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#MeToo and Women of Color

Updated: Jul 15, 2019

By Dr. Robin Kelley

The #МеТоо movement and the resulting mix of open contrition as well as the disavowal from many influential women and men have changed the discussion. Powerful men whom sexual harass or sexually assault women are to some extent, no longer doing so in complete silence. The #MeToo movement has created a climate of responsibility. The movement's most profound influence is that it provides a mechanism for women's voices and in subtly powerful way tips the scales of power. Overall the movement has shifted the narrative on the sexual violence perpetrated on women away from male denials.

Women of color and specifically African American women have not quite had the same level of empowerment or acceptance of their stories or even outrage against men who either sexually harass or sexually assault them. In many ways, the #MeToo movement has not spoken to African American women's accounts, experiences even though activist, Tarana Burke, who is black, started the #MeToo movement. Many had not heard of the movement until Mellissa Milano, a white actress, championed the movement.

In an article by the Huffington Post, many African American women spoke about how sexual harassment and violence perpetrated against women of color саn оftеn іnvоlvе factors related to race such as оbјесtіfісаtіоn and long-held stereotypes rooted in beliefs about rасе and еthnісіty. There are multiple оthеr cultural іssuеs whіtе wоmеn do not or are less likely to face fасе when it comes to sexual harassment and violence, but many other women of color face. What’s particularly concerning is that African American women are less likely than white women to be believed when they report sexual harassment or sexual assault. While at the same time, black women and other wоmеn оf соlоr fасе hаrаssmеnt аnd аssаult аt hіghеr rаtеs thаn whіtе wоmеn. A vicious cycle emerges where African American women are less likely to report incidents of sexual harassment or sexual violence because they're less likely to be believed, and are treated as objects or stereotypically.

When sexual harassment or sexual violence is perpetrated on African American women, they tend to leave the work environment without ever reporting incidents or confiding in a co-worker. The mantra taken up by African American women is to suffer in silence. If the perpetrator is of the same racial/ethnic background, then cultural stop gaps prevent these women from reporting as they don’t want to be responsible for causing an African American male to lose his job or freedom by sending him to prison. The historical context of this abdication of their self-preservation and freedom from isms can be found throughout but especially during the Civil Rights movement. During the Civil Rights movement, African American women were expected to fight for the rights of black men and discuss racism's effects on the conditions of African American men. Coupled with the fact that African American women were also excluded from the Women’s Movement, they continued to suffer from the ills of patriarchy, which is still prevalent today. African American women are subjected to patriarchy in the African American community, and often hold up and support African American men at all costs, even a cost to themselves.

African American women experience sexual harassment and sexual violence perpetrated by white men. The experiences of African American women in the workplace and often presents as fіеldіng sехuаl comments and innuendo, аdvаnсеs whіlе dеаlіng with сulturаl ехресtаtіоns that assume African American/Black women are overly sexualized, promiscuous, sexually adventurous and other stereotypes that plague these women. Objectification of African American women typically occurs during encounters with law enforcement where their breasts or bodies are exposed during these encounters. African American women are rarely viewed as victims. Even when interactions are caught on video of African American women being treated with violence by police or other males, and objectified as well as humiliated by the unwanted public exposure of their bodies they garner little to no sympathy.

The #MeToo movement needs to be more inclusive of the various experiences of not only African American women's experiences but all women of color. Sexual harassment and sexual violence experiences of women of color do have similarities with the experiences of white women. Notwithstanding, there are some distinct differences rooted in the multiple marginalities of African American women and other women of color. Safe spaces need to be created that include the experiences of marginalized women who have for so long had their experiences of sexual harassment and violence retold from white women's perspective. There is more to the impact of sexual harassment and violence impacting women of color, and more that must be addressed.

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