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#MeToo opens door to voices of women of colour: Paradkar

If minority women speak up, not only are they disbelieved, they are criticized by their own people and left alone by people from other communities.

Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement 10 years ago, long before the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it, writes Shree Paradkar.

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Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement 10 years ago, long before the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it, writes Shree Paradkar.

It’s been two weeks since movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was outed and ousted for alleged sexual assault and rape. One week since a hashtag sparked a movement that exposed the global scale of the sexual misconduct epidemic.

In social media terms, you could say the #WeinsteinScandal relit the spark for a decade-old #MeToo movement, which opened the #Floodgates releasing harrowing stories of sexual experiences in various forums, prompting the confessional and rather ghastly #ItWasMe, but also leading a few men to step up and say #IWill and #IWillChange.

It’s stupendous, really, this mass level gaslighting: about half of humanity has been silently heaving under misogynistic pressure to receive unwanted sexual advances as a compliment, or consider them the price to pay for ambition, or as part of the parcel of living with the other half.

This violence draws its power from the secrecy vested in it; it depends on concealment.

As long as those who are sexually assaulted keep it secret, it allows the creation of a parallel world where men — especially those who present to the world as powerful, talented and therefore respectable — can inflict violence on them. They can be secure in the knowledge that the shame of their actions will be borne by the violated, and serve to silence them.

As long as there is silence, these men have the power to wound.

It hardly needs saying that this misogynistic duplicity is also supported by women who are conditioned to see as normal a system that privileges men. These are the women who will rush to dismiss others’ experiences or minimize them as a rite of passage: “This is just normal.” “That guy is an idiot.” “This happens to everyone. You’re not that special.” “Be the better person.” “Don’t be weak.”

That wall of silence is crashing down.

We’ve seen it before, high-profile cases of sexual misconduct leading to the sharing of stories. This time around, though, the sharing has penetrated more layers, opening the door wider to hear the experiences of women of colour.

Tarana Burke is the Black woman who founded the Me Too movement 10 years ago, long before the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it last Sunday.

“Sexual violence knows no race or class or gender,” Burke told The Root, “but the response to sexual violence does.”

For women of colour, there are additional layers that constrict speaking out: patriarchy within their own cultures, instances of racial contempt and misogyny from white men (or men of another race in positions of power) and lack of support from white women.

Then there is the fear of contributing to racial stereotyping, something white women don’t have to bear. Women of colour face pressure from within their communities to not speak out against perpetrators of their own background, to not air dirty laundry in public, for fear that the entire community would be further marginalized.

The sexual assault of a white woman by a white man is about toxic gender power dynamics — nothing to do with whiteness. But narratives around sexual assault of, say, a Muslim woman by a Muslim man are framed as a problem with Islam; that of a Black woman by a Black man as a problem of Black criminality, that of an Indigenous woman by an Indigenous man as a problem of backwardness and substance abuse.

If minority women speak up, not only are they disbelieved, they are criticized by their own people and left alone by people from other communities who see it as an internal problem. The isolation is acute.

“Me Too is about the response to sexual violence,” said Burke. “And it’s also about the journey towards healing.” 

In the past week, the actions of six Indigenous female authors shone a spotlight on that healing process. Their work was scheduled to appear in an anthology by the University of Regina Press until they learned that the anthology would also include the work of Neal McLeod, the award-winning poet from James Smith First Nation, Sask. In 2014, McLeod, who is Cree and Swedish, had pled guilty to domestic assault.

The writers asked the publisher to remove McLeod’s work from Kisiskâciwan: Indigenous Voices from Where the River Flows Swiftly. “We cannot consent to publish our work alongside Neal McLeod, whom to the best of our knowledge has not made amends to those that he has harmed,” they said in an open letter.

McLeod had already resigned from his job at University of Trent where he was an associate professor in Indigenous Studies. He had already pled guilty. Was that adequate?

“I believe there can be redemption for violent men, just as there can be for anyone,” said U of R Press publisher Bruce Walsh, who refused the women’s request to pull McLeod’s work.

From the First Nations authors’ perspective, though, McLeod may have been penalized by a colonial code of justice, but their understanding was he had not made amends with the communities he hurt.

“Every Indigenous person is accountable to their community, and . . . if you’re not making amends to the community you are accountable to then . . . prepare to have your wrongdoings named,” one of the people involved said, on condition of anonymity because they needed time to reflect on developments that took place after they first spoke to me.

What happened after was the author himself withdrew his contribution to the anthology; “I do not want others to leave so I can stay,” he said in a public statement where he offered his regrets to his communities. “I attended ceremonies, went through intensive counselling, and also used my poetry as a way to process my feelings,” he said. “I sought the advice and teachings of elders about how to be a better man going forward.”

The episode triggered anguished but respectful debate and disagreement among community members, but there is no right way to call out abuse, no guide books to show marginalized women how to deal with the dual challenge of patriarchy within and bigotry without.

The anthology will still be published next year, now without the words of either the poet or the six authors. At first blush, it appears as if the women lost a platform for their stories, but in naming the abuse and seeking accountability, they gained a voice.

In the long run, that is progress.

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