By Kamrin Baker
In 2007—10 years before the popular hashtag—Tarana Burke created a movement centered on victims of sexual assault, abuse and harassment: Me Too. Burke, a powerful and determined woman of color, aimed to facilitate a discussion about sexual misconduct where victims felt supported and less alone. While her idea affected women years ago, it wasn’t until the breaking Harvey Weinstein scandal and celebrity endorsements that #MeToo really stuck.
It should also be noted that the #MeToo creation credit was initially given to Alyssa Milano, who supposedly tweeted about the concept before anyone else in October of 2017. Her celebrity status and white privilege advanced her case and image, without any indication that Burke had been striving to develop this movement for years. Being a black woman, Burke not only deserved better in her pursuit of the movement, she was the brains behind the operation—and almost nobody knew.
I saw women come out of the folds in great magnitudes when the #MeToo movement initially gained traction. Almost every Facebook friend I had was posting the hashtag, and although I considered myself socially aware and “with the times,” I was floored by the realization that these horrible, unjust experiences have been—or are becoming—universal.
However, the stories most prominent, at least to me, were those of white women like Taylor Swift and Rose McGowan. I cannot stress enough that their stories were valuable, heart-wrenching and helpful to the movement—but they allowed these pervasive issues to gloss over as a Hollywood-specific, and a white-specific, downfall. Telling the stories of victims of color, victims in lower-level industries, and victims with less famous names is of utmost importance in continuing this conversation and advancing the cause for better legislation and workplace conditions.
While I appreciate and applaud the outspoken attitude of women in Hollywood (see: Time’s Up), I want to encourage women from every corner of every industry to speak up and demand justice, equality and recovery. Without their stories, our dialogue turns into a whisper, our stories just another thing for the movie screen.
It is this divide that worries me about the “Me Too” movement; not that women must do a better job (though, we should be holding one another accountable for our intersectionality every day), but that our society must first start addressing all inequalities to adeptly strive toward a brighter tomorrow, both in and out of the workplace. This means affirming the stories of white women and men, yes, but also: women of color, non-binary and transgender folks; members of the LGBTQ community; and disabled individuals who don’t have access to justice and resources like others do.
Losing that touch and understanding with all members of our local community plays into an understanding that “Me Too” is an exaggeration, or that it’s becoming our new normal. Because of this, many people who analyze rape culture and workplace harassment persistently beg the question: Well, why didn’t you say something?
I firmly believe that victims should be able to report their experiences when they see fit, but I do understand that if people wait too long, they have no case, no evidence, and seemingly, no chance at atonement.
I personally waited to say something about the comments made to me in my workplace because I was scared. My anxiety held me back, but I was also processing what it all meant, what is even considerably sexist or what specifically bothered me to begin with. It is not easy to speak freely about being uncomfortable to someone who made you uncomfortable, and even so, we find even more discomfort in speaking about discomfort. It’s a Catch 22 that no one wants to experience, and when the risk outweighs the reward, victims will remain in the shadows.
“There is a number of reasons women might not come forward,” Assistant to the Chancellor for Equity, Access and Diversity Charlotte Russell said. “There is a fear of being fired, a fear of not being believed, a fear of embarrassment and shame. People might not want the school or company involved.”
Russell said coming forward will always be the choice of the victim, but that the resources at the University of Nebraska at Omaha will always be available for those who need them. She believes when it comes to on-campus situations, the lack of reporting is not because students believe the university doesn’t care, but rather that they over-care.
So, to me, the question left to ask is, how do we care just enough?
Communications professor and UNO Ombuds Shereen Bingham gave many tips as to how we can provide support to victims of harassment as friends, as professionals and as fellow human beings. While Bingham said people can do simple things like actively listening, directing others to on-campus resources and more to encourage and uplift victims of harassment, above all, offering support means taking their stories, their identities and their desire for help seriously.
“Give people many opportunities to speak out; not just one,” Bingham said. “Tell them what steps can be taken, and promote their own self-determination. You can’t force someone to do or report something, so that’s why I really believe in offering emotional support, as needed.”
Bingham mentioned that people expect their friends and loved ones to be there emotionally in a time of crisis. However, people like professors, advisors and even resident assistants (like myself) should be better trained in offering that emotional aspect in a supportive environment. This brings in another layer of gender discussion, as the patriarchal norm presupposes that men and boys shouldn’t reveal emotion, but rather strength, toughness and clout. In reality—and in studying why many women make excellent leaders—we know that vulnerability, emotional intelligence and tolerance will take us much further.
“At times, some people might need advice or more tangible support and resources, but other times, they’ll seek more emotional support,” Bingham said. “Most professors or advisors give task-oriented support about where to go to report or find help outside of this situation. It’s less about ‘what would you like to see happen? It’s not your fault,’ but rather ‘this is the procedure I should follow.’”
While procedure has a valuable home in many workplaces or organizations, I would agree with Bingham in acknowledging that the needs of victims go beyond legal action or deliberate problem solving. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a ‘victim,’ but many times when I felt discriminated against because of my gender, the first thing I needed was a shoulder to cry on. Then, and only then, was I able to mobilize.
These concerns are important to note, but when supporting victims, we also shouldn’t jump to any conclusions about their mental health or emotional state. Assuming that someone has a problem, or as Bingham puts it, “that there is a deeper aftermath,” can make them feel more isolated. (Though, it is also vital to know mental health resources and options when detailing the steps that can be taken to help).
We must be careful and mindful, obviously in how we treat others on a day-to-day basis, but also while we continue fighting this issue, in how we love them after bad things happen.
That care and consideration that Tarana Burke wanted to employ in her “Me Too” movement is what we need to employ in our organizations. Learning about the experiences of employees and workers benefits us within data analysis and training—and it benefits us within our interpersonal relationships.
I’ve seen articles about women embracing crying at work, and I’ve definitely done that and will do it again. We often tell women not to change who they are and embrace their emotion in leadership roles, but what is more pressing to me, is that women keep up the good work and beg the men in their lives to shed a tear alongside them.
While a community of victims or hyper-sensitive people may not be one’s first desired social group, (but I’m here if you want me!) creating community, acceptance, truth and exaltation will reinstate the dignity of victims and give them their power back.
Bingham said that she is afraid that the movement may lose a bit of its influence as opposing parties feel more comfortable speaking out over time, but Russell, on the other hand, felt confident in the power of “Me Too’s” punch.
“These issues resonate with so many people—they’ve given people a voice,” Russell said. “It’s just going to get bigger.”
We can call the movement what we want; Me Too, Time’s Up, The Reckoning, but as I dig deeper and unflinchingly into this world and this activism, the name that feels right and true to me is The Future.
We’d love to hear your stories, too. Comment below or message the Gateway Facebook page to share your thoughts and experiences about workplace harassment.
Assistance is available for anyone in need on UNO’s Campus, as well as in the Omaha Metro. The following are links to those organizations:
–Women’s Center for Advancement
–Counseling and Psychological Services
–Victim & Survivor Advocates
–Voices Against Violence
–United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission