The #MeToo movement and the ensuing combination of public penitence and denial from powerful men accused of harassment and assault has created an atmosphere of accountability and change. It’s made women be heard.
Yet not all women feel included. Many women of color have been vocal about the fact that #MeToo hasn’t represented their stories, even though the movement was founded by activist Tarana Burke, who is black.
HuffPost spoke with a number of women about how harassment and assault perpetrated against people of color can often involve fetishization, objectification based on race or ethnicity, and a host of other issues white women might not face, even as the victims are less likely to be believed.
The lack of representation in the movement could be tied to larger structural obstacles related to speaking out as a person of color, said the women HuffPost interviewed. Yet women of color face harassment and assault at higher rates than white women.
The women we spoke with mention being treated differently by men inside and outside of their own ethnicity or race, as well being influenced and affected by norms within their own cultures. They described fielding sexual innuendo and advances at work while dealing with cultural expectations to be compliant and quiet, or demure and sexy. Several women described feeling a lack of agency over their own bodies rooted in longstanding history. One told HuffPost that she stopped following a cultural tradition to avoid harassment.
Besides sharing their perspectives, the 10 women below proposed ways to change workplaces, relationships and culture to be more inclusive. Read their stories below, as told to Jessica Prois and Carolina Moreno.
Stories have been edited for length and clarity. Some sources have chosen to include only their first name and preferred not to submit a photo.
Mai Nguyen, 30, New York, Consultant
“I've been called a 'China doll' ... What expedited my rise is I don’t want to deal with this bullshit.”
I do business development, which is interesting for an Asian woman, and women in general. It’s a lot of men who know how to bro out and golf, so they get to the top. These are the senior decisions-makers. As an Asian woman in a more assertive role, it’s different. Growing up I was taught you shouldn’t speak out.
White and male-centric, the industry is full of over-sexualizing women, Asian women even more so. I’ve been called “China doll.” I’ve heard a lot of politically incorrect slip-ups about my race and the stereotypical affinities and traditions tied to it.
Another story is years ago, I was at a conference at dinner and met an executive from a large TV network. I thought, “Holy shit, this is the jackpot.” I also found his story inspirational. We exchanged cards and decided to meet for drinks. At first, we were talking about my company and my passion. Then he gave some of his backstory and said that his wife is Asian. And then he said he and his wife are in an open relationship. Then he invited me back to his hotel room.
I didn’t go. But he was just very persistent and continued to text me. Part of me as a business developer wanted to continue this conversation. At the same time, I didn’t want him to think I was interested. I handed his contact and potential deal over to a male colleague. He never followed up.
It’s interesting, because you’re emotionally vulnerable but you don’t talk about it. It can be an Asian thing to brush things under the rug ― to not necessarily make a stink about something. There can also be more of an expectation for Asians to act ladylike and timid and not have an opinion.
What expedited my rise is I don’t want to deal with this bullshit.
Shanita Hubbard, 38, Pennsylvania, Professor And Writer
“When there’s a young black girl missing from the hood, that doesn’t make The Huffington Post. Report it — not just blonde girls. That will send a larger message and help address part of a larger problem.”
It becomes more complicated with both acknowledging assault and reporting it for black women. There are so many variables at play. We have this mindset like we have to protect our black men. They suffer themselves from unchecked power in the hands of police. But we prioritize that like we don’t suffer the same abuse, and our pain is not prioritized.
When victim and offender are black, it can be a lot more complicated. And then if it’s a white man who is the offender and who has obvious power, who is going to hear us?
There is often lack of belief for black women, so there is a lack of reporting. Look at when Lupita Nyong’o, who has so much privilege and is wealthy and beautiful and famous, wrote about Harvey Weinstein — she is [one of the few] women Harvey questioned. People don’t believe us. Society dismisses black women on so many levels. People minimize our pain and don’t hear our pain.
Growing up with older guys from the hood, they grab your butt or physically assault you in some way. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t see it being addressed. I saw it happen to a lot of young girls. But it would sound like I’m trying to play oppression Olympics. When I try to say that for young black girls, it’s hard to come forward, it can be met with, “Do you think it’s easy for young black guys from the hood?” I get that, and that’s not what I’m saying.
Even when you think about President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program for black males, it’s needed. But there needs to be something for girls from the hood. It all kind of ties in together when you talk about sexual assault.
We need to hear more black stories. We can be more inclusive by making space for stories that usually get ignored. When there’s a young black girl missing from the hood, that doesn’t make The Huffington Post. Report it — not just blonde girls. That will send a larger message and help address part of a larger problem.
I have faith that the conversation is moving in the right direction into 2018. The fact we are having this conversation gives me faith.
Cindy Rodriguez, 34, New Jersey, Journalist
“When I’ve gone on dates or am just hanging with people I don’t know too well, I usually hear something like “Oh, so you’re Latina, huh? So does that mean that…” and you know some whack-ass shit is going to come out of his mouth.”
The first thing that pops into my head is how sexualized we, Latinas, are from such a young age. Growing up in a Peruvian household, and during my visits to Peru every year, I was always told to cover up if a man was coming to the house. It was something like “put a bra on, hide your body” because you are a young lady and if you put it out there then you are putting yourself up for harassment. It won’t be his fault anymore, it will be yours. That’s what they were saying, without saying it. I was told that at 10 or 11 years old.
Thankfully, in my career, I haven’t ever been harassed or sexualized. But I have been as just a woman doing any old thing. When I’ve gone on dates or am just hanging with people I don’t know too well, I usually hear something like “Oh, so you’re Latina, huh? So does that mean that…” and you know some whack-ass shit is going to come out of his mouth after that, some sexual stereotype. Basically, they’re trying to ask if I’m some freak in the bed, as if Latinas are these sexual bombshells walking around just waiting to have someone ravish us. Like we’re waiting for a white man to come and save us. It happens all the time to me.
Last year I was dating a white man, just casually; we were starting to get to know each other and we were making out, and he says to me: “Can you say something in Spanish?” And I was like, “This is the end of this date. This is not OK.” And he was like, “What happened?” I told him: “We were having a great time until you made me feel like a fetish right now. So I’m totally turned off.” That’s happened to me twice.
I think one reason people sexualize Latinas so much is because of how we’re portrayed in the media. I recently took a road trip to middle America and noticed that some people have never even met a Latina before. Their first impression of how we are and act or who we are is through the media. We’re usually portrayed as crazy hot heads or hypersexualized women in red dresses. And when people see something over and over again, they start to think it’s real.
I also think that we have hypersexualized standards of beauty within the Latino community. We do it to each other. People are just starting to be open-minded about different types of beauty, not just the olive-skinned Latina with long black hair and the tiny waist, wide hips, round booty and luscious breasts.
Sandy Hong, 29, New York, Nonprofit Director
“It’s an unfortunate thing to say there's a fetishization of Asian-American women among white hetero men ... So employers and everyone need to recognize: How are you disadvantaged by being an underrepresented voice?”
It’s an unfortunate thing to say there is a fetishization of Asian-American women among white hetero men. Well, there is an Asian fetishization overall. When I think about the tech industry or advertising industry when I was in it, there really was a lot of noticeable behavior that I felt like was toxic. I see a lot of folks, especially Asian-American women, who are entering into marketing or PR with a mindset of wanting to be in a leadership function, and so much of the industry is about client relationships and wooing and being this approachable easy-to-work-with personality.
There isn’t enough dialogue in the workplace for Asian women. For first-generation children born to immigrant parents, so much success is tied to education and our occupations we choose, and there is just a lot of pressure to succeed. We might choose industries related to the pressure we are receiving from our parents. These are the same industries that are occupied by the dominance of cis male individuals. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is friction there.
So employers and everyone need to recognize: How are you disadvantaged by being an underrepresented voice? How are you also at a disadvantage being a woman of color? How are you at a disadvantage based on pre-existing stereotypes or nuances that your employer hasn’t been brought up to speed on?
Ultimately, these are industries by white, cis, hetero men. Much of the success is related to proximity and relationship to this identity. For me, being an Asian, queer, trans, non-binary individual, so much of my existence is in resistance to that identity.
I’ve only found my salvation through starting my own business. I speak on behalf of so many people who have started their own things. It’s because some of these places aren’t changing fast enough. A lot of people don’t know they are suffering or that they are being fetishized. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until it happens. But it’s always on on her to deflect it. That’s a lot of trauma that goes unrecognized.
Emerald-Jane Hunter, 37, Illinois, PR Firm Founder
“We’re conditioned to think power never cycles to us ... That's why other movements or concepts like Black Girl Magic are important.”
Being black and also from Africa, I would get a lot of “I want to get a little piece of chocolate” or “dark chocolate” references ― which is not flattering, because you’re being objectified. These terms stem from a white man in power being curious and never having been with a black woman — and there is an undertone of subordination.
Being a woman in the workplace has its challenges. Then being a black woman doubles those challenges. And then when you’re thick or curvy, your curves felt like a curse. When black men see you, that’s the first thing they see. You’re objectified, you’re thick, you’re curvy, you have that phat ass, with a p-h. They think that’s a compliment. You don’t think you’re being seen in any other way.
So white-on-black and black-on-black harassment all have different undertones, but it’s all harassment. Working in media, I was often the token. You just smile it off and laugh it off. It’s a tough industry to work in. There was a director when I first started out as a producer who harassed my coworker and me. He touched us inappropriatelyand often harassed us. Can you imagine if #MeToo had happened when we were working there?
But you still just see more white women speaking about it. I don’t think black women are equally as empowered yet. I don’t think black women are running around saying “Me too,” even though the movement was started by a black woman. There is this different whole cultural issue that affects us.
I just don’t know if black women have felt heard in such a long time. We lack the empowerment to come forward from a deeper place — it’s more than being a woman and more than shame. It’s not being raised to know there is power in speaking up. We’re conditioned to think power never cycles to us.
Man, white man, different man, white woman, Hispanic women — at the bottom of barrel is black women. That’s why other movements or concepts like Black Girl Magic are important — it has allowed me and my friends to have something we could use as a source of pride, so it wasn’t like we had to rise to Oprah levels. I can be dancing or raising three or four kids and it’s Black Girl Magic. It’s something to latch on to that acknowledges our power, because it’s never been acknowledged — and everyone should acknowledge it.
Zahira Kelly-Cabrera, 34, Massachusetts, Artist
“The people that have come to the forefront of the "Me Too" movement have been cis white women in Hollywood. It kind of ignores the fact that the people who are assaulted and harassed the most are women of color, and we have no recourse.”
As Dominican women, we’re hypersexed. The sex tourism industry on the island is huge, and it means that when we go to other countries, as soon as we say we are Dominican, we are assumed to be sex workers. I’m absolutely for sex workers’ rights, by the way ― but it just so happens that when you’re typecast that way, people feel they can be more violent towards you or are entitled toward your body. That it’s just what you deserve.
It’s also because of historical factors, the Dominican Republic is where some of the early slave ships arrived in the Americas; it was the place of some of the early indigenous massacres. Colonists thought, “You’re wearing a little bit less than the women where we’re from, so you deserve to be sexually assaulted.” And that’s applied to both native and African women.
That’s how we ended up mixed; it wasn’t some beautiful white and native love stuff. It was not “Pocahontas.” It was mass rape toward native women and toward the African enslaved women that they brought to Latin America and everywhere. Non-black Latin Americans hypersex Afro-Latinas as well. They just assume that I’m for sale or something: “I offer you this much to be my mistress.”
Certain bodies are just not as protected as others, and that’s a historical thing dating back to slavery. Right now, the people that have come to the forefront of the “Me Too” movement have been cis white women in Hollywood. It kind of ignores the fact that the people who are assaulted and harassed the most are women of color, and we have no recourse. Even Tarana Burke, who started the movement, she did end up one of the people of the year for Time magazine, but they didn’t even put her on the cover. They put other white women on there.
In general, I think we are seen as hypersexed and not assaultable because we are here to be assaulted, kind of. I’ve had people take way too many liberties with me, groping or whatever, and other people be shocked, and I’m like, “Really? Because it happens to be everyday.”
It’s the reason I don’t go to clubs or bars anymore, because people come up to me and just grope me when I’m walking by. Or men just come up to me with no precedent for intimacy, getting really touchy-feely for no reason. There’s an assumption that I’m here for that because I am who I am. There’s also a difference in how I’m treated compared to lighter-skinned Latinas and other darker-skinned black women, too. There’s levels to it all.
Tina, 28, New York, Producer
“My nickname was 'Hello Kitty' on set ... There are unions, but they’re even whitewashed, too. There’s no HR. It’s just friends hiring friends. So it’s about changing that structure.”
My nickname was “Hello Kitty” on set. I mean, when I was younger, I truly liked Hello Kitty. Guess not anymore. When I worked on another set, someone said, “I want her to play with my chopsticks.” It doesn’t even make sense. I’m always a little fearful about what is being said.
I guess the issue is that humans want to connect, and they don’t know how sometimes. And that’s how culture has shaped us as Asian women — as stereotypes. The crew who called me Hello Kitty wanted to connect with me in some way, but only know how to see me through one way — the way culture and media depict me. That’s why representation is important.
Speaking up gets you in trouble. There are unions, but they’re even whitewashed, too. There’s no HR. It’s just friends hiring friends. So it’s about changing that structure to begin with.
Sydoni Ellwood, 27, New York, Admin
“I’ve learned quite early that our bodies are typically only sought after for pleasure, not love. So when a man reacts a particular way, he’s reinforcing what I already know — that my black body is a mere sexual object to him.”
There has been the occasional “You Black bitch!” when turning down an advance. In cases like that, I’ve always brushed it off and kept it moving; not because it doesn’t bother me, but because as a black woman, I’ve learned quite early that our bodies are typically only sought after for pleasure, not love. So when a man reacts a particular way, he’s reinforcing what I already know — that my black body is a mere sexual object to him.
This is not ahistorical either; Sarah Baartman, the Jezebel stereotype during slavery, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (a slave narrative) are all examples of how historically, black women were deprived of their sexual agency and their bodies used purely for the pleasure of the white men who owned them. Even now, Beyoncé is an overwhelmingly talented woman and yet, some folks can only see her for her body — remember the “Does she have a leg gap?” craze?
It’s unfortunate that any of us have these experiences, but I am grateful that women aren’t hesitant to let the world know that it does and what they can do to prevent more of it from happening.
Sirisha Suri, 39, California, Artificial Intelligence Specialist
“I used to wear bindi to work every day ― a ritual I soon abandoned for fear of being treated differently ... Part of the problem is that I don’t often see female Asian champions or role models.”
Earlier on in my career, I used to wear bindi to work every day ― a ritual I soon abandoned for fear of being treated differently and awkward looks and questions I would get from my colleagues. It was an uncomfortable feeling being the only Indian women in meetings full of white men — and the fact that you stood out culturally made it very hard to speak up.
Race is definitely a factor in addition to sexism. Because of cultural differences, you are often left out of conversations, as you cannot connect or relate to what is being discussed. I have not seen this much when I was an individual contributor, but as I moved to management role, I had to really work hard to learn and talk the talk so I could be a fit.
Part of the problem is that I don’t often see female Asian champions or role models. Of the 1,500 employees in my organization, I have seen only one female Asian who made it to an executive level that I can connect with, which means you are pretty much on your own. Another reason is women do not speak up for fear of being perceived as too aggressive. And with English sometimes being a second language, it is hard to break the barrier.
Having endured bias in my career, both in the work environment and outside, I have embarked on journey to help build a more diverse workforce by leveraging technology to be more inclusive.
Carolina, 32, New York, Public Relations
“It’s as if it’s just the culture and it’s just accepted. And there is a real sense of fear you feel, especially as a little girl, walking in the street.”
This movement is really important, and I’ve wondered how people in our communities, the Hispanic community and black community, are going to raise our consciousness. Because sexual harassment and assault is so prevalent, it’s so intertwined in our culture, that it’s not even a thing. It’s like almost imperceptible at this point.
As far back as I can remember, especially growing up in Washington Heights, you walk down the street and guys are talking crap like, “Hey, Mami.” It’s as if it’s just the culture and it’s just accepted. And there is a real sense of fear you feel, especially as a little girl, walking in the street.
I remember one of the first times I was catcalled, I was in the sixth grade, I was 11 years old and was wearing a baseball cap, big 99-cent hoop earrings, and I remember it was like complete chaos ― me walking down the street. Older men were catcalling me and I was like, what is going on here?
I’m 32 years old today, but I look like I’m 12. So imagine when I was 11, I was clearly a little girl.
I used to work in the music industry; that’s where I got my start in public relations. There was definitely a boldness from men toward someone who was younger and more impressionable. I felt an aggressive flirtation and sexualization in the industry, more overtly from white men. From people who are respected in the industry. But it wasn’t alarming to me at the time because I was already desensitized, given my upbringing in a Hispanic community, because we experience catcalling and that type of sexualization everyday.