This article was originally published on the Brown Daily Herald and can be found here.
All of a sudden, the entertainment industry has started to see a plethora of women come forward with sexual assault allegations against Hollywood powerhouses such as James Toback, Ed Westwick, Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein. The growing number of allegations against Weinstein in particular has culminated in the emergence of the #MeToo campaign as a means of standing in solidarity against gender-based violence and harassment. The movement is much-needed, yet I can’t help but ask a simple question: “Why now?” Why didn’t a similar mass movement emerge from the many allegations against Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, for example? Let’s brainstorm for a moment: Maybe because Weinstein’s accusers were famous, white, wealthy women with platforms to amplify their voices. When we look more closely at the #MeToo movement and how we have responded to sexual misconduct in Hollywood, the social and racial undertones are unavoidable.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s great that sexual harassment is finally being given the attention that it deserves, but it is disappointing that it appears to privilege some survivors over others. As significant as it is to the landscape of gender equity across the country, #MeToo has become a mouthpiece for well-off white women while excluding and shunning the voices of black women. This should startle us, because black women face higher rates of sexual assault than women of other races. And to make matters worse, the hashtag’s original creator — Tarana Burke, a black woman — was initially ignored and arguably forgotten until Alyssa Milano, a white woman, co-opted the hashtag and broke the Internet. It’s frustrating that a movement created by a black woman has now become an accessory to the erasure of voices like her own.
Though the United States finally seems ready to comfort and support sexual assault survivors, this sense of solidarity still isn’t available to all women. We consistently overlook the struggles of women of color and low-income women who need access to the same support systems as the more privileged women whose voices we are currently elevating. In the four weeks since the allegations against Weinstein first emerged, additional women have come forward to accuse Weinstein, an entire movement has snowballed on social media and the New York Police Department has reportedly began preparing a case against him. This reaction is both admirable and a bit unsettling. Where was this sense of urgency when yet another underage black woman was left alone in a studio with R. Kelly? The lack of attention given to these stories implies that the claims of women of color are invalid or unimportant, which plays into the invisibility of black women. The inability of this country to rally around black women, as it did for #MeToo, showcases who it places its importance on — and who it doesn’t.
This isn’t to say that the collective claims against Weinstein are not legitimate and did not warrant the response they engendered. But the fact that the voices of black women are not granted the same agency given to other women is a severe injustice. Their consistent allegations, across decades, against Hollywood men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly never managed to create a national campaign like #MeToo. The high rates of sexual violence faced by many black women have been shrugged off by indifferent policymakers and stakeholders. I’m not arguing that we need a movement that solely seeks justice for black women, but any movement to rid the country of sexual harassment must include them.
Plus, it’s hard enough for black women to speak out in the first place — studies suggest that only one in 15 black women reports her sexual assault to the police. Since they face the highest rates of sexual violence from black men, the last thing many of them want to do is aid in the criminalization of their black brothers. And considering there’s general distrust between the black community and police departments, the likelihood of black women coming forward is slim to none. Then, add in the fact that low-income women may stay silent to avoid alienating their family members or employers, and we can see that black women must overcome hurdle after hurdle to report sexual assault.
So just what is united about the United States? Instead of responding equally to the valid accusations from women of all races, we have — consciously or unconsciously — placed their rights second to their race in deciding whether or not they’re worthy of invoking nation-wide change. This is a sad sentiment considering that the overall goal of this movement is to confront powerful men, or all men really, who use their positions to prey on women. Clearly, we need a more equitable campaign that includes all women and gives women of color equal weight and space. Excluding their intersecting concerns and needs because they’re people of color will only set the movement for gender equality back. If nothing else, the least we owe black women is an active effort to re-center attention on them and their struggles, because it’s long overdue.