The viral hashtag from an intersectional feminist lens
Despite many news outlets initially crediting Alyssa Milano with the movement that took social media by storm, “Me Too” was actually started by Tarana Burke in 1996. Burke, an activist and the program director for Girls for Gender Equity, coined the phrase to empower women of color and serve as a grassroots movement in communities which are systemically underserved by sexual assault workers and rape crisis centers. Despite many women finding comfort and empowerment in the hashtag, Milano’s popularization of #MeToo not only erased Burke’s name, but seemed to change a lot of the focus of the conversation.
Seeing the lack of intersectionality (a term referring to the practice of examining and discussing issues through a lens that recognizes multiple social categories and their interactions) in #MeToo, Brianna, an activist who runs the Instagram account @SassyLatte, made a post highlighting some of her concerns with the social media movement. Wanting to know more, I talked to Briana about their view of the movement, and how conversations surrounding sexual assault can adopt a permanent intersectional lens.
Olivia H: How would you like to be identified in the article? (pronouns, name spelling, credentials etc.)
My name is Brianna. My pronouns are they/she. No need for credentials. You can just label me as an “influencer”/activist.
Describe your process of encountering #MeToo. What was your initial reaction and how did your opinion of the hashtag change as it gained more momentum?
Brianna: My encounter was that it just started popping up all over Instagram. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Then I did my weekly Facebook login and noticed it there too, but it was used by friends that are pretty educated and who also identify as activists. It was then that I decided I had questions. Anytime something starts “trending” within activism, it’s a red flag for me because I feel like activists should be leading discussions with critical inquiry, rather than jumping onto hashtag trends.
While in the middle of researching #metoo, someone sent me a message on Instagram. The message was an article about Tarana Burke and that is when I decided to start questioning everything about the trending hashtag. Who was it for? Who was left out? Who would be helped? What about the permanence or longevity of the movement? Was homage paid or at least credit given to Burke?
If something is trending and interesting, ask critical questions. Who is participating? Who is benefiting? Who is left out?
In your opinion, what does an intersectional discussion about sexual assault look like?
I think we have to stop addressing it as an “all women” issue. We are ignoring the specific circumstances of people who live within multiple layers of systemic oppression. The statistics of sexual assault are higher for poor women, even higher for WOC, and higher for trans women. The needs of the women within marginalized communities needs to be made more of a priority because we are at greater risk. It is important to recognize and point out those needs when discussing how sexual assault should be handled and how treatment should be handled. Recently, an activist online was raped and reported feeling suicidal. Her followers called the police and she was restrained and dragged from her home against her will. Police brutality within African American communities is rampant. Perhaps that method of intervention might have been appropriate for someone in another demographic, but certainly not for a Black woman. These are the types of conversations that need to be had in activist spaces about how to be an ally to victim of color, or someone who falls into another marginalization.
As someone who does activist work over social media, have you experienced a similar erasure of your activist work to that Tarana Burke experienced through the Me Too movement?
I’ve not done anything remotely as profound as Burke, but I do see my words reposted on others’ pages and sometimes as their own captions frequently. Oftentimes, white women meaning well, will take my posts and try to initiate conversations on their pages. It’s only after they also inherit my backlash that they fess up to having reposted my work as their own. I gladly intervene reclaiming my work.
What can people do to be more critical of the activism they engage in?
So much about activism is giving visibility to those who are denied representation. It’s about giving voices to the disenfranchised. People who fight the hardest for these things are people who are actually within those communities. If something is trending and interesting, ask critical questions. Who is participating? Who is benefiting? Who is left out? Does this approach actually hurt communities of marginalized people? Then research, research, research. It’s not always easy. When I looked, I found an entire page full of links to articles crediting Alyssa Milano for Burke’s work. Honestly, if you research the genesis of so many social justice and civil rights activist groups, WOC are the ones creating these spaces and beginning these conversations. We are forced into invisibility, but you can find us if you do your work.
The needs of the women within marginalized communities needs to be made more of a priority because we are at greater risk.
Do you see any positives in the Me Too movement as it has played out over social media?
Sure. I think so many women, mainly white women, felt a sense of solidarity. I think solidarity can be comforting and healing. But, as far as I know, that’s about it. I don’t think men learned anything from it. If anything, several men attempted to co-opt the space, changing the dialogue to their victimization, which only diminishes the importance of the connection between all men and the privilege they experience within rap culture. I don’t think that enough attention was paid to the nuanced experiences of trans, queer, disabled, poor, and WOC.
How might people who do care about issues of sexual assault use the momentum created through #MeToo to create real and lasting change?
There has to be a desire to truly want to analyze the scope of the situation through an intersectional lens. For WOC, intersectionality is a state of being. For everyone else, it is a tool of critical and compassionate thought. Moving forward, the approach needs to be intersectional and it needs to be inclusive.
Is there anything else you’d like to add or that I should have asked you?
No, you are wonderful and did a great job.