As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around “believe women” and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured—in particular when it comes to society’s decisions about which allegations are taken seriously, and which should be subject to deeper scrutiny.
Last Friday, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-showrunners for the series Girls, issued a statement defending Murray Miller, a friend and writer on the show, against allegations that he had sexually assaulted the actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17. (Miller has denied the allegations.) “During every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe … that this is the case with Murray Miller,” they wrote in a statement. “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.” After a wave of criticism that her statement was in direct opposition to the feminist beliefs she espouses, Dunham issued another statement apologizing for her remarks; it acknowledged that, regardless of her closeness to the situation, she had used her considerable influence to unduly put “our thumb on the scale.”
Intentionally or not, Dunham’s initial call to scrutinize Perrineau, a biracial actress, but not Miller, fed into an implicit message that believability, sympathy, and public rage are reserved only for certain women. And those women are rarely women of color. Dunham’s actions caused the writer Zinzi Clemmons to resign from Lenny Letter, the feminist newsletter founded by Dunham. “It is time for women of color—black women in particular—to divest from Lena Dunham,” Clemmons wrote in a note about why she was leaving the publication, chronicling her issues with Dunham. “She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us.”
This isn’t the first time that Dunham has been criticized for her interactions, or lack thereof, with people of color. Girls was widely criticized for the lack of diversity among its cast and its portrayal of the few characters of color who did appear on the show. Last year, Dunham came under fire after publishing her fictional imagining of the inner monologue of the football player Odell Beckham Jr., who sat next to her at a gala—a depiction that many said highlighted her racial insensitivity. This latest incident—Dunham’s use of her huge platform to cast doubt on the account of a woman of color—brings into focus a familiar and troubling status quo: American culture has long had a preferred archetype for victims it deems worthy of rallying around—and rarely is that person a black or brown woman. It also raises legitimate questions about whether movements like #MeToo, for all its current momentum, will bring about change that will truly help all women. And further, the episode raises difficult questions about who deserves redemption, and who gets to decide. None of this is easy to unpack, not least of all when the standards seem different for both accusers and victims of different backgrounds.
Though women of all races suffer the trauma of sexual harassment and violence, it’s hard to argue that America treats alleged crimes committed against white women and women of color the same. Harvey Weinstein’s own response to the wave of allegations about his sexual misconduct reflected this disparity. While the mogul initially denied claims by the actress Ashley Judd directly after The New York Times broke its story, he then maintained a relative silence as myriad accusations rolled in from dozens of women; he broke that silence to attempt to publicly discredit Lupita Nyong’o, a black actress, when she wrote of her experience of harassment. While Weinstein has used this tactic since, it was specifically Nyong’o’s account that the embattled producer attempted to disparage. As my colleague Megan Garber put it, “Weinstein took the testimony of a woman of color, among all the other women coming forward, to paint as dishonest.”
Though the #MeToo movement has made clear the insidiousness and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, it has also been centered mostly on the experiences of white, affluent, and educated women. One doesn’t need to look far to see instances of women of color being forgotten or sidelined. In October, as #MeToo began to trend on social media, many credited the actress Alyssa Milano, who took to Twitter to encourage women to share their own stories of sexual harassment and assault; what got lost amid those calls was the fact that the originator of that slogan was a black woman named Tarana Burke, who came up with the concept more than a decade ago. The oversight highlights a common concern about the ways that black women’s contributions can be ignored or belittled, only to have the same ideas lauded when they are presented by white women.
An important hallmark of the “Harvey effect” has been the massive role played by female solidarity. In fact, Dunham herself used Instagram to lament the prevalence of harassment in Hollywood and to direct people to the Times’s story about Weinstein. “If you agree (and I think you do) I hope you’ll share the story,” she wrote. As more women have read the accounts of others and shared their own, the number of those willing to come forward continues to grow, and demonstrations of support in the form of protests and hashtags have gone viral. While a culture that promotes more gender equality and tolerates less harassment and sexual violence is a goal that most can agree on—figuring out how to express solidarity for those ideals while wrestling with the flaws of these movements can be a much more complex calculation for women of color.
Solidarity requires a level of trust and an understanding of shared goals that are not always present.
The rift is evident in just about every attempted demonstration of solidarity. Last month, a group of women chose to boycott Twitter for the day, a protest tied to the actress Rose McGowan’s account suspension. The #WomenBoycottTwitter plan called for all women to abandon the platform for a day, in solidarity with a woman ostensibly being silenced yet again. But some wondered, where were those same, broad calls for action when women of color have brought up concerns about about racism, misogyny, and suppression. In response to the boycott, the director Ava DuVernay asked white women to be aware of the conflict some women of color felt, given the lack of support they received when confronting these issues.
A movement of the same magnitude, for example, didn’t manifest when the comedian Leslie Jones was being relentlessly attacked on Twitter; or when the ESPN anchor Jemele Hill was suspended from her job after she tweeted that President Trump was a white supremacist and that those upset about threats to bench kneeling NFL players might consider protesting advertisers. As the author Roxane Gay put it, “Now people want to boycott twitter? Always interesting where and for whom people draw the line.” Meanwhile, during the Women’s March, women of color reported feeling conflicted about the demand for support for so-called “women’s issues” despite the fact that white women fail to show up in similar numbers to support causes that affect women of different races, such as police brutality. And the “Day Without a Woman” protests were criticized as being primarily targeted at affluent (and mostly white) women.
These examples underscore the importance of acknowledging the extremely different experiences of women in America. One need look no further than the 2016 election to understand that women are not a monolith. More than half of white women voted for Donald Trump. By contrast, more than 90 percent of black women, and more than two-thirds of Hispanic women voted for Hillary Clinton. Political choices, of course, aren’t the only metric by which to judge the views and desires of groups—but they can give an indication of broad priorities. The 2016 election showed that, despite a shared gender, white women and women of color differ vastly on their top concerns.
And yet calls for wholesale support among women in America are often presented as uncomplicated, straightforward feminism. Solidarity, at its most basic level, however, requires a level of trust and an understanding of shared goals that are not always present. Demanding it without attending to the nuances of privilege ignores the spotty track record that white women have when it comes to being allies to people of color. America’s history provides example after example of how dangerous this disconnect can be. In a moment focused on rectifying power imbalances, it would be irresponsible to forget that white women have often cast the fight against sexism and the fight against racism in a zero-sum game, from suffrage to the present day.
The social hierarchy that determines whose voices are heard—and who is believed—is more complicated than looking at men vs. women. The millions of women who don’t fit the categories of straight, cisgendered, white, and wealthy could tell you as much. As Clemmons noted in her resignation letter, real change and accountability cannot be achieved without sacrifice.