Culture

We spoke to Tarana Burke, the woman who started the 'me too' movement

What should we do next?

Over the last few weeks, the #MeToo hashtag has stormed the internet to such an extent it became unavoidable. Actress Alyssa Milano ignited the viral movement by suggesting that women should comment 'Me Too' to exhibit how pervasive sexual assault is.

After the high-profile allegations about Hollywood big-shot Harvey Weinstein, people, and women in particular, felt compelled to prove that this kind of abuse of power was not exclusive to Tinseltown.

Like every online movement, there was a form of backlash almost immediately. Some people suggested the hashtag placed too much onus on victims and survivors of sexual attacks to force through change. They argued survivors shouldn't need to convince people of the prevalence of sexual assault, and that we should believe them without the weight of a thousand hashtags.

There has also been much debate about what men can or should be doing, this in turn has led to women Tweeting men #HimThough and men responding #HowIWillChange, #IDidThat and more.

gallery 1508769994 tarana burke 9

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

But behind the hashtags was another story — one of black female invisibility. The #MeToo hashtag inadvertently exposed tensions surrounding mainstream feminism and its lack of intersectionality.

After Rose McGowan (one of Weinstein's alleged victims and a vocal feminist) was temporarily suspended from Twitter, women responded by boycotting Twitter for 24 hours. There was forthright dissent from multiple black women, explaining that there was none of this outcry and sense of female solidarity when Leslie Jones when she left Twitter due to racial abuse, or for Jemele Hill, who has been suspended from her news network for Tweeting about the NFL boycotts.

The racial divisions within the feminist community were exposed once more when it arose that Alyssa Milano did not actually start the #MeToo movement. It was, in fact, 44-year-old Tarana Burke who conceived of the idea ten years ago.

Last week, Burke logged onto her Facebook to see what she thought was references to her own movement, an outreach program that attempts to empower marginalised voices survivor to survivor. After the 'Me Too' hashtag became viral, Burke ensured she inserted herself into the conversation, not for herself, but for the disenfranchised voices that lack a platform to speak.

We reached out to the Brooklyn-native activist about her initiative, how it felt to see it rejuvenated and what should come next.

1508770050 tarana burke 10

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

Were you frustrated when the hashtag was picking up speed and your work wasn't being credited?

I was less frustrated and more really nervous. I was worried because I have all these big plans for 'Me Too'; I'm working on a documentary for example. It has nothing to do with Hollywood and Harvey Weinstein. But then, as the day went on and I was watching it grow, I realised that it was beautiful. This is the thing that I always thought it could be. The vision I had was that words could help the victims of sexual violence. I loved watching it blossom into something amazing.

This is a gift. It's not a gift from me, it's a gift to the world. So then, I felt less trepidation about it, and was more amazed.

''I LOVED WATCHING IT BLOSSOM INTO SOMETHING AMAZING.''

Was there any concern?

Of course I felt some concern, not for myself. But, watching mass disclosure happen, is also overwhelming. I would worry people would say 'me too' and then not go to a rape crisis centre.

I have a lot of experience, not just with my 'Me Too' campaign, but with survivors disclosing. I know that there is a wave of emotions that happens after that. Immediately the survivor thinks, 'I feel empowered because I got to say this out loud', but then other thoughts can arrive, like, 'Oh my God, what did I do? Should I have said this out loud? What will people say?'

Not everybody experiences that, but a lot of people do, so I was concerned that nobody who was an advocate and did this kind of work would insert themselves.

1508769403 tarana burke 1

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

That is the reason I wanted to speak out, not to say, 'this is mine don't use it', but instead to say, this is amazing, it is beautiful to see it flourish, but we need to provide aftercare.

Can you explain your phrase 'empowerment through empathy'?

I am a survivor of sexual violence myself. When I was starting to figure out what healing looked like for me, I realised the most powerful interactions I had were amongst survivors. Non-survivors said, 'Oh my gosh that happened to you?' or, 'That's awful, are you ok?' People mean well when they do that, a lot of times it is genuine, but it's also disconnecting. It feels like you're an other, it's 'othering'.

''THAT IS THE REASON I WANTED TO SPEAK OUT, NOT TO SAY, 'THIS IS MINE DON'T USE IT', BUT INSTEAD TO SAY, THIS IS AMAZING, IT IS BEAUTIFUL TO SEE IT FLOURISH, BUT WE NEED TO PROVIDE AFTERCARE.''

One of the worst things about experiencing sexual trauma is feeling like you're all alone. If you work up the courage to tell somebody, and they 'other' you, that can also feel like an additional burden. Instead, when people say, 'This happened to me too, I understand you,' a connection happens, it's a very different process.

'Me Too' became the way to succinctly and powerfully, connect with other people and give people permission to start their journey to heal.

14316813 10154583167326579 8701787910565279602 n

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

Some people are saying that the movement puts too much pressure on survivors and victims instead of the perpetrators, what do you think about that?

I think we should be talking about both. For me, there is outwards facing and inwards facing. Outwards facing 'Me Too' is saying 'I want you to look at me and see that I am one of a hundred million, and I want you to recognise me and know that this happened to me too'.

There's a bold, declarative way in which the viral movement or moment has emboldened people to show the evidence of the numbers. That's important, and people need to see the sheer magnitude of people who are engaged in the hashtag.

Then there's the inward-facing element. This is the exchange of empathy, from survivor to survivor.

''ONE OF THE WORST THINGS ABOUT EXPERIENCING SEXUAL TRAUMA IS FEELING LIKE YOU'RE ALL ALONE.''

Whilst those two things are happening amongst folks who are going through trauma, people who are perpetrators, (which is largely men) need to be talking about accountability and transparency and vulnerability. They need to be standing up and saying 'this is what I'm going to do to change', or, 'I apologise'. Everybody needs to do their work in their own.

What do you think about the hashtags that emerged from the initial viral 'Me Too'?

There is on called 'I did it', which was a little jarring for me. I think that can be a little triggering because, we need context. Personally, I don't want to be friends with people who are perpetrators. So I need to know what you mean by that phrase.

I think some of the other hashtags, particularly 'I believe you' are really important.

1508770210 tarana burke 12

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

People ask me what men can do and I tell them, even if you're not a perpetrator, you should believe women, or queer folks, when they say that they have been violated.

All of these questions and shaming, 'what did you wear', 'why did you to their hotel', 'why didn't you tell anybody?' are small daggers that repeatedly jab into the body of a survivor. They just rip apart your soul. I don't think people get the courage that it takes to come out and say that something happened to you.

''ALL OF THESE QUESTIONS AND SHAMING, 'WHAT DID YOU WEAR', 'WHY DID YOU TO THEIR HOTEL', 'WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ANYBODY?' ARE SMALL DAGGERS THAT REPEATEDLY JAB INTO THE BODY OF A SURVIVOR.''

There is a real lack of intersectionality here, up until Lupita Nyong'o spoke out, it was a lot of white women that brought attention to this issue that has been happening to so many people for so long.

Yes, it's depressing that it takes famous white women to scream and yell before people pay attention. That's kind of the world we live in, right? So there's an onus on those women. Alyssa Milano has said to me personally she wants to be inclusive.

If we are not representing marginalised voices then it's all for nothing. A lot of times, things are motivated by the whims of white women.

''YES, IT'S DEPRESSING THAT IT TAKES FAMOUS WHITE WOMEN TO SCREAM AND YELL BEFORE PEOPLE PAY ATTENTION.''

It leaves us non-white women to insert ourselves in these conversations, and assert that we are equally victimised, if not more. Equally marginalised, if not more.

My profile has been elevated in this moment, regardless of who the attention is centred on in the media and regardless of the fact that the entry point was rich or famous white women, if i've been given a stage and a platform I'm always going to bring the voices of marginalised people with me. I feel good about that.

Because, although this hashtag has been ignited by Harvey Weinstein's alleged actions this is about a lot more that that. This is about the patriarchy, this is about power, isn't it?

Even the smallest amount of power can be manipulated, exactly. Sexual violence is about power, and people forget about power dynamics run the gamut. Be it parents and child, teachers and students.

gallery 1508769730 tarana burke 7

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

You have to keep examining and disrupting the power dynamics. The patriarchy is a system that holds up sexual violence, that helps the perpetrator of violence. Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, R Kelly —they're all products of that system and are supported by that system.

What would you like to see happen tomorrow, next week, month and year?

The hashtag has done an excellent job of showing us the sheer magnitude of people. I forget the number, it's crazy, it is absolutely bonkers, but it is real. What we have to remember is that each and every one of those numbers has a person behind it, who has a story, trauma and healing that they need to do. We need to ask now, what does radical community healing look like?

''HARVEY WEINSTEIN, DONALD TRUMP, BILL COSBY, R KELLY -THEY'RE ALL PRODUCTS OF THAT SYSTEM AND ARE SUPPORTED BY THAT SYSTEM.''

Then we need to start talking about what accountability looks like in our communities. What do we do, collectively, to start dismantling these systems that uphold and make space for sexual violence?

I think survivors have to lead that change in order for it to be authentic. We have the answer, women usually do.

But it isn't just for women, is it?

It's not just a women's movement, I want to say that and be clear. If I found a healing tree, in my backyard and it grew some sort of fruit that was a healing balm for people to repair what was damaged, I'm not going to just harvest all of those fruits and say 'you can't have this'. If I have a cure for people, I'm going to share it.

gallery 1508769840 tarana burke 8

Facebook: Tarana Burke 

I'm going to keep growing it and I want you to take some, plant some in your yard, and you plant some in your yard, and you plant some in your yard, let's all grow this thing that's going to heal us.

I don't own 'Me Too'. I may have come up with the idea and had the spark of the thing, but nobody owns it. And nobody can designate who can and can't use it, nobody can designate how somebody responds to it, that's awful.

From: ELLE UK