This interview has been lightly edited.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts with #MeToo have been used tens of millions of times since the hashtag was initially used in October, when actor Alyssa Milano set off the social media storm by posting, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”
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Within 24 hours the hashtag had been used on Twitter 825,000 times, and on Facebook, 4.7 million people had used it in 12 million posts.
But there’s another “me too” story, about a movement that began a decade before it was a hashtag.
In 2006, Tarana Burke, founder and director of Just Be Inc. and senior director of Girls for Gender Equity, founded the program me too Movement. Its goal is to empower young women of color who have been sexually abused, assaulted, or exploited, women from marginalized communities. These are the women missing from media discussions of celebrity cases such as Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Louis C.K. They are the survivors of sexual harassment and assault that occur in ordinary work spaces, or schools, churches, homes of friends or family members, or the streets of their neighborhoods. But they lack the resources, class status, or even the acceptable skin color to have their stories told.
I recently had a conversation with Burke about the decade-old me too Movement, the recent social media campaign, and what’s in store for me too in 2018.
Zenobia Jeffries: How did Just Be’s “me too Movement” begin? How is it different from the current social media campaign?
Tarana Burke: My work started in support of Black and brown girls in the community in Alabama. And it grew to be about supporting Black and brown women and girls across the country. And beyond that it grew to be about supporting marginalized people in marginalized communities. And it was very specifically about supporting survivors. It didn’t deal with the perpetrators so much as it dealt with supporting the survivors.
And so this iteration in social media has placed a larger focus on perpetrators being called out and held accountable for their actions. But the actual me too Movement is about supporting sexual assault survivors. So that’s where it’s different.
On your site you mention, as an example, young girls in school being harassed or made to commit sexual acts or perform sexual acts under duress. That reminded me of a story I recently learned of about a young mother in St. Louis who was similarly sexually exploited, but by a police officer. Andrea Ritchie, talks about stories like hers in her book Invisible No More. Can you talk about the dynamics of those gray areas for women between consent and compliance or coercion?
Right, she felt intimidated. By the nature of being a police officer there’s a certain power and authority that you hold, stature that you hold, that immediately qualifies it as coercion in my opinion.
The gray area is really important to talk about because so many of us live in the gray area. People talk a lot about how men are confused about consent and they don’t know if they should touch this or touch that, or ask.
But I also think there are issues around consent for women as well because we’ve been socialized to believe that we have to give in to the whims of men. That you have to well, OK, he asked three times, he asked four times, I gave in on the fifth time. And I’m not saying that giving in is automatically sexual assault, but it definitely is a gray area.
Or cases of people with their spouse or their partner who are forced into sexual acts. There’s just so many nuances that we don’t cover. And what we’ve been raised on is media giving us the stranger danger, the person that you see in the dark alley ready to jump you. And that happens, there are definitely lots of cases of women being sexually assaulted by strangers, or at gunpoint as part of a robbery or things like that.
But more often than not, the reality is we live in the gray areas around sexual violence.
How do we — men and women — effectively navigate those gray areas?
I just don’t think that you can policy your way, or legislate your way, into teaching somebody to treat another person as a human being. You can incentivize it in that way, or make consequences that say if you do this, then these are consequences, or if you don’t, then you’ll have your freedom, or whatever.
But at the end of the day we have to really interrogate the way that we raise our children. And the way that we socialize our children. We have to talk about consent really early on. I’m a big champion of sex education. Because I think that the only way we can have lasting changes is if we change the way that young people think about each other. We start teaching respect and boundaries very early, you know kindergarten, pre-kindergarten. We should be talking about respect and boundaries. We should be talking about what it means to ask permission. We should be talking about those things.
I’m 44 years old. I grew up with [the] Just Say No [campaign against drugs]. I grew up in the midst of the “drug war,” with Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan. And there were many problematic things about that, but the flip side of that was I was inundated as a child with the message of “just say no.”
So, I feel like we have to have a similar wave with young people around consent. We need to be inundating these children with the idea that consent is the way of life. Yes, you do have to ask to touch somebody.
I think that’s how we start having an actual culture shift. This moment is the start maybe of a culture shift.
I read an article that stated, “We should also keep in mind creating new injustices in the service of correcting old ones.” Meaning that while trying to correct or eliminate the predatory culture on women and girls, there shouldn’t be a lack of, or no, due process. It’s only been a couple of months, and already people are talking about a backlash. Do you think this could prevent that culture shift?
I do think a backlash is coming. But I think that we have to be present and know that that’s coming and really be aware and ready to push back against that. Those of us who do this work know that backlash is inevitable.
I know what the underlying sentiment is about, [having] a sense of fairness. And I think a sense of fairness is right. This is not a witch hunt as people try to paint it. It’s not about that at all.
We’re talking about two months of people — that’s all we’ve had, two months of people — interrupting something that is a deeply pervasive problem in our country, and in our world.
Sexual violence happens on a spectrum, and I think that accountability should happen on a spectrum as well.
I think people are really focused on the drilling-down part before we even get to the sorting-out part [of who’s a perpetrator and who’s not]. Everybody’s like, “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute, what about the good guys?”
The “good guys” need to spend more time examining how they support rape culture and less time thinking about how they haven’t actually touched anybody.
To your point, there are men chiming in on the issue. I’m sure you’ve heard Matt Damon’s comments. What advice would you give the Matt Damons, those who are saying, “What about us good guys?” “Not all men are sexual predators?”
That’s actually the most problematic part here. All of this media attention is on the perpetrator. All of the conversation about fairness and due process is focused on the perpetrator. And this movement, this work that we have to do is about supporting survivors. And about interrupting and ending sexual violence where ever it lives.
And so, in terms of advice, I don’t know if I have advice except for what I say. A hit dog will holler. You know, that’s an old saying.
Folks who consider themselves good guys know that they exist in a world where guys are not good in the same way that they claim that they are. And so maybe your focus should be on what can you do to help lessen rape culture. Standing up and just making a declaration that you’re a good guy is like the safety pin thing: Let me show you that I’m somebody that you can trust. That’s not really helpful in this moment. Go talk to your people. Men can talk to other men, and support other men to become the unicorn that they are.
The stories that are coming out now are focusing on high-profile people in Hollywood, media, Congress. Yet so many others are going unheard. While praising the work of the TIME magazine “silence breakers,” Melissa Harris Perry said, “But the space has not been silent. Our nation has been deaf.” Do you worry that the responses — with the expediency of firings, etc. — could close our ears again to the pervasiveness of sexual assault in other spaces?
I think that was a great line. Something that needs to be said. And what I’ve been saying from the beginning.
People keep saying to me, “Don’t you feel so fortunate that Alyssa Milano or this movement has elevated your work and now people know about it and now you’re successful?”
That’s “successful” based on whatever your gaze is. I’ve been doing this work successfully for 10 years. Now, is it elevated, is my platform larger? Absolutely. I have a bigger platform to talk about what I think should be happening around survivors of sexual violence, and the ways I think we can interrupt sexual violence in our community. And I’m grateful for that.
But success for me looks very different. Success for me is not just being recognized or acknowledged or becoming some sort of celebrity of the moment. Success for me is when we are acknowledging the pervasiveness of sexual violence in all areas of the country, in all industries. Not in just Hollywood.
So, Alyssa Milano knew about your movement and work? Had you met?
No, she didn’t know. Alyssa Milano is not complicit in doing anything sinister to me. I’m not trying to say that at all.
I don’t know if a friend suggested it to her to put that out. And when she found out about it, to her credit, she not only contacted me, she tweeted about it. She made every effort to make sure that people knew that this was my work. And I appreciate that level of support. And we’ve become friends in this process.
But our work is inherently different. Our goals are inherently different.
The story of Recy Taylor has been talked about a lot lately in media, unlike 70 years ago when she was first gang-raped by six White men. It makes me think of the young women you started out helping, how similarly their stories are being ignored. Gabrielle Union, a survivor of sexual violence, who was raped before her celebrity, has called attention to these stories going unheard and the focus being solely on White women. You’ve been working with survivors in vulnerable communities for so long. How does that make you feel?
I struggle with this as an idea because I don’t expect the media to cover, to talk about, and highlight the issues that happen in marginalized communities. It took us taking it to the street en masse for them to look at the issue of police brutality because of Black Lives Matter. Literally, human beings going into the streets with signs and protest and interrupting everyday reality in order for it to become a mainstream media event.
I would love if mainstream media would highlight the fact that R. Kelly has been preying on Black and brown girls for almost two decades. But we’ve been screaming and yelling about it for just as long, and nobody has done anything.
That reminds me of a Facebook friend’s post that read, “Why is it that the whimpers of White women are always heard louder than Black women’s screams?”
Because we are conditioned to respond to the vulnerability of White women.
But your work will continue to focus on those vulnerable communities of Black and brown women and girls.
Absolutely. And that’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take our communities.
I guess that’s my point about it being complicated and nuanced because I don’t have an expectation of media — White media — to pay attention to us, but I do have an expectation of us to take care of us.
So, it’s going to take other me toos and Just Be’s and grassroots organizations, which exist across the country, committed people who are focusing on the health and well-being of Black and brown girls, the most marginalized of us, queer children and trans.
It’s going to take us making sure that we are taken care of. I have a girlfriend who always says, “We all we got.”
And so, I think we spend a lot of energy worrying about what White people aren’t doing for us.
And that’s a hard quote, and Black people don’t hear that, sometimes, in the right way.
What else can we do besides the online #MeToo?
That’s the question. There you go, right there. The work that I am responsible for, the lane that I occupy, is helping people understand what community action looks like, and what supporting survivors looks like. For me, I’m interested in what we’ll be doing in 2018 — building this out both online and offline. Helping people, training people, guiding people to be active in their community.
And that looks like parents who come together and vetting the guidelines for hiring paraprofessionals and teachers, or whatever, in their school. I’m being super-specific, but these are things you can do right away. Are your teachers being fingerprinted, are they running background checks to make sure they’re not pedophiles? I mean that’s a real thing that needs to happen in schools. And sometimes schools don’t have the money to do it, or they don’t have the capacity, or they just don’t. That’s an action that parents can take tomorrow.
I think that what we have to do is be really proactive in our communities. Really drill down to the most basic in our communities. We have to find ways to interrupt sexual violence everywhere, every day, all the time.
What my lane is, is helping people to figure that out. And also finding real, legitimate ways to support survivors. As many organizations and advocacy agencies that we have across the country, there are still so many communities without resources. And so, part of my work is also teaching us, again, take what you have and make what you need.
I live in Alabama, so I got all these old people sayings.
You gave an example of what parents can do in the schools. What about in community at home, with family?
We’ll have guides on how to have hard conversations, guides on how to disclose.
That’s part of the online thing. We saw this wave of me too on social media, but one of my biggest concerns when I saw that is disclosure is hard. It’s easy to type something on the internet, not realizing in that moment that’s going to live there forever.
So, we want to help, support survivors around disclosure and what they need after that.
I’m just going to continue to speak, and speak out, and try my best to represent the many intersections that I sit in. I’m a Black woman. I’m a Black mother. I’m a survivor of sexual violence. I’m an advocate for survivors of sexual violence. In all of those ways that I exist, all of those things coexist, there’s a role that I play in supporting people whom I represent in those demographics. So, that’s really important to me.