Why we don’t see as many women of color in Hollywood speaking out on sexual assault

Lupita Nyong'o, left, and Charlize Theron arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Nyong’o has joined the growing list of women who have accused harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault.
Lupita Nyong'o, left, and Charlize Theron arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Nyong’o has joined the growing list of women who have accused harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault. Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

There has been a cascade of Hollywood women coming forward with stories of sexual assault and harassment since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first published by The New York Times. But have women of color hesitated to share their experiences?

Lupita Nyong’o is one of only a few women of color who have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, out of the more than 40 who have gone public. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Nyong’o detailed cases of Weinstein repeatedly engaging in predatory behavior, starting when she was enrolled in the Yale School of Drama.

And Nyong’o is the only accuser to whom Weinstein issued a specific response. In the cases of the other women, he denied that he had engaged in consensual behavior, but he did not specifically name them.

“Mr. Weinstein has a different recollection of the events, but believes Lupita is a brilliant actress and a major force for the industry,” a spokesperson for Weinstein said in a statement to E! News. “Last year, she sent a personal invitation to Mr. Weinstein to see her in her Broadway show Eclipsed.”

Many were quick to wonder why Weinstein had chosen to respond specifically to a woman of color accusing him, but none of the others.

Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist specializing in sexual assault and author of “Overcoming Trauma and PTSD,” said Weinstein’s choice to confront Nyong’o is another example of his predatory behavior.

“There are unconscious biases we have about people who seem credible, who we see as a ‘good’ example of a victim,” Raja said. “He’s targeting the person he thinks is most vulnerable.”

Actress Alyssa Milano got an idea from a friend of a friend on Facebook to elevate the Harvey Weinstein conversation. She took the idea to Twitter, posting: "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." T

There are other examples of women of color coming forward, such as Gabrielle Union, who has spoken openly for years about an incident when she was raped at gunpoint at 19. But of the many women who have publicly accused Weinstein of assault and harassment, the majority are white. Of those who have spoken out against assault and harassment in Hollywood generally and shared their own stories, the majority are white.

The reason for that is pretty simple – and frustrating, according to April Reign, a digital media strategist who started the #OscarsSoWhite movement.

“It takes an incredibly strong person to come forward, period,” Reign said. “But women of color have a disincentive to come forward because they don’t have the same support system that white women have, and it has a chilling effect.”

That system she’s referring to is the support white women tend to show for each other – but not necessarily for women of color.

Raja said all victims think about who in the community will support them when they make the choice to take accusations public. In cases of women of color, many are minorities – both in Hollywood and elsewhere – and feel their built-in support system is smaller.

Reign compared two incidents to illustrate the point.

When actress Rose McGowan – one of Weinstein’s accusers and a vocal critic against him – was suspended from Twitter, many women called for a boycott of the social medium for a day. Twitter announced soon after the boycott that it had plans to crack down on sexual harassment and hate speech on the platform.

More women have stepped forward to make claims against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was fired from his company after a New York Times report detailing extensive sexual harassment accusations spanning three decades. Actresses Gwyneth Paltr

But when sports commentator Jemele Hill was suspended by ESPN for calling for an advertiser boycott of the Dallas Cowboys over the anthem-kneeling controversy – after also calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist – many of those same women were silent, Reign said. That silence continued even as Hill endured Twitter harassment after Trump himself tweeted about her.

Clarkisha Kent, a writer for The Root, made a similar point.

“And while black women came out strong for her (as per usual), there were crickets from the same people who would have rioted for McGowan,” Kent wrote. “No call for a Twitter boycott. No assistance from Twitter to stave off 45’s attacks.”

Leslie Jones was also harassed and bombarded with sexist and racist remarks after she appeared in the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Twitter did not take action until Jones started retweeting and quoting the harassment, but even then many white feminists who defended McGowan had not previously come to Jones’ defense.

“The only support that black women have in this world is the support that we give to one another and ourselves,” Kent wrote.

Raja said black women face another obstacle: historical bias.

“Look at the history of this country, such as slavery and Jim Crow laws, that basically said white men had the right to do what they wanted with black women,” Raja said. “Unfortunately, stereotypes that came from that time of black women being sexually available and promiscuous pervade our society even now. ... That means they may not fit into the image of a ‘believable woman’ that many people have.”

“Then, when those women wonder if they should come forward, they wonder if the justice system will believe them, or will it fall back on those old stereotypes,” she added.

Reign started the hashtag #WOCAffirmation to give women of color a platform to encourage each other on Oct. 13.

And in that space, some white women criticized them.

Not everyone agrees with that take. Angela Marie Hutchinson, a script writer and a PBS documentarian who directed and produced “H.U.S.H. – Hollywood’s Uncovered Sexual Harassment,” said under reporting is a significant issue, but she doesn’t know if it “has anything to do with color.”

“Is my journey a little harder than that of white women? Generally, yes,”said Hutchinson, who added that she has personally turned down propositions by “several” prominent executives in Hollywood. “But I don’t know if I would apply race to this specific issue.”

While producing her documentary, Hutchinson said she had trouble convincing women to identify themselves publicly while telling their story, regardless of their race.

“I had about 200 women emailing me with ridiculous stories of sexual harassment, and there were about nine women I chose to feature in the documentary,” Hutchinson said. “But only about 10 percent of the 200 were willing to go on camera to talk about it, because they were afraid for their career. They were worried about getting blackballed.”

“Women of color have more to lose than white women,” Reign said. “It’s simple math.”