#MeToo: Building Inclusion To Break Down Barriers
The #MeToo movement has had a seismic impact in raising awareness of how women are victimized by more powerful men, particularly in the workplace. Yet, the movement has not effectively served as a platform for women of color who are also victims of sexual harassment.
This concept of two different diverse identities not being recognized under the law was posited by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. She coined the term “intersectionality” to describe how the law failed to understand discrimination facing individuals with overlapping identities. She explained in a 2019 Vox article:
Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts. In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all Black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to Black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.
At the recent Presidential Summit, Taa Grays, co-chair of the Task Force on Racism, Social Equity and the Law, highlighted this gap in the movement’s efforts.
Intersectionality of Race and Gender in Sexual Harassment
NYSBA President Brown created the Task Force on Racism, Social Equity and the Law to examine how structural racism permeates and influences various facets of daily life leading to injustice and inequality among New Yorkers. Through its six committees – housing, environmental justice, health, economic opportunities, criminal justice and education – the task force will explore barriers and disparities derived from existing law and public policy and deliver a report recommending affirmative steps the NYSBA can take to lessen the impact of structural racism and drive meaningful and enduring societal transformation.
Paula C. Johnson, professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law, explained to the task force in its October 25 public forum that “structural racism is a system of laws, policies, and institutional practices that produce and perpetuate racial inequities and inequalities in the United States. The impact of structural racism can operate in discrete, interconnected, and synergistic ways.”
There is a saying in the Black community that, “when white people have a cold, Black people have the flu.” While both communities will face a similar challenge, it tends to manifest itself more harshly or dramatically in the Black community. This manifestation repeatedly emerges on both the micro and macro level, thus synergistically and methodically eroding the diligent efforts of individuals and communities acting as catalysts for change.
Black women and people of color experience racialized sexual harassment. Historically, women of color were considered property, seen as concubines, or stereotyped in terms of their sexuality. Unfortunately, the legacy of those perceptions fuels Black women and people of color experiencing higher rates of sexual harassment and assault than white women.
Various reports and studies document that women of color face sexual harassment and assault at a higher rate than white women. A National Women’s Law Center 2018 report titled “Out of the Shadows” found that Black women and Latina women filed more sexual harassment complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than white women. A Department of Justice study found that Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault than all other races. Last, according to the National Latina Network, one out of three Latinas have experienced some sort of domestic violence.
In October 2017, Jane Fonda said during an interview with MSNBC that #MeToo has gained attention because “so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white.” She also said, “this has been going on for a long time to Black women and other women of color, and it doesn’t get out quite the same.” Women of color have long felt that the #MeToo movement should incorporate and advocate for bringing this understanding into the dialogue.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, explained intersectionality in the context of the #MeToo movement in a March 19, 2021 New York Times article entitled, “Tales of Racism and Sexism, From 3 Leading Asian-American Women:
In the MeToo movement, we never really talked about the unique way that Asian-American women experience sexual harassment. So often, people want to talk about race, so they want me to leave my gender at the door. People want to talk about sexual harassment, so they want me to leave my race at the door. And so I become invisible.
Ironically, the #MeToo movement was created by an African American woman, Tarana Burke, to address this marginalization of the Black women experience. In her own words, Tarana Burke developed #MeToo in 2016 “[t]o support and activate survivors, The ‘me too’ movement engages an innovative model of survivor leadership with a ‘whole-self approach’ to healing from sexual violence, that grows out of understanding survival.”
Burke addressed the perceived invisibility of women of color in the movement in a Feb. 24, 2021 article. She stated that when the Harvey Weinstein scandal happened, “Black women just kept saying, ‘Where are WE? Where ARE we? Where do we show up?’”
Frustrated with this lack of inclusion, in February 2021, Tarana Burke, Monifa Bandele, chief operating officer of Time’s Up Foundation, and Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive officer of the National Women’s Law Center, created another organization called “We, As Ourselves” which “aims to reshape the narrative about sexual violence and its impact on Black survivors.”
To many, the #MeToo movement has focused on gender only. It has not also highlighted how women of color experience sexual harassment in similar but unique ways due to race. As the #MeToo movement continues to evolve, there still is an opportunity to highlight the stories of women of color.
First, the issue must be acknowledged more broadly. Jane Fonda identified it, but others that have been vocal or leaders in the movement need to acknowledge and expressly commit acting upon it as well.
Additionally, the #MeToo the movement must move beyond merely highlighting the stories of victims but further invest its efforts and resources in dissecting the root cause of sexual harassment and abuse to strategically and effectively attack head-on the existence of racialized sexual harassment and abuse. Tsedale M. Melaku, in a Fair Observer article titled, “It’s Time for #MeToo To Address Structural Racism,” explains: “The #MeToo movement relates to sexually predatory behavior experienced within a power dynamic that suggests women are subordinated.” Add race to a power dynamic founded on systemic racism and it becomes clear that institutions must do more to address abuses of power perpetuated against women of color.
There is an enduring and harmful misconception that the racial disparity is heavily dependent upon the socioeconomic status and class of the women of color at issue. This concept is not only false but devastating to the furtherance of women and the #MeToo movement holistically. Women of color of all status are overshadowed by their similarly situated white female counterparts, thus requiring us to acknowledge the breadth and depth of the impact of systemic racism on our entire community.
For the #MeToo movement to transcend race, those in leadership positions and influential roles must demonstrate allyship to expand the narrative to include the experiences of women of color whose stories are not getting equal footing with those of white women. Ava DuVernay raised this point in October 2017. When Rose McGowan’s Twitter account was suspended because of her open criticism of Weinstein, a movement to boycott Twitter emerged under the hashtag “womenboycotttwitter.” DuVernay responded by calling out allies for not doing the same for women of color in her tweet, “Calling white women allies to recognize the conflict of #WomenBoycottTwitter for women of color who haven’t received support on similar issues.”
Being an ally means sharing the stories of women who have been marginalized, excluded or just not considered. Being an ally also means consistently advocating to ensure inclusion of those women. It is only when all lawyers take these actions will the #MeToo movement reflect ALL women equally.