Trigger warning: this article discusses themes and explicit discussions of sexual assault, sexual violence and rape.
No one, no matter their sexual or gender identity, ever imagines that they'd ever be subjected to sexual assault or harassment. You most likely know someone who has been personally impacted by it, even if they may not have personally disclosed it to anyone. No one deserves it and despite one's identity, it does not make them automatically immune from it.
In the 5 years since the #MeToo movement has gained public notoriety, there's been a tremendous shift in taboo conversations regarding sexual assault and rape culture. The movement has altered the power dynamics and systemic behaviors that have previously threatened the safety of far too many. The work that has been achieved in this time has, profoundly changed lives and we can thank this all due to the brilliant work of activist Tarana Burke. Outside of the tremendous and culture shifting strides that Burke has made in regard to having expansive conversations around the difficult subject matter, she continues to hold space for self care while doing this heavy work.
Below, Burke sheds light on the evolution and future of the #MeToo movement.
EBONY: What initially sparked your activism?
Tarana Burke: I grew up in a pretty politically conscious family but started as a teenager. I was in a youth leadership organization that trained young people to be grassroots community-based leaders. It was very much about training up a new generation to address the social justice issues we are addressing now.
People may not know that you started the #MeToo movement way before it surged across social media and in Hollywood. It's been five years now since it's been emblazoned into the public consciousness; what are your thoughts on the movement's progress since then?
A lot of people are tempted to frame the progress over the last five years by bullet points. There were laws passed and court cases won. That's a traditional framework in the way people think about progress. I think this is a very different situation. I think progress is more so what has been made possible. If you think of before and after this viral moment, we couldn't even have a national sustained national dialogue about sexual violence. These are conversations that were completely undermined by gossip and fodder, and clickbait. They were constantly questioned and dismissed. Not to say that this doesn't happen now; the difference is that the hashtag's viral moment has allowed the pendulum to swing in such a way that there is a bigger audience and a bigger group of people who previously pushed back but now say, "Wait a minute. There's more to this. There's a bigger conversation to be had and we should be listening more deeply."
I measure progress in the fact that we have millions of survivors who probably thought they were going to die with this trauma and these stories that they had held inside of their bodies. I think people underestimate the importance of being able to get that story out of your body and not just have it permeate every part of your cells. That's huge progress. Last year, President Biden, because of our efforts, named sexual violence as a public health crisis. That's major, because we think of it as an individual 1:1 thing; we don't think of this as a collective crisis. Sexual violence happens every 68 seconds in this country—that is a crisis. That's the kind of leaps and bounds that have happened around the narrative around sexual violence in this country in just five years where it would have taken us probably 20 years to make.
There is now a fear that the Me Too movement is regressing, especially when it pertains to Hollywood. What are people still not fully grasping about the movement?
There's a lot that people aren't grasping because we still are fighting a popular narrative. We're still fighting a pocket specifically about Me Too. We're fighting a popular narrative that this is just about celebrity culture, workplace harassment and cancel culture as opposed to accountability. People hear "Me Too" and they think, "Oh, I gotta act differently now." My question is always, "How did you act before? If you have to shift your behavior now, what were you doing before that has given you a realization that you have to do something different now?" Many don't understand that they tell on themselves with their own behavior. If you are not a rapist, there's nothing for you to change. If you are not a person who harasses people, there's nothing for you to change. However, if there's something about what you have heard in the last five years that makes you aware of how you might have been toeing the line, that's different. There's a lot of ways that people have done so when it comes to consent. I think that's good that they are rethinking their approach to relationships. Instead of making the focus about being called out, we should be thinking about being called in. For instance, it's okay that you have to ask permission to touch somebody. That's okay! But many see that as an impersonal indictment.
I say this all the time when I go to speak in corporate spaces and there are men who complain about having to conform because of all of this "Me Too stuff." What's interesting is that the majority of men have never had the experience of somebody having to whisper to you before you go into a meeting, "Be careful because Bob over there likes to grab people's balls." Countless times, women have to tell other women to be careful when going into space because of a touchy guy that they've had experience with. So just because there's an awakening and awareness now that says, "I'd like for you to ask permission before you touch my body" you're angry at that? That's something for you to hold, not me.
Popular hashtags like #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter have strayed from their original purpose as mainstream popular culture comes into play without proper context of their origins and intent. Do you believe that "cancel culture" has distorted the movement at all?
The narrative around Me Too has gotten twisted and turned into something that's about celebrity trials that get plastered all over the news or the gossip that's on social media platforms. People want to pontificate about the manner of things and have a wide audience to do so. I think that's where the misconception comes in about this being a gender war when it's actually about the bodily autonomy that everybody wants.
I try to frame it around dignity, particularly for men, because men understand dignity. The worst thing you can do is reduce or take away a man's dignity. They understand that as a framing because dignity is important. It's important to the rest of us too. When you take away our bodily autonomy, that's the same as taking away our dignity and you don't want it done to you. So I think there's still a willful misunderstanding around what the premise of the movement is about. It's about ending sexual violence, period. It's not just about women. All of us deserve bodily autonomy. Men are survivors of sexual violence, too.
The other thing I talk about is that often, there's this misunderstanding that if all men stopped raping tomorrow, there will be no more sexual violence. That's also not true. It's categorically untrue. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. All people ultimately enjoy power and privilege. Sexual violence is also about misogyny, sexism and patriarchy, and women absolutely indulge in those things. Another example is that when women experience sexual violence, oftentimes, the very first person they encounter is another woman. That person tends to asks questions like, "What were you wearing? Why were you there? How much did you drink? Why would that person do that to you? They're a good person. Let's not ruin their reputation." Those are the questions that come from other women. That's rooted in patriarchy, which women perpetuate as well. So this issue is not just as simple as men have to do better. We all have to do better. However, we don't get a chance to have that level of conversation because it gets cut off as "those women and that Me Too stuff." We know there's a deeper and bigger conversation to have. But, we get stuck at the misconception of what Me Too is because of what the media has made it out to be. That's the uphill battle that we face. It is difficult to overcome.
What do you say to people who weaponize the #MeToo movement for their own agendas, even if they believe it would affect the movement positively or negatively?
In every movement, you find people who are of all extremes across the spectrum. It's dangerous either way. I know people may mean well but I think there are definitely various ways that they can use that energy to pour in to this movement in more positive ways. I've tried to explain this to folks in the very beginning after Me Too went viral. These issues were finally getting a moment and I think there might have been quite a few people that were overzealous and did too much. You put 100 people in the room, there's always going to be somebody that's doing too much or too little.
To the point of the people that say, "What about the people who lie?" That's a very small percentage of people. You know, we're talking about studies that have shown us over and over again that about 3% of all people who disclose sexual trauma are not telling the truth versus the 97% that are telling the truth. But folks still want to focus on the 3%. Those are people who don't want to hear the reality. I also understand people don't want to hear the reality because the reality is bad. It's hard for people to hear. It's hard to hear that Black women have the second highest rate of sexual violence in this country. It's hard to hear that a lot of that is happening in our community. So when that's happening at the hands of people that looks like us, what do you do with that information? Because then, you have to sit with it. However, that doesn't mean that Black people are bad. No, it doesn't mean that Black men have any special depravity. But yes, it means we need a conversation inside of our community. We know that sexual violence has been weaponized historically against Black men. But no, R. Kelly is not Emmett Till. Now that we have all of this information, we have to sit down as a family and discuss what that means. It's not going to be easy, it's gonna be uncomfortable and will make some people mad. It is much easier to point out that little thing in the corner, than to look at that big animal behind you. It's what makes the work difficult but necessary.
I'm always trying to find ways to be a voice of reason and to lead with grace, empathy and a steady hand. My works largely focuses on us, on Black folks. You can't work with Black folks without deep, deep love for Black folks—it's just not possible. That place of deep love is what keeps me coming back. Additionally, it's important to carry a deep understanding of who we are in this country and how we got here. So I'm never going to lay blame completely at the foot of my folks. It doesn't mean that viable solutions can't come from inside of my community. I know they can. So, what I have to say is to both sides of those people is that we have solutions but these solutions don't have to be to cause more trauma. If we can come to the center, listen and contribute that same energy to solutions, we can move a little further.