Over time I watched this routine play out in different ways. Arms slinked around waists, rear ends tapped, shoulders rubbed. Sometimes the waitresses pushed back — but only a little. Mostly, they learned to navigate the narrow space behind the counter and figure out ways to save one another from his vile, undesired advances. I was so outraged that I once got into a screaming match with the cook. I told him if he wouldn’t respect the waitresses, he would respect me as a customer and not openly sexually harass these women in front of me. In between admonishments to mind my “saddity” New York business, he told me that this was the way he and the women “played around” at work. He was so mad at me confronting him that he had to take a smoke break. While he was outside, the woman who I defended tried to reassure me that it was okay. When I asked her how she could put up with his gross behavior, she said simply, “He’s the boss.”
These last few weeks have been a whirlwind. Actually, they have been more like a floating sidewalk scene from a Spike Lee movie. From the start of #MeToo going viral and the recognition of my years of work preceding it, I have been happily allowing this wave of attention to shine a much-needed light on the fight to end gender-based violence. I founded the “me too” movement in 2006 because I wanted to find a way to connect with the black and brown girls in the program I ran. But if I am being honest with myself, and you, I often wonder if that sister in the diner has even heard of #MeToo, and if she has, does she know it’s for #UsToo?
Black women have been screaming about famous predators like R&B singer R. Kelly, who allegedly preys on black girls, for well over a decade to no avail. Anita Hill, thanklessly, put herself and her career as a law professor on the line more than 25 years ago to publicly name Clarence Thomas for sexually harassing her at work.
Actress Jane Fonda acknowledged this fact during a recent interview about the public reaction to allegations of sexual harassment and assault from multiple women against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. “It feels like something has shifted. It’s too bad that it’s probably because so many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color and it doesn’t get out quite the same.”
Native American women have the highest rate of sexual assault in the country. According to the Department of Justice, American Indians are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Indian women reports having been raped in her lifetime. Yet they are never named in the national conversation about sexual violence.
Even in high school, students of color report higher rates of sexual violence: 12.5 percent of American Indian/Alaska Natives, 10.5 percent of Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander students, 8.6 percent of black students, 8.2 percent of Hispanic students, 7.4 percent of white students and 13.5 percent of multiple-race students reported that they were forced to have sexual intercourse at some time in their lives.
The young girls of color that first encountered the “me too.” movement in community centers and classrooms and church basements were there not only because they needed a safe space, but because they needed their own space. They needed to find spaces where they could focus on their healing without having to be performative or guarded and “me too.” gave them that space.
As I watch the allegations spill forward about one Hollywood honcho to the next — comedian Louis C.K. was added to the list Thursday — it is painful to hear the stories of what these women have endured at the hands of these predatory men. One of the most powerful things about #MeToo has been its ability to allow people to expand the conversation beyond celebrity. The reality of seeing everyday people — friends, neighbors, co-workers, family — disclosing their various experiences with sexual violence has been jarring for many and enlightening for most. I started this work with the intention of reaching young Black and Brown girls, but fully believing in its potential to move the world. Some people call it a watershed moment, and there definitely feels like a shift is happening, but it feels incomplete.
What history has shown us time and again is that if marginalized voices — those of people of color, queer people, disabled people, poor people — aren’t centered in our movements then they tend to become no more than a footnote. I often say that sexual violence knows no race, class or gender, but the response to it does. “Me too.” is a response to the spectrum of gender-based sexual violence that comes directly from survivors — all survivors. We can’t afford a racialized, gendered or classist response. Ending sexual violence will require every voice from every corner of the world and it will require those whose voices are most often heard to find ways to amplify those voices that often go unheard.
The waitress in the diner may never stand up and say #MeToo — and that’s fine. But I want her to know that the global ‘me too.’ community we have created has space for her too.
Tarana Burke is senior director of programs at girls for Gender Equity in Brooklyn. Follow her work at @metooMVMT.