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Racial reckonings

The #MeToo movement could not have done the work it needed to do without the backing of large media corporations and publications like the The New York Times and The New Yorker, without the (in)famous spreadsheet, the long-rumored journalistic investigations and the utilitarian confessional hashtag. But where #MeToo has succeeded with the aid of mainstream media, it is notoriously difficult for thorough and direct investigations into racial misconduct to break through into these same mainstream outlets.

Even when the racial misconduct is obvious — i.e. almost anything Trump says — those guilty of it are hardly punished. The #MeToo movement has been relatively direct and consistent: It has led to sexual abusers facing legal and social punishment while sparking discussions that are still dominating news cycles. Swirling around sections of the internet is the question of what a #MeToo reckoning would look like for racism. What should we do to usher in a direct, highly-publicized, media-dominating racial reckoning that leads to concrete results — moving racists out of power, creating better policy and increasing the quality of life for people of color (POC)? Can we model this reckoning after the #MeToo movement?

We saw a racial reckoning blast across mainstream media outlets in late 2014, after the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of police gained national attention. Even conservative giants, like Fox News, though hostile to critiques of state-sanctioned violence and whiteness, devoted hours of screen time to reporting and debating police brutality. But this movement lost steam in daily news cycles. Publications instead turned to obsessive reporting of political candidates, in which the issue of race was debated but never centralized around the experiences of people of color. We can attribute part of the problem to a lack of nonwhite reporters. Female reporters were instrumental in advancing the #MeToo movement, but minority journalists are lacking: Only 17 percent of employees at daily newspapers in America are nonwhite.

This is not to say that the #MeToo movement’s work has been easy or steady. Part of the work that #MeToo does is continually recentering the focus away from elite zones where discourse thins back to everyday women in this country experiencing harassment and abuse, overwhelmingly at the hands of acquaintances and romantic partners, both in public (i.e. workplaces) and private zones.

Mainstream media attention is a paradoxical burden for the #MeToo movement and, frankly, any movements that seek to critique power structures. #MeToo’s message(s) could not dominate the public consciousness without use of the media, but large media entities often draw and concretize simplistic binaries between man and woman, rape and not-rape that activists, scholars and everyday people continually have to redefine. There is an enormous gray zone that exists outside of the faulty rape/not-rape binary that includes unwarranted touches, stalking behaviors and intimidation, something I have written about before.

In many ways, with race, this gray zone is more fractured. There are dozens of racial and ethnic groups in America that experience unique forms of discrimination. A common strain of thought in America is that our racial history is a progression from overt, explicit acts of racism — slavery, lynching — to “covert” acts or policies, like housing discrimination and mass incarceration. More commonly in white consciousness, this progression is absent: People deny that the mechanisms of racism have been transformed believing them to be eradicated. We are “post-racial.” In this paradigm, racism is active hate, usually defined by many white Americans as explicit acts, such as lynching, that are not as easy to accomplish today as 200 years ago (though lynching still occurs presently). Any actions or behaviors that reinforce racism, whether they be ignorant, well-informed or anything in between, are seen as not racist. When white America, in control of the media, is not equipped to understand the complaints of people of color, POC activists struggle to send a direct message to the general public using this same media.

And of course, both women and POC are not believed and not understood when they voice their angers and complaints. The importance of a #MeToo-like movement lies in the consequences: Sexual abusers are being punished, stripped of their power and expunged from their jobs, at least for the time being. Survivors hear that they are not alone. There is healing. There is a public spotlight on important feminist discourse, and it thrives.

It is difficult to not want this for race. It is difficult to not imagine a way in which we could shape a version of #MeToo so that we could point a stark spotlight on those that are complicit in structural racism and break through into mainstream media without our conversations being derailed and delegitimized. It is difficult to not want an easy way to sidestep the colorblindness that continually undermines the experiences of people of color everywhere, every day.

What the #MeToo movement has accomplished is too clean and uncomplicated when we attempt to substitute racial misconduct for sexual misconduct. Asking ourselves if we can replicate a #MeToo reckoning, complete with hashtag and spreadsheet, for racial abuse in this country illuminates what the #MeToo movement is lacking. What can we salvage from #MeToo for a racial reckoning in America, knowing that the #MeToo movement has only been able to be so direct because of its lack of attention to race? White women are continually centered in the movement, in the conversations that exclude the influence of race on relationship experiences and sexual assault. Gabrielle Union says of the movement’s focus on white women: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.” The same problem occurs that has historically occurred: Women liberation circles ask women of color to put aside their race.

Breaking through media and cataloguing sexual abusers has worked because, despite the historical and political forces that have subjugated women and gender-nonconforming people, disrupting solely the gender order is not wholly debilitating to American society. Disrupting structural racism is. Patriarchy relies on white supremacy for a full consolidation of power. To shock the country, to inundate media with a witch hunt of not just out-and-out racists but those that commit racial misconduct, cannot happen using the same tactics #MeToo does — because in part, #MeToo’s domination of media comes from not just the legitimate, concerted efforts of both white and non-white activists, but from its glaring blind spot of race.

 

Contact Medina Husakovic at medinah ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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