Tarana Burke Reminds Black Women #MeToo is for You Too
Founder of the #MeToo Movement, Tarana Burke took home the award for the Black Girls Rock! 2018 Community Change Agent on Sunday.
Burke created the term more than a decade ago as a catchphrase signaling solidarity between sexual assault and abuse survivors. She has said the statement means that “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” Despite her efforts, the issue for black females is that they still feel isolated or alone, according to Burke.
A graduate from Auburn University with a degree in political science, Burke said during her acceptance speech, “No one can take what was meant for us. It can be used by everybody and still be ours. Don’t opt yourselves out of what was started for you because the media isn’t acknowledging your hurt and your pain and your stories. They never have. This is your movement too.”
The 44-year-old activist from Harlem launched the movement in 2007, providing workshops in Tuskegee, Alabama, to aid young, underprivileged black women affected by sexual abuse. Her work got an unexpected boost in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano invited her Twitter followers who have experienced sexual harassment to respond with “Me Too.” Within 24 hours, the hashtag exploded across social media.
The next day, Twitter users alerted Milano of Burke’s previous work. Milano responded online, saying, “I was just made aware of an earlier #MeToo movement, and the origin story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.” Milano also shared a link to Burke’s youth organization, Just Be Inc.
In her speech on Sunday, Burke explained, “Black women are magic and we rock mostly because we are resilient. We have a long history of taking what we have to make what we need. That’s how this movement was born.”
Today, the movement has been expanded into an online campaign that supports the survivors of sexual abuse, assault and harassment. Given its prominence, Burke was among those featured as “silence breakers” on the cover of Time magazine. She even attended the Golden Globes with actress Michelle Williams as a statement of solidarity and support of Hollywood’s #TimesUp movement.
Burke is currently the senior director at Girls for Gender Equity, a nonprofit in downtown Brooklyn, NY. We discussed Burke’s work with her and how she feels about accusations of its lack of inclusion.
HERS: In becoming somewhat of a celebrity in this movement, has it become difficult to get the work done?
BURKE: I don’t consider myself a celebrity. I just have a lot of visibility now, but the work is primary. I spend most of time traveling around to talk about the work and actually doing the work. The way pop culture works, you have to be visible in order for people to listen to you. To that extent, I use the visibility to progress the work. It’s a lot to manage, but it’s a priority.
HERS: You seem so committed.
BURKE: This is my life’s work. There’s nothing else I really want to be doing. Celebrity doesn’t really serve me. If I was just out here as a person that you knew, for what. I’m 44 years old and I been doing this work for most of my life. So at this stage, it doesn’t really serve me to be known for being known. It’s about the fact that people know me because of the work that I do. That’s mot meaning for me than like, “Oh, I know that lady because she’s on a magazine cover.”
HERS: I believe that about you. I don’t believe that about everyone I interview, but I believe that about you.
HERS: So how do you make money from this movement? Do they pay you to speak? How do you support yourself?
BURKE: People do pay me to speak, but I also have a job. [Laughs] I work for Girls for Gender Equity. So I have my job and my job is still connected to the (MeToo) work that I’m doing. We shifted my role because I’m on the road so much, and so I’m able to work and my work is my work.
HERS: What’s the most common question you’re asked? Wait, let’s go with a better question. What’s the question that irritates you the most?
BURKE: Oh! [Laughs] It irritates me when people say that this Me Too movement is not for black women, even black people say that. I think it’s out of misunderstanding. So while it’s true that the media has not included stories about women of color and it’s not centered on black women, but saying it’s not for black women, those two things don’t go together. They don’t make sense. So rather than people saying, “Why are black women left out,” the question really should be, “Why aren’t black people speaking up?” So we’re only validated if the media is paying attention to it, right.
Follow my thinking. If you don’t see yourself in the media, if you don’t see yourself on MSNBC or CNN or what have you, what’s happening in our community is still happening. We’ve never seen our stories in the mainstream media. They’ve never told our stories. They’ve never centered us. They’ve never elevated issues that are important to us unless it was salacious or it was in some way to vilify us or to tell some kind of story of our lack of virility or whatever. The media is not the place that elevates the issues in our community.
So what we get caught up in is if we don’t see ourselves. Representation matters. I’m not saying that it doesn’t. So I’m trying to be clear that representation does matter, and that fight has to continue for us to be represented and for our stories to be told. If we only complain about the fact that they are not talking about black women and sexual violence among black women, but we’re not doing the work to amplify it our communities, the issue still exists.
I can get 100 people lined up to be like, “The Me Too is not for black women because they don’t talk about black women and they don’t do nothing about black women,” but I can’t get those same 100 women or 100 people to have a community event where we discuss sexual violence in the black community. I can’t get those same 100 people to do work around ending sexual violence in the black community. We have an issue around silence in our community. It’s a culture of silence.
And so while there’s a dedicated group of folks who work hard in our community around sexual violence, and I’ve been a member of that community for years, if you ask anybody who does this work, any black person who does the work of ending sexual violence in the black community, they’ll tell you the same thing, “I can’t get [black] people to talk about it. I can’t get them to take up the issue. Think about it, we can’t even get people to stop listening to R. Kelly.
HERS: You have a point.
BURKE: If you bring the issue of R. Kelly up in our community, it becomes a debate. R. Kelly is who we are. That has nothing to do with white people. We made him famous, and we continue to make him famous. We continue to support him, and his victims are 100 percent black girls.
So here is my other question when people say that [Me Too is not for black women]. If today, they did a major report on CNN about sexual violence in the black community, what’s next? What work are we going to do in the black community to actually deal with the issue of sexual violence in our community as opposed to saying we want to be included in this [media] moment?
HERS: Do you think one of the reasons black women don’t speak out publicly is because they don’t want to be perceived as tearing down black men?
BURKE: It’s like we can’t hold two realities at the same time. It’s absolutely true that there’s a history in this country of black men being falsely accused of sexual assault by white women. That’s true, and that’s not even debatable. History tells us that. We know that. It still happens, so it’s not just like it’s a historical fact. It still happens. Black men are still being falsely accused of sexual violence and other violence on a regular basis… If black women are being raped and sexually assaulted, it’s being done by black men by in large. That’s also a reality. Both of those things can be true. It’s like we have to say, “If black men are being falsely accused, we have to protect them at all costs.” No, then who protects us?
HERS: It’s like denial.
BURKE: [Black women protect black men] to our own detriment. If black men stand up for each other, and black women are out there only protecting black men, then who’s protecting us? And while we’re doing the protecting, they’re still assaulting us.
One is about the history of racial injustice in this country that will paint black men as criminals every chance they get, and [the other] is about the reality that sexual violence knows no race or class or color or age or religion. It doesn’t, but the response to it does. The way people respond to it absolutely is predicated on who you are. And so that’s why a white woman can cry rape and the whole world opens up. We are preconditioned to respond to the vulnerability of white women. When white women start crying [about assault], everything has to stop. We have to figure out what’s wrong… When black women cry, they are like, “Suck it up. You’ve been through worse. This is nothing.” We’re not allowed to be vulnerable.
I think that it’s a copout to say, “Me Too is not for me. It’s for white women in Hollywood.” That’s bullsh*t. It’s not true.
We exclude ourselves. Nobody said it wasn’t for you. You decided it wasn’t for you because you heard a white woman say it. But then when you saw a black woman come out to the forefront, then you should say, “This is ours.” I don’t understand why we don’t take ownership of it.
HERS: Thanks for sharing with us, and we will continue to support your work in any way we can.
After speaking with Burke, we came to understand that a woman’s culture and religion represent more distinctive differences in women’s experiences than skin color, but color is what black women often focus on to their own exclusion. As soon as they see a white face at a podium, they feel the issue is not for them. They feel as though their struggles are so distinctly different and other cultures don’t understand or try to include them. However, Burke feels as though when it comes to sexual assault, Me Too is a universal message among sexual assault survivors to each other, saying “I see you. I hear you. I understand you.”
Other 2018 Black Girls Rock! award recipients included:
Mary J. Blige, Star Power Award
Judith Jamison, Living Legend Award
Lena Waithe, Shot Caller Award
Naomi Campbell, Black Girl Magic Award
Janet Jackson, Rock Star Award