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Me Who?: #MeToo Struggles with Identity and Inclusiveness

Lupita Nyong'o at SXSW, 2019 (C) Daniel Benavides, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Nicole Young

According to Wikipedia, The “Me Too” Movement or #MeToo, is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. The wiki definition also mentions that Tarana Burke, a black social activist and community organizer, began using the phrase “Me Too” as early as 2006, and the phrase was “later popularized by American actress Alyssa Milano, on Twitter in 2017.” Now, we can poopoo Wikipedia all we want (and by “we” I mean me, that reputation for inaccuracy and all) but it is the first link that pops up in any online search of just about anything on the internet. To many, it’s the modern-day Webster’s dictionary. So when a “valued source” like Wikipedia summarizes that the #MeToo movement was “Alyssa Milano’s encouragement of victims of sexual harassment to tweet about it” and concludes that her effort was “met with success that included but, was not limited to, high-profile posts from several American celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence and Uma Thurman,”  it does beg the question: “Is the #MeToo movement suffering from a diversity deficiency?”  Not that Wikipedia’s assessment is the be-all and end-all, but it does reflect the way the movement is portrayed in the court of public opinion and since the description posted has not been challenged (despite there being a process for data modification on the site), curiosity about #MeToo’s public image as it pertains to diversity is warranted. 

I began questioning the movement’s inclusiveness soon after it went viral in October 2017. I clearly remember seeing the actress Rose McGowan in an interview and thinking: “WOW, so all the rumors about her being nuts weren’t all about her Marilyn Manson phase or that naked dress with the beaded G-string outfit, but actually part of Harvey Weinstein’s evil plot to silence her claims of his sexual abuse??? OH! DAMN! So, ALL the rumors about HIM are even worse!”

Sidebar: Most people even loosely connected to “the business” had heard things about Weinstein’s alleged hideous nature, but this was so much bigger than that! I then started hearing about Mira Sorvino’s, Angelina Jolie’s, Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Annabella Sciorra’s accusations (at which point I admit to drifting off and picturing that scene in season 3 of The Sopranos when her character threw that big steak at Tony as he walked out on her) and so on. I also realized early on that there were no black names mentioned in the mix. In fact, there really wasn’t anyone who wasn’t Caucasian in the mix and I began to wonder, who exactly is that “me” in the #MeToo movement referring to, what does she look like, and what does she do for a living?  The one thing I did feel pretty clear on was that she probably wasn’t black.

The movement itself and its virally successful name originated from a phrase coined by a prominent black activist as a connective tissue between women dealing with sexually-driven misconduct in the workplace. The all-important hashtag that spun into a cultural phenomenon and dominated the mainstream news cycle for weeks, however, was powered by a well-known Caucasian actress and the admissions of her fellow white celebrities. It was that specific focus on white actresses and the movement’s newly-formed attachment to Hollywood that fueled my personal confusion about who the beneficiaries would be. It seemed nearly impossible for #MeToo to strongly impact or even trickle down to the lives of black women no matter where or from whom the phrase derived (or that person’s ethnicity). That uneasy feeling about who the “me” in #MeToo was referring to, but the near certainty that she was not a woman of color, was a feeling shared by many black women.

“Sadly I wasn’t surprised that we weren’t left out of the story” was Europe Angelique’s perspective. As a talent manager and founder of Prime Culture Creative, Angelique is well acquainted with black female exclusion in the entertainment industry. “This is what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Europe Angelique, founder of Prime Culture Creative, courtesy of Nicole Young

Even in situations like #MeToo where a conversation about the respectful and lawful treatment of women is given focus and a title by a black woman, there’s a manufactured gray area about where credit should be placed for its inception, an attempt to leave us out of the story. Black women are far too familiar with this practice and unfortunately continue to suffer because of it. Whether the issue is as poignant as a dialogue about sexual misconduct or as peripheral as braided hairstyles like cornrows, there is always an illogical debate about the beginnings of big moments in culture when said moments are birthed by someone black, especially a black female.

“Why in the world would this case be any different?  We never get any credit!” Angelique emphasizes.

The boo-birds in my head began to chirp louder as the movement grew wings, soared into the daily news cycle, and took over as the hot topic du jour. Even as more and more famous faces came forward with their stories, there was not much of an uptick in coverage concerning women of color. As the real-life Harvey Weinstein horror flick took greater shape, there were still so few revelations being made by women of any color other, so when Lupita Nyong’o and Salma Hayek went public with their unsavory encounters with Mr. Weinstein, I expected a shift in current. I believed that this moment, however fleeting, would allow for actresses outside of the Caucasian A-list to tell their stories and also encourage black women who aren’t in the limelight to join the alliance and lean on each other. 

Unfortunately, the shift I’d hoped for turned out to be more of a light breeze (with the strength of a baby’s breath) and the black #MeToo story that garnered the greatest press traction was centered around allegations brought by a black man, former NFL player-turned-actor Terry Crews. It’s still unclear how the Brooklyn Nine Nine star’s decision to call out his alleged abuser, William Morris/Endeavor power agent Adam Venit, in graphic detail will impact his career. As brave a move as Terry Crews’s was to publicly accuse Venit, it hasn’t moved a ton of other black celebrities of either gender to come forward.

Although the idea of “Me Too” was intended to be a beacon of change and a platform for inclusion long BEFORE it was a hashtag on social media or a Hollywood-backed movement, the latter identities are the ones who have propelled it to the forefront and onto the cover of Time magazine. It’s the movement’s own celebrity status that also makes it tough for women of color to fully get on board or reap any of the benefits of camaraderie. No matter how many times Alyssa Milano clarifies the origin of the phrase “Me Too” – the disproportionate number of black faces versus white faces speaking out, and being given the deserved reverence and respect if/when they do, continues to plague the #MeToo movement, lessening its impact in the black community and all but excluding black women from the strength in numbers that comes with membership.

The unfortunate reality is that black women have to pick their battles very carefully and by nature of their skin tones alone, there is no shortage of battles to pick from. “#MeToo can feel like a double-edged sword for black women, and that’s as true for famous black women in Hollywood as it is for the everyday black women in Harlem,” says People TV anchor Lola Ogunnaike, “but in Hollywood, the glare of the lights poses an added layer of intensity.” In addition to braving the usual set-backs that come with having dark skin in Hollywood—the lack of roles, the stereotyping and pigeonholing, the pay inequality—black women also bear the burden and scrutiny that comes with pointing fingers at black men. Brandi Collins-Dexter, Senior Campaign Director at Color Of Change, admits that “the compounding ideology that black women need to protect black men is very real and often damaging.”

Lola Ogunnaike, anchor for People TV, courtesy of Nicole Young

There’s also that pesky issue of being blacklisted from a list that is virtually impossible to get on in the first place. It’s difficult enough for black women to pipe up with gripes of sexual misconduct in the workplace when the workplace is the entertainment capital of the world, so imagine how much harder it is for a cashier at K-Mart or a receptionist in a medical clinic?  Ogunnaike notes: “We are judged by a different set of standards, expected to tolerate a greater level of pain and penalized much more harshly for speaking up about anything.”   

Watching a stream of wealthy white women take their superiors to task on television (in several instances, after their sizable paychecks from said superiors had already been cashed) has done little if anything to empower women of color or embolden them to come forward. Couple that with the reluctance, albeit duly-warranted, of black celebrities to share personal stories, and all of a sudden you have a movement that’s mimicking the moonwalk and gliding backwards.

Ogunnaike adds, “The average black woman doesn’t see anyone who looks like her on the evening news sharing stories of survival, perseverance and triumph, so they don’t have much to draw inspiration from.” The greater likelihood that women with darker skin will be disbelieved when they come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct might have something to do with a point actress Salma Hayek has been very vocal about. “We are the easiest to get discredited,” she told Variety. Hayek believes it’s no coincidence the two actresses whose claims Weinstein chose to deny publicly were made by women of color, citing, “It is a well-known fact. So, he went back, attacking the two women of color, in hopes that he could discredit us.”

Without more black imagery, the #MeToo movement’s struggles with diversity and inclusiveness will continue, because women of color are accustomed to creating their own opportunities. As Europe Angelique reminded me: “It’s up to us [as black women] to move forward and make a change. We can’t worry about being mentioned in a movement… it’s up to us to hold our heads high, work together and team up on our own. It’s our power and strength that will get us through, like it always has.” 

Regina King’s 2019 Golden Globes Best Supporting Actress acceptance speech for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk was an excellent use of power and a dynamic show of strength. In her speech, King, also a lauded producer and director, vowed to employ more women on all of her projects and challenged people in positions of power in all industries to do the same. Seeing a strong, talented, successful black actress, using her hard-earned moment to not only reference the “Me Too” movement but to announce her personal plan of action may very well be the burst of color this movement needs, or at least a step in the right direction. #METOOGOALS

A lauded TV host, author, and lifestyle influencer, Nicole Young has hosted and contributed content for major networks and outlets including ABC World News Now, E! Entertainment, the CW Network, BET, WE/TV, The MSG Network, PIX 11 Morning News, Good Day Philadelphia, NBC 11 Atlanta & Co, The Morning Blend, InStyle, The New York Post, The Daily Mail, USA Weekend and In Touch Weekly. Founder of TheBeautifulBody.com, she is also a designer, Shu Uemura makeup artist, and recipe developer. Follow her on Instagram at @nicoleyoungstyle.

A version of this article previously appeared in print in our BLACK edition, now available in Barnes & Noble nationwide! Get your digital copy through our app on iTunes 

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