Women of colour face different battle in sexual harassment scandal

The dozens of women accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment have sparked a landslide of revelations and yet, minority voices are still largely absent from this growing movement.

Power dynamics, higher stakes, pervasive stereotypes help explain why few minority voices are coming forward

Participants march against sexual assault and harassment at the #MeToo March in Los Angeles Nov. 12. Despite many revelations coming to the forefront, minority voices have been largely absent from the public debate. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

In the overwhelming number of sexual harassment and assault complaints being revealed en masse, it's easy to overlook. We often miss what we can't see.

But if you're a woman of colour, you notice.

Since allegations surfaced against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, provoking a landslide of more high-profile perpetrators including James TobackKevin Spacey, Brett Ratner and Louis C.K., few minority voices have come forward. And when they have, the response can sometimes be different.

If you are more powerless, more vulnerable, it can hurt your job opportunities, your reputation, your chances in the job market-  Yunxiang Gao, Ryerson University professor

"That there are obstacles due to race and gender are still a surprise, a shock to a lot of people," says Phani Radhakrishnan, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the University of Toronto.

"Whenever visible minorities claim that they were harassed due to their gender and race, they have to establish that they perceived the situation accurately. It's compounded with the attribution of race. It doesn't just add, it multiplies in its effects."

Radhakrishnan says she wasn't surprised to see that of the about 80 women who have come forward accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong'o got a direct and public response from Weinstein after she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times.

After actress Lupita Nyong'o came forward about an unsettling encounter with Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced media mogul immediately fired back. Before that, he had remained predominantly silent against his many white accusers. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Power dynamics

Weinstein said he had a "different recollection of events" after Nyong'o claimed he wanted to give her a massage on one occasion and on another, propositioned her during a meeting. He had remained silent in the days following accusations from dozens of white women.

"Clearly he felt even more powerful so he had the standing to disparage her claim," said Radhakrishnan. "He felt in a relatively more powerful state to react against that compared to the other women."

Power dynamics like these ones are something Yunxiang Gao has been researching for years. Gao, who specializes in cultural history and gender studies at Ryerson University, says every sexual assault victim is in a vulnerable position. But those with less power are even more so. And more often than not, women of colour are those with less power.

New York authorities are investigating claims from actress Paz de la Huerta that Weinstein raped her twice in 2010. He has denied charges of non-consensual sex with any woman. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Coming forward can hurt already precarious positions

"You have very few high-profile non-white actresses anyway," she says. "If you are higher up, no one can punish you for speaking up. If you are more powerless, more vulnerable, it can hurt your job opportunities, your reputation, your chances in the job market."

Voices belonging to those more powerful can also de-legitimize those lower in the hierarchy.

Girls creator and star Lena Dunham apologized Saturday after defending a writer on her show, Murray Miller, against assault accusations by actress Aurora Perrineau. Her original post sparked backlash online.

"Every woman who comes forward deserves to be heard, fully and completely," she wrote, after initially releasing a statement saying she had "insider knowledge" that the claim was false.

Aurora Perrineau's sexual assault claim against Girls writer Murray Miller was discredited by the show's star, Lena Dunham, who later apologized. (Hasbro via Associated Press)

Stakes are higher

Because many minorities are already on the "outskirts of power" or the "margins of their industry," the stakes are higher to come forward, says U of T sociology professor Ellen Berrey.

"The few who have made it into these majority-white workplaces are so often running into discrimination or micro-aggression and they're trying to hold on," said Berrey.

Some women might also be more reluctant to accuse one of their own.

"There's an additional pressure not to air the dirty laundry of their community," said Berrey. "When they already know men of colour are facing discrimination of some sort, they already feel an obligation to protect their community."

Gao explains that in China, there is an "unspecified rule" that female actors will exchange jobs for sex. Everyone accepts and plays by these rules, she says.

"Women in the Chinese entertainment industry who came forward were punished. These women's careers were destroyed because no other film actors or producers would touch them. It broke the unspoken rule."

Tarana Burke, who first started the MeToo campaign 10 years ago, says women of colour have historically always had to push through barriers to have a voice: 'Movements haven't been started for us,' she said. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Joining the movement

But the more who come forward, the more difficult it becomes to ignore.

"Historically we've had to insert ourselves into movements," said Tarana Burke, who started the MeToo movement a decade ago before actress Alyssa Milano popularized it as a hashtag in October. "Movements haven't been started for us."

"Yes, the attention paid to this moment started clearly because these are rich actresses and people in the Hollywood spotlight and white women," Burke told CBC News in Los Angeles. "But that's not where it's going to end."

With files from Kim Brunhuber