By Mariam Williams
On October 15, 2018, Tarana Burke posted the following message to Twitter:
A year ago today I thought my world was falling apart. I woke up to find out that the hashtag #metoo had gone viral and I didn’t see any of the work I laid out over the previous decade attached to it. I thought for sure I would be erased from a thing I worked so hard to build. + https://t.co/VmfwTxhcIo
— Tarana (@TaranaBurke) October 15, 2018
It was the beginning of a thread about the Me Too Movement’s origin story, how Tarana Burke had come up with “Me Too” more than 20 years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase as a hashtag and invited other women to share their stories about sexual harassment and assault, how the question, “had white hollywood [sic] tried to tried to steal this from a Black woman?!?” emerged, and black female journalists advocated for Burke’s recognition.
Her answer to the question of theft may be surprising: “The short answer, No. But I was definitely in danger of being erased.” I think what was (and is) in more danger of being erased than Tarana Burke and her founding credentials is the Me Too Movement–not the movement that emerged in 2017 after The New Yorker’s investigative journalism unveiled allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but the movement Burke started.
Burke’s thread suggests her purpose in starting Me Too was to support Black and Brown girls and women who were survivors of sexual assault as they disclosed what happened to them and “to uplift the power of community for survivors.” I see this as different from what #MeToo, the hashtag, was in 2017 and is one year later.
When I see the hashtag #MeToo, I see the news headlines about the latest power man in entertainment or journalism exposed as a serial harasser, rapist, or misogynist, and the headline that follows within the next hour about his contract suddenly being terminated or his resignation received, effective immediately. In some ways, it’s an exciting phenomenon to watch. The prevalence of misogyny is being exposed, and the power structures created to allow and encourage men to abuse women with impunity are falling.
On the other hand, Are the perpetrators who also happen to be working class being exposed? Are they losing their jobs? If so, what’s happening to the women and girls in their families who their paychecks used to support? Also, given that the vast majority of the (formerly?) powerful perpetrators have been white men and their accusers have been the white women working for them, are women of color, particularly working class women of color, benefiting from #MeToo? Are the systemic racism and misogyny they live with daily changing? Are their survivor stories known and heard? Do they have the support Burke has also been so concerned they have?
As PACSCL conducted its previous project, In Her Own Right, they found that their 38 member institutions didn’t hold many stories about women were not white, not wealthy, or not for some other reason already held in high esteem by their contemporaries. This means there are holes in the historical record.
When historians look back at the Me Too Movement 100 years from now, what will they find has been preserved? The newspapers will have archived their exposés on Hollywood’s predators and the female actors they victimized. They will have archived their interviews with Tarana Burke. The Library of Congress will have archived every tweet including #MeToo and even the ones including #MeTooMvMt, which Burke included in the last post of her thread. What will they find about the girl who first motivated Burke to say, “Me too”? What will they find of working-class women and the networks they form within their places of employment when no union exists or their union fails them? And when historians ask about the meaning of Me Too, about its short- and long-term victories, setbacks, and transformations, will it look like celebrities who were mostly white and female made Hollywood a better place for their peers, or like Burke and brown and black girls and women found ways to support one another when other systems failed them?