We want to pause and acknowledge Simmons and this black feminist labor of love not only because she is a pioneer of the contemporary anti-violence movement, but because her work, which began in 1994, helps ground current moves to raise awareness about rape, sexual assault, and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. More, Aishah Shahidah Simmons provides an opening to center and make present the continuum of too-often invisibilized feminist labors against rape, in which her work is deeply rooted and from which it emerges.
Recently, the #MeToo online movement has made space for women, some for the first time, to share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Initially, the hashtag was incorrectly deemed to originate with actress Alyssa Milano, who tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Milano’s tweet was a response to rape allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. However, #MeToo was in fact created a decade ago as “me too” (not an online campaign) by Tarana Burke, who is currently program director for Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equity. And though the current iteration of #MeToo exemplifies a significant historical social media moment, it began as a grassroots social movement, with the aim of empowering young women of color sexual assault survivors.
#MeToo, though initially focused on young women of color, seems in the current moment to have transcended race. This matters. It matters because women of color have been doing the work of “me too” for a very long time. And yet even proper attribution, though important, fails to offer adequate recognition of so many other women. In contemporary viral moments, we routinely fail to note the intricate layers, nuances, and intersections of these voices and works across several decades of anti-rape activism. It also matters that Milano is an Italian American Hollywood actress, best known for television shows like Who’s the Boss?, Melrose Place, and Charmed. It matters that she is an actress/activist who happens to have the ear not only of Hollywood but many Americans. Milano’s tweet calls rape culture back to consciousness in a very particular time in history, against a very famous white man – with very famous and mostly white survivors – and within the context of a “pussy grabbing” white nationalist hetero-patriarchal misogynist capitalist trans-antagonistic POTUS. The wide-ranging and fiery response to Milano’s tweet may very well be a covert way of saying #HimToo.
In short, Milano’s tweet likely caught on as it did not because critiques of rape culture are novel, but because hashtag activism makes anti-violence resistance accessible, easy to grasp, and contagious, and because who tweets about what, how we imagine the survivors, and who we visualize the perpetrator/s to be, matters. Still, online activism, with its tendency to strike quickly and then fade in response to moments such as this, is often ignorant of its historical precursors. Grounding viral moments in their historical, theoretical, and movement-based genealogies is critical, both to name the labor that made the moment possible and to ensure that discussions and actions continue beyond the Internet.
To be sure, online and hashtag activism may generate benefits, including providing discursive space. A great example is the Black Lives Matter network, which was first introduced to many of us as a hashtag. Notwithstanding BLM’s successes, some of the challenges of online and hashtag activism more broadly are that it erases herstories, movements, complexities, and laborers. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, #BlackLivesMatter developed out of longer and continuing movements of and for Black liberation. So too do contemporary incarnations of the anti-rape movement.