film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault and harassment.
As the number of abuse allegations rose, Weinstein was effectively expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts—but the real movement had just begun. Almost instantly, women everywhere began posting #MeToo over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to demonstrate that sexual abuse and harassment is a too-common experience in women’s lives. The hashtag became an instant feminist protest to not only demonstrate solidarity amongst other survivors but also reveal the silence surrounding sexual assault.
It was a glorious outburst of an international community of women supporting each other, and it was all credited to white actress, Alyssa Milano, who tweeted on October 15, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
But she was not the originator of the phrase. The real creator was Tarana Burke, a black woman, who coined the phrase and the “Me Too” movement a decade ago. In 2007, Burke created the “Me Too” campaign to reach sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities. The idea began in 1997 when a thirteen-year-old girl who explained her sexual abuse situation left Burke speechless.
Burke, however, was not given her due credit for the Me Too movement until much later—only after women of color noted that the Burke had not received support from white feminists for years, though Milano had received immediate support and credit for the same idea.
Although the #MeToo movement is an astounding example of the power of virtual mass participation for feminism and social justice, it also highlights the lack of women of color in mainstream feminism. Non-white women are systematically left out of the feminist narrative whether it is Taylor Swift’s ignorance in merely upholding the “[don’t] pit women against each other” mentality rather than recognizing Minaj’s statement about exclusion of black female artists from recognition for female empowerment in today’s music or the wrongful credit of the #MeToo movement.
April Reign, who began the #OscarSoWhite movement, notes in an interview with the New York Times, “Women of color are demanded to be silent and are erased…like Tarana”
Feminism needs to be intersectional. Because while the strong mass of female voices speaking out against sexual abuse was inspiring, the disregard of Tarana Burke was disheartening.
While Milano later credited Burke after the actress discovered the hashtag’s history, the issue isn’t about pride. It’s about the danger of feminism that is only white feminism.
When ESPN suspended black sports journalist Jemele Hill for speaking against the N.F.L. and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who threatened to bench players who “disrespect the flag, and when Twitter harassed comedian and actress Leslie Jones after being cast in the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake with sexist and racist comments, white feminists remained relatively silent about the issue.
The lack of support compared with the #WomenBoycottTwitter movement after Twitter locked actress Rose McGowan’s account, after she accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault in a Twitter post hints at a community readier to rally behind white women but not women of color.
Historically, a divide has always existed between white feminists and feminists of color because feminists of color have rarely had the comfort of merely focusing on women’s issues. In their platforms for women’s advancement in society, they are always aware of the other underrepresented communities they are part of whether it be racial or economically. Feminists of color, unlike white feminists, broadly do not have some platform of privilege to stand upon to present their arguments.
Yoko Ono once coined the phrase, “woman is the n****r of the world.” However, this phrase insensitively forgets women who are also black or women of color—it is as if they do not matter in our American feminist narrative. When Lena Dunham’s Girls, which features four privileged white women, is heralded as the feminist show, we are diminishing nonwhite women and shutting our eyes to their issues.
It’s a dangerous ignorance. TV host Roland Martin accused the National Organization for Women for its silence when a McKinney police officer abused a 14-year-old African American girl in Texas.
“All too often when cases involving Black women NOW has been missing in action,” Martin said in on a NewsOne Now program, “You only care about women who are non-Black.”
When #MeToo is credited to a white actress instead of its true progenitor—a black woman—we are once again ignoring the strides and struggles of women across all races.