When my neighbor Daphne was 15, she walked into her house and interrupted her father having sex with a woman who was not her mother. The woman jumped from the bed screaming and ran out the front door that Daphne had just walked in through, leaving her alone with her father’s rage.
Her father advanced toward her in the hall and raped her. Afterward, he took a shower, and Daphne was frozen against the wall, staring at the door she had just entered, shamed and humiliated.
The Daphne who walked through that door wasn’t a character created to fulfill a story arc in a violent movie, where the hero saves her at the end. She was a girl. She was raped by her father. He later went to jail, but she was still a girl raped by her father. No one was going to save her.
The Daphnes of the world are acutely neglected. Not white enough, not wealthy enough, not pretty enough ― just not enough. They were the motivation behind Tarana Burke’s activism and her original Me Too campaign. But the image of Me Too in its current iteration, #MeToo, is white and elite. It has endorsed the privileged survivor and ignored the brown one. It has re-traumatized the very girls Burke was determined to help, making them feel insignificant and excluded.
In 1997, when Burke was working at a youth camp in Alabama, she met a 13-year-old girl named Heaven. Heaven was considered “difficult” and “troubled.” She spoke privately to Burke and told her she was a sexual assault survivor. Burke wanted to say, Me too. Me too. Me too. But she didn’t. Heaven never returned to the camp. Feeling guilty for her lack of support for the teen, Burke organized programs aimed at girls of color who were surviving sexually violent spaces. She wanted them supported, validated, nurtured and comforted.
More than a decade after Burke started the Me Too campaign, elite women in Hollywood, publishing and media industries had their turn taking an ax to the door of sexual manipulation. Stories were shared. Names were spoken. Trauma was revealed. They dug crater-sized holes in the unquestioned intersection of gender and power and male toxicity. Female musical artists carried white roses with them as they attended the Grammy Awards as an expression of solidarity.
But solidarity with whom?
Daphne and Heaven and girls like them are invisible stakeholders and, often, they are just mentioned in passing. They have been reduced to an asterisk because they lack the financial capital to speak without the threat of revenge.
The Time’s Up Legal Fund is a lifeline for women without resources. But they only provide assistance to survivors of workplace sexual violence and harassment. Teenage abuse survivors like Daphne and Heaven are still on the outside looking in. They are not professional women. All silence isn’t the same.
“The survivors in Hollywood become heroes while the black girls of Compton and the black girls living in the West End of Atlanta and the black girls in Hyde Park in Chicago are faceless and nameless.”
Silence is the norm in many black families, passed from mother to daughter with the expectation that trauma is to be endured and not spoken about. The truth is buried. I remember when I was a teenager, my mother brought home a woman she identified as “Omi.” All my mother told me was that she and Omi worked together, and Omi was going to be staying with us. She did for three days, and then she left. I never much thought about Omi again, other than reflecting on her beauty. She was Cuban, with handsome eyes and jet-black hair and a reserved way of speaking.
About 10 years after Omi left, I asked my mother what had happened to her. My mother paused and said, “She died. She was staying with us because her boss forced himself on her and she was pregnant. She died of a messy abortion.” I asked my mother why she kept this to herself for so many years. After all, I was a young teen girl and this was a powerful story about poisonous masculinity and its warped consequences; if nothing else, it was a cautionary tale. My mother replied, “Certain things you don’t talk about.”
The survivors in Hollywood become heroes while the black girls of Compton and the black girls living in the West End of Atlanta and the black girls in Hyde Park in Chicago and the black girls in the Queensbridge housing project in New York City and the black girls in Allegheny West in Philadelphia and in Cherry Hill in Baltimore and the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans are faceless and nameless. Their silence isn’t fearless or strategic. It is strained. The #MeToo originals have become the #MeToo props and the #MeToo ghosts.
Not long ago, actress Jane Fonda noted, “So many of the women that were assaulted by Harvey Weinstein are famous and white and everybody knows them. This has been going on a long time to black women and other women of color.” Her words felt as if someone had just taken a mirror and angled the glass toward the sun, generating a bright heat the way only truth can.
Ignoring the numbers can’t erase the impact. Native American women endure the most sexual violence, followed by black women. But the faces of #MeToo are actresses like Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan and the multiplicity of Weinstein accusers, most of whom are white.
“The reality of seeing everyday people ― friends, neighbors, co-workers, family ― disclosing their various experiences with sexual violence has been jarring for many and enlightening for most,” Tarana Burke wrote in The Washington Post, one month before she was excluded from the Time magazine cover that honored #MeToo survivors. “I started this work with the intention of reaching young Black and Brown girls but fully believing in its potential to move the world. Some people call it a watershed moment, and there definitely feels like a shift is happening but it feels incomplete.”
Incomplete and unbalanced. There is the #MeToo adult table and the #MeToo kids’ table. White roses are for the former, while social neglect is given to the latter.
The #MeToo invisibles have been overlooked for celebrities because we glorify the aristocracy Hollywood has created; one where beauty reigns and whiteness and fame mean you are special. #MeToo changed perception and opened a wound and empowered women to speak about the sexual and emotional damage that happened to them. But #MeToo isn’t completely virtuous. The movement has fallen into the predictable patterns of exclusion and omission, of separate but equal nonsense, as it favors one type of survivor and re-traumatizes and neglects the other.
Valerie Morales is a nonfiction writer who covers gender, race/culture and sports. She is a content editor for the blog The Committed Generation.