#Hashtag Me TOO: Reflections on Women’s Solidarity
When Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo in solidarity with the all-too-many women who have been subjected to sexual assault and harassment, she started a firestorm, but not a movement. That distinction belongs to Tarana Burke, founder of the nonprofit Just Be Inc., an organization devoted to the “health, well being and wholeness of young women of color everywhere.”
Burke created the Me Too movement in 2006 after listening to young women speak of their experiences with sexual abuse. Burke, who has remained active in the fight for women’s health and justice, raised the antennae of numerous women of color. Much to the chagrin of some, Burke was largely unacknowledged by many notable white feminists.
Burke’s niche popularity and subsequent rise to prominence following research into the origins of the hashtag MeToo bring to the forefront a troubling but persistent state of being for white and black women in the struggle: How the former can be entirely committed to the equality of all women, and the latter become trustful of a group with members who have practiced betrayal in every movement central to the freedom of women, from the suffrage movement to women’s rights to women’s rights redux in 2016. This tension—existent since African girls and women arrived on American shores—shape shifts, becoming more or less easy to grasp with each decade, but never abates. #MeToo is a powerful and galvanizing tool in the chest of women who wield it to assert voice while feeling support and safety in numbers. For her part, Burke has supported the hashtag with her own tweets.
Yet, the movement Me Too, the #MeToo, and Burke’s reaction to it leapfrog us backward in time to the mid-1800s when Sojourner Truth stood before a large conference of white women to assert her pain, her struggle, her femininity before a feminist gathering that recognized oppression through a narrow, exclusionary gaze. The “Ain’t I a Woman” declaration by Truth has come under skepticism in recent years as histories of her direct quote and reaction to it at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio differ. What is certain: the “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” motto dates back to the British abolitionist movement of the 1820s, and the American abolitionist movement of the 1830s.
Sojourner Truth, as her surname suggests, was in fact calling for a political landscape in which white men acknowledged the equality of black people and all women, and surrendered to the inevitability of power sharing.
Fast forward to the present and Truth might be surprised to learn that the basic tenets of the struggle have not changed. White men and women are still fighting over power between themselves while black women are positioned in the middle, still having to determine who is an ally while carving out their own spheres of power and protecting their flanks.
The position of black women located between and behind white women and men is historical fact and contemporaneously significant. From the first wave of Africans landing on America’s shores to the legal end of slavery in 1865, black girls and women were routinely caught between two brutal masters—the white men who owned and raped them, and the white women who commanded and resented them. There are documented examples of emotionally and spiritually mature white women who saw the enslaved woman’s status as a moral dilemma if not a legal crime. Those legally free women sought to protect their sisters in bondage within their realms of power, their ability ranging from meager to substantial. That protection could take the form of bringing the enslaved woman from the fields to the big house, negotiating terms for the woman to grow special food or make extra clothes, or teaching her children—often the mistresses de facto step-children—how to read. More often, the enslaved girl or woman was seen as the “mistress,” the adulterous female stealing affection and corrupting the slave master. Moreover, the enslaved woman was often a surrogate—the proxy sexual partner who relieved the slave master’s spouse of her “wifely duties.”
So, it is against this historical backdrop that I begin to examine my own unease with #MeToo, the hashtag and the movement. My black woman’s cellular memory is wary, concerned that a repeat scenario of Sojourner Truth’s experience in Akron is eminent. And it is. Witness the statistical majority of white women who voted for Donald Trump. While 94 percent of black women voted for the over 60, flawed but unarguably qualified white woman
5 percent voted to elect the over 70, sexually aggressive, “pussy-grabbing” unproven and underqualified man to the most powerful political office in the country. If white women cannot, in a majority, vote in their best interest, where does that place black women and other women of color in an ostensibly inclusive feminist struggle?
Simultaneously and increasingly, I am made uneasy by the number of complaints against prominent men concerning their sexually aggressive behaviors ranging from harassment to criminal assault. Are the accusations reported in the media indicative of actions by powerful men limited to certain professions, or are these pervasive behaviors that go largely unreported or unaddressed in spaces not commonly held in the public eye? Will the volume of complaints begin to desensitize a society to the grievances of wronged women? Will society become desensitized to the point of discouraging women from speaking out, thus victimizing the very population that deserves justice for the violence done to them? The feminist in me rejects any inclination to discount the legions of women who have come forward in the wake of the first Harvey Weinstein allegations, arguably the opening of the floodgate. My concern for humanity wants to place a protective arm around every niece, sister or girlfriend’s daughter who might be a victim of the abhorrent and/or criminal behaviors named.
The black activist in me struggles to understand how Bill Cosby is more dangerous and newsworthy than Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes. The womanist in me can’t comprehend how so many of my white sisters could practice such an obvious act of self-hatred and sacrifice of self-interest that the result is a 21st century America that feels as perilous to me in my time as my grandmother must have felt in hers, as Sojourner Truth must have felt in hers. To be sure, Truth’s life had none of the choices, freedoms or protections that I enjoy in mine. However, fear, like power, is both relative and real.
This January 20, 2018, I contemplate with apprehension whether to participate in the second national Women’s March. Proximity is not an issue—I am an hour away from New York City. My late mother, a smart, progressive, self-loving and self-respecting black woman, was born on January 20th—I could march in honor of her. Or would she consider my marching honorable? A part of me thinks staying home will honor her as well. But, to stand in truth, and to stand with Truth is, for this black woman, the opportunity to wield my power, claim possession over my body, celebrate the black female aesthetic, and resist the simultaneous over-sexualizing and de-sexualizing of the black feminine form.
Let me be clear, I would not be marching for the self-loathing, naval-gazing women who voted against their self-interests and mine. However, I will march for their offspring.
If I march, I put foot to pavement to honor my mother and all the Sojourners of this world. I will march in support of the girls and young women and the vulnerable women who do not (yet) share my fully realized place in this world. I will march with the same pride I felt watching women of all colors, self-identifiers, cultural, ideological and faith backgrounds organize, lead and participate in the march of January 2017. I will not, however, accept the number two spot in a movement that only purports to empower and include all women. I will not proclaim “me too” at any white woman’s latest ambivalent protest against a white male patriarchy where I am cast as the interloper in a marital spat. I can, however, walk alongside my white feminist sisters, as long as they are able and willing to walk alongside black womanist me.