Can #MeToo go beyond white neoliberal feminism?

Can #MeToo go beyond white neoliberal feminism?
From Al Jazeera - December 13, 2017

Alicia Garza, the cofounder of Black Lives Matter, recently paid tribute to Tarana Burke, the African American activist who began the "Me Too" campaign in 2007 as a grassroots movement to aid sexual assault survivors in underprivileged communities where no rape crisis centres existed and few sexual assault workers were on the payroll. Garza, herself a survivor of sexual assault, explained that for her, the importance of "Me Too" lies in the "power of empathy, this power of connection, is really about empowering people to be survivors, to be resilient, and also to make really visible that sexual violence is not about people's individual actions, that this is a systemic problem".

These words are not only directed towards the Donald Trump and Roy Moore types and the conservative backlash against #MeToo, but should also be read as a counterbalance to the trenchant feminist critiques of the campaign.

Activists and feminists have, rightly, pointed out that it is only when powerful, wealthy and mostly white women come forward that influential men have been forced to resign from high-profile positions. This raises the absolutely crucial question of when and where claims of sexual harassment and assault are heard and whose voices count.

Other critics have noted that the denunciation and the tendency to conflate more "casual" sexual harassment with sexual assault can lead to scapegoating, lack of due process, and a new "sex panic", where sexuality will be even more forcibly policed. Historically, such processes have translated into more intensified policing of non-normative sexual practices, particularly among LGBTQ people.

Along similar lines, women of colour have voiced their grave concerns about the incredibly bloated and racist criminal justice system, claiming that the mere criminalisation of perpetrators is problematic.

#MeToo has already shifted debates about workplace norms, created new and surprising alliances

Finally, another concern coming from the left has to do with its individualistic nature. This line of critique suggests that #MeToo is about "me", the individual's resilience and survival and does not and likely cannot mobilise people politically. Thus, it can easily become part of a neoliberal feminist discussion, which ultimately individualises and atomises each person who uses the hashtag while disavowing the socioeconomic and cultural structures shaping our lives. In this way, it also elides the women who are perhaps most vulnerable to violence - sexual or otherwise - such as immigrant, domestic workers, and low-income women of colour.

Insofar as this is the case, then the #MeToo discourse not only helps to disarticulate the systemic nature of gendered and sexual violence, but it actually places the onus on individual women to come forward and speak their pain.

These criticisms are both valid and forceful. But Garza, in her single sentence quoted above, manages to address many of the issues raised, while highlighting the fault lines as well as the incredible potential of the #MeToo campaign.


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