The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The marginalized voices of the #MeToo movement

Tarana Burke, center, founder of the #MeToo movement, at a march last month in Hollywood. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

When Time magazine recognized the #MeToo movement as its Person of the Year, it solidified just how much of a cultural moment we are in when dealing with sexual harassment and assault allegations against powerful men.

In its article on the movement, Time said:

This reckoning appears to have sprung up overnight. But it has actually been simmering for years, decades, centuries. Women have had it with bosses and co-workers who not only cross boundaries but don't even seem to know that boundaries exist. They've had it with the fear of retaliation, of being blackballed, of being fired from a job they can't afford to lose. They've had it with the code of going along to get along. They've had it with men who use their power to take what they want from women. These silence breakers have started a revolution of refusal, gathering strength by the day, and in the past two months alone, their collective anger has spurred immediate and shocking results: nearly every day, CEOs have been fired, moguls toppled, icons disgraced. In some cases, criminal charges have been brought.

The #MeToo movement gained global attention when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted #MeToo after reading about influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein's history of abuse of women.

But the #MeToo movement was actually started a decade ago by Tarana Burke, an activist from the Bronx.

She didn't start the #MeToo movement for affluent and powerful white women on Capitol Hill and in Hollywood whose voices often have the most influence. Burke sought to draw attention to the pervasiveness of sexual assault in all racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds — and perhaps mainly for women such as Maria, a 26-year-old bartender from California whose boss tried to touch her during every shift.

“One day he said to me, 'One way or another, I’m going to have sex with you.' But I had a responsibility to send money back to my parents in Mexico. I needed this job,” she told The Washington Post.

Maria is not an outlier. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that women of color experience a higher rate of sexual violence. And a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report states that lower-income women experience some of the highest rates of sexual violence.

And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received about 85,000 sexual harassment complaints from 2005 to 2015. Of the field-specific charges filed over that decade, more than 14 percent came from the accommodation and food service industry, more than 13 percent came from retail trade and nearly 12 percent came from manufacturing.

But as women such as Taylor Swift, Gretchen Carlson and Ashley Judd soon became faces of the #MeToo movement, Burke and others worried that the abuse of women in blue-collar and minority communities is being left out of the conversation.

Actress Gabrielle Union was one of the few black women Burke said she could reference in the earliest days of her work about the impact of sexual assault on women of color.

Union has been sharing her personal story for decades but still believes that the impact of #MeToo has yet to reach minority women, she told the New York Times:

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women. I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”
“If those people hadn’t been Hollywood royalty,” she asked, referring to some of the women who first spoke out about Harvey Weinstein. “If they hadn’t been approachable. If they hadn’t been people who have had access to parts and roles and true inclusion in Hollywood, would we have believed?”

Burke wrote in The Post about an experience where she witnessed a black server in a Montgomery, Ala., diner endure sexual harassment and wondered whether such women knew the movement existed for them. She wrote:

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?

As conversations turn into policy, the next phase of the#MeToo movement appears to be giving a voice to the all of the women suffering in silence — without the platform of the silver screen, millions of social media followers and allies in the halls of Congress.