For nearly 20 years, April has marked Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the U.S. This year’s observance is drawing more attention than typical, no doubt a reflection of the shared experiences elevated by the recent amplification of the Me Too movement.
Important to note is that the #Me Too movement of today is in fact, an amplification of an existing movement, not the brainchild of Hollywood. In 2006, activist and writer Tarana Burke, a black woman, founded the Me Too Movement to support survivors of sexual violence, in particular young women of color. Over the years, the original (pre-Twitter) Me Too Movement has grown to a community of women from all walks of life, joined together through the power of “I am not alone.”
Without a doubt, privilege creates platform. When made aware that #Me Too was being credited to Alyssa Milano/Hollywood, Burke’s initial reaction was fear—fear that the blood, sweat and tears fueled work of her movement would be co-opted, absorbed into the flash of a Hollywood whim. But as she watched the thread grow by the minute and poured over the words of woman after woman, survivor after survivor, she made a realization: this, in fact, was her work. In her words, she had to decide whether to be “in conflict or in service”—and she chose service.
And really, this is nothing new. Black women have long been at the painful forefront of fighting against sexual injustice. Black women have aired their pain, their humiliation, and risked their very reputations for the sake of all women. Take Paulette Barnes, who in 1975 was fired by her boss at the EPA for refusing his sexual advances. She sued. A year later, Diane Williams, a former DOJ staffer, did the same. These cases—they both won—paved the way for the result of a third such case filed by a black woman, Mechelle Vinson, against the bank where she was subjected to repeated sexual assault by her former supervisor. It was in response to this case that the Supreme Court made its unanimous 1986 decision that sexual harassment is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. Fast forward five years, and Anita Hill is called to testify at Clarence Thomas’s re-opened confirmation hearings regarding the harassment she experienced in his employ. Black women have paved this road we find ourselves on today.
All of this is a reflection of the fact that sexism and racism are intricately intertwined. We cannot achieve racial justice without gender justice. And yet, the complexity of this intersectionality leaves us, often, choosing which oppression on which to focus at which moment. Critical discussions and outrage around sexual violence rarely occur in tandem with those about racism; why? Because our history, our societal structure, has engrained in us—whether consciously agreed with or not—that issues matter most when they affect white people. Rebecca Carroll, a WYNC public radio editor and former journalist on the Charlie Rose show described it, “I don’t want to sound overly simplistic, but this is sort of how this country works, which is that when it involves white people is when it matters. This is the framework of this country; it is rooted in structural racism.”
Our very history as a nation is rooted in white folks taking for granted and devaluing the contributions and experiences of people of color. In this time of moral reckoning, it’s time we—white people—own this truth.