No doubt many of you have followed the “me too” hashtag that went viral this past week on multiple social media platforms. The call came via a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano (more on that in a moment). The prompt went something like “If every woman who was sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” So, women of all races, sexual orientations, and ages share those two simple but revealing words, “Me Too.”
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the origins of the “Me Too” campaign. Ten years ago, activist Tarana Burke began a “Me Too” movement to unify those who were impacted by sexual violence. She aimed to serve people in underprivileged communities who did not have access to rape crisis centers but were victims of the culture of sexual violence that is pervasive in our society. Burke says that she did not create the campaign to go viral. Rather, she wanted to let people know that they were not alone. Her goal was radical empathy and communal support. Her campaign was not about publicity; it was about weaving a network of support among survivors.
Several black journalists and activists have (rightly) pointed out that Burke’s role in the conversation that occurred over the past week has largely been obscured or outright ignored. Others have (also rightly) named the fact that women of color activists like Feminista Jones have named sexual violence online for several years. Some have also pointed out the irony that many wealthy white women feminists are loath to support causes like #OscarsSoWhite (started by April Reign), #BlackWomenAtWork (started by Brittany Packnett), or Jemele Hill’s recent suspension from her hosting job at ESPN. However, this past week they changed their tune. When their fellow white woman actress Rose McGowan (who has been notably anti-black and anti-LGBT in her approach to this issue) was suspended from Twitter for twelve hours for accidentally tweeting someone’s personal contact information, those same, typically silent women, expected their black “sisters” to support their one day Twitter boycott. Some women of color on Twitter spoke against the boycott.
I am not an avid Twitter user. Women routinely face abuse on the platform, and Twitter does not suspend their accounts, and women of color are at especially high risk. The problem is no surprise. The major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat) were created by young, elite, white men to serve people just like themselves. Women, queer folks, and people of color are the lifeblood of these platforms, but they were not made to protect us or to support our political or activist thoughts. I think women have three non-mutually exclusive options moving forward.
1. We can continue to use these platforms unreservedly. As some female activists of all races have pointed out, it is important that we not disengage from public conversation, even when it hurts.
2. We can boycott these platforms and instead invest in traditional social or communal gatherings. I see this option as a temporary separation for health and renewal followed by a return to the first option.
3. We can encourage our daughters and gender non-conforming children to go into the Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics fields. Even those of us who are older can start learning how to code. Let’s create platforms!
I understand what Alyssa Milano was going for with her call for survivors (she wrote women, but we know it’s not just women) of sexual violence to share their stories online. She wanted to let survivors know that they were not alone, but more importantly, she wanted to draw attention to the fact that sexual violence is pervasive in our society. It touches everyone. The problem is that victims of abuse and oppression should not need to publicly lay our trauma bare for our communities (and our political policy makers) to support us. Racism should not have to go viral for you to know it’s real. And let’s just be real, racism has gone viral time and time again, and few people of racial privilege do anything to eradicate it. Homophobia should not have to go viral for you to know it’s real, and please, again, note what I said above. Sexism is a pervasive problem in our world. Sexual violence runs rampant in our world, and it disproportionately impacts poor people, people of color, members of the LGBT+ community, and women of color. Domestic violence is real. Workplace and school sexual harassment are real. Sexual assaults and attempted sexual assaults are happening daily. No one should feel coerced to relive their trauma on a public platform for the benefit of someone else’s consciousness.
The newest iteration of the “Me Too” campaign was a reminder to me that our nation refuses to rally around abused women of color and women who society deems unworthy or physically undesirable. It was not long ago that comedian Bill Cosby was under fire for sexual violence and exploitation. Both Cosby and Harvey Weinstein are utterly disgusting. Both men used their power to prey on up-and-coming female entertainers. There is a notable difference in the public response. Cosby’s accusers faced mockery; comedian Damon Wayans even described some of them as “unrapeable.” Meanwhile, Weinstein’s conventionally attractive accusers by-and-large are believed. Most have received compassionate support and even praise, which, to make my stance on this readily apparent, is the treatment survivors of violence deserve.
In the black community, many people (of all gender identities) refused to part with their fantasy of Dr. Cliff Huxtable from The Cosby Show. Most of the female actresses from his popular sitcom were quick to run to his defense because they said he had never abused them. This past week, we have seen a stark difference. Wealthy, white Hollywood starlets have chosen to support each other (at least publicly), and the general public supports them too. The other women of Hollywood who have been demanding justice for years are silenced, interrogated, and discarded. Where were all these famous female voices when the news about Bill Cosby broke? Where was Alyssa Milano’s call to solidarity then?
I see nothing wrong with survivors of sexual violence sharing stories in the public square. In fact, I would argue that the public naming of violence is necessary because it demands justice. It calls attention to the depravity of a society that continues to treat gendered and queer bodies as less than. Speak out in the courtrooms, on the streets, in your classrooms, in your workplaces, in your houses of worship, and on social media. Do not allow anyone to silence your voice.
But, please know that your trauma is real even when you are not ready or able to share it with the world. Those of us who can lay our grief and trauma bare without fear of physical and emotional harm must recognize our privilege and must never shame the women who have not been able to speak. We must also take up the sacred responsibility of caring for our fellow marginalized person. We must remember and advocate for the women and girls without homes and without resources whose bodies are at risk every second of the day. My friends, even when your circumstances compel your silence, whisper your truth, your “Me Too,” to a trusted friend or companion. Even in the quietest moment, your “Me Too” is a powerful proclamation of your humanity. Your truth, no matter how loudly or softly you say it, is your creative resistance.