Culture

Missing: Black activists in mainstream activism

In the aftermath of multiple women coming out with sexual assault allegations against former film executive Harvey Weinstein in early October, the hashtag campaign “Me Too” flooded social media in response.

Using the hashtag became a way for victims of sexual harassment or assault to share their stories, while others used it to stand in solidarity with victims. While actress Alyssa Milano was the first to tweet this call for action on October 15, the campaign started 10 years ago with a black woman named, Tarana Burke.

#MeToo came with a booming popularity that was powerful and noteworthy. However, it’s occurring within a month of the NFL teams’ national anthem protests in response to President Trump’s criticizing players who kneel raises ambivalence.

There’s always room for social activism, but these movements have two common denominators that are impossible to ignore: they began with black voices whose recognition fails to meet that of white voices joining the cause.

It’s essentially a case of white reaction-ism being validated more than black activism.

For Burke, it took the pairing of white women being a victim of Weinstein and white women using “Me Too” to bring the movement to the forefront; as for Kaepernick, who’s no longer in the NFL, his anthem protest flourished without him as a result of a powerful white man’s inflammatory comments against the whole league.

Ultimately, these instances illustrate how black people’s protests against social issues affecting black lives are either condemned or overlooked until white people engage with the activism or are root causes for the protest. As a result of this hijacking, the movement’s founding principles are whitewashed and lost throughout its rise to mainstream popularity.

Burke’s stolen torch

Even after people finally realized Burke pioneered “Me Too,” her longtime efforts to build a movement for young girl’s of color were still outshined by Milano and other white supporters. Sure, publications began to connect Burke to the hashtag’s origins, but it’s all come on the backend of Milano’s high praise.

Within hours following Milano’s tweet on October 15, users began to acknowledge Burke as the founder of “Me Too,” but the media’s role in making this connection came days after publications already put the spotlight on Milano.

If it weren’t for Twitter users crediting “Me Too” to Burke’s longtime advocacy of sexual violence victims, there’s no telling how long it would take for Burke to arise from Milano’s shadow.

Although Milano recently said she wants to work with Burke to give “Me Too” longevity beyond a viral trend, it doesn’t change the fact that Milano has taken the wheel of Burke’s movement.

I’m glad to see people speaking out for what’s right, but there are problems with how “Me Too” arrived at its mainstream success. To know that Burke individually started and sustained this movement for years, only to become a fringe character within the movement’s ephemeral narrative is a hard pill to swallow.

The resulting consequences allow for Burke’s ties to a movement she started for young women of color to be eclipsed by Milano’s current stance. In an interview with ABC, the actress described herself as a “vessel for millions of women.” Milano then went on to neglect Burke’s original focus on marginalized women, as she stated that she “wants this to be about the everywoman’s voice.”

While the beginnings of “Me Too” were briefly attributed to Burke, it’s mainstream presence is credited to Milano. In the same story, Burke’s ties to the movement were reported in one paragraph; Milano, on the other hand, filled 17, including five minutes of airtime compared to Burke’s 15 second sound bite.

Even ABC’s citing celebrities who showed either their support for “Me Too” or condemnation of Weinstein was whitewashed: Gwenyth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga were some of the figures used to illustrate the large reach of “Me Too.”

Kaepernick’s kneel: from red flags to riches

Similarly, the widespread adoption of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem demonstration in light of Trump’s attack on the NFL shows how black activists are liable to being squeezed out of their own movements.

Seeing players kneel or whole teams skipping the anthem was a surreal sight, but their re-activism completely diluted Kaepernick’s original intentions. He began his protests to raise Americans’ awareness of racialized police brutality and inequalities, not because of a divisive president told owners and players what to do.

Kaepernick started his anthem protests during the 2016 preseason, over a year before the mass protests against Trump on September 24, 2017. The difference between then and now is that Kaepernick continued his demonstrations with little support throughout that year despite strong criticism from all angles.

Some NFL owners despised him, calling him a traitor who shouldn’t be in the league; some players considered him a distraction; while many thought his kneeling for racial inequality and police brutality was misguided or disrespectful to America.

There was support for Kaepernick and his activism, but the narrative surrounding his protests remained polarizing, which made the shift in response and coverage that took place this year so noticeable.

The league rejoiced and was applauded for its protests against Trump while Kaepernick became an afterthought in the mainstream evolution of his efforts. Most teams throughout the NFL protested in some way, shape, or form, but where was this massive support last year?

Six owners came out with statements expressing the support of their player’s actions, while coaches supported their players in this process. But these are also the some of the same people who either watched Kaepernick act alone or rebuked his demonstrations.

Whether it’s in the context of Burke or Kaepernick, the success of their movements has come with a whitewashing that’s erased their protests’ very foundation. It’s clear that black activists are liable to be overlooked when their movements grow, but it’s also clear that this larger reach results in the founder’s intentions being altered.

As “Me Too” flooded Twitter overnight, it became about every woman as opposed to black women’s inherent vulnerabilities. Likewise, players kneeling for the anthem was done to combat a president’s bad case of Twitter fingers, not a systematic oppression that imposes inequities on black people.

Seeing both of these movements progress beyond their viral moments will be interesting to observe. What’ll be more interesting is whether any further success will warrant a bigger focus on how these demonstrations flourished from humble beginnings.

Because it’s clear that black people are catalysts for change as much as anyone else, but their level of recognition as such isn’t a given notion, even when their fight for social change doesn’t translate into being a viral sensation.

I'm a junior majoring in Journalism and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an avid writer, I anticipate becoming a news reporter who can ultimately bring untold stories to the surface to give a voice to those who can't communicate them on their own.

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