Tarana Burke Is Just Trying to Do Her Work

A long talk about Black women, Me Too, and intentions with the activist and founder.

Photo: HEATHER STEN/The New York Times/Redux
Photo: HEATHER STEN/The New York Times/Redux

In October of 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Since then, the term Me Too has taken on many forms: a viral hashtag, shorthand for a Hollywood reckoning, and a tongue-in-cheek barb. When she tweeted those words nearly four years ago, Milano didn’t know that a woman from the South Bronx had already invited survivors of sexual abuse to say “Me Too.”

Back then, Tarana Burke, a survivor herself, was working as an organizer and nonprofit leader in Selma, Alabama. In 2006, she’d founded the organization Just Be Inc., which focuses primarily on helping young girls of color who have experienced sexual abuse, assault, or exploitation. It was in 2006 that she wrote “me too” on a MySpace page, emphasizing the notion that mass healing, particularly for Black girls, is a radical act of love, empathy, and community care.

Despite Me Too’s origins, many have wondered when Black women’s experiences would receive the same level of attention as high-profile exposés. #MuteRKelly was the culmination of a decade-long effort; and despite testimony from Beverly JohnsonBill Cosby’s reckoning was positioned as a response to white women’s accusations. The initial open letter from the Hollywood-led initiative Time’s Up was overwhelmingly signed by white women.

In recent years, however, multiple Black women have chosen to bravely come into the spotlight and share their stories. Drew Dixon, Sil Lai Abrams, Sheri Sher, Jenny Lumet, and others boldly detailed their traumatic experiences with alleged serial predator Russell Simmons in interviews, reported exposés, and the award-nominated On the Record. FKA Twigs alleged that Shia LaBeouf abused her during their relationship, setting a new precedent by filing a tort claim with the intent of donating any damages to domestic violence charities. Rapper T.I. and wife Tameka “Tiny” Harris are facing allegations of sexual assault and facilitating abuse after dozens of messages surfaced on Instagram (the two have not been charged with any crime, and have denied all wrongdoing). Alleah Taylor was introduced to the world while fighting for her life after she was allegedly brutally assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, former Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle Chad Wheeler. Despite these horrors making it into the mainstream, there’s still a lack of intersectional analysis and acknowledgment of the nuanced differences for nonwhite survivors. And meanwhile, the public awaits a magical watershed moment for Black survivors.

As the movement continues to confront the harm exacted on Black lives, the question lingers: How do we establish a framework to protect Black survivors, particularly those who aren’t established public figures? The Cut spoke with Tarana Burke about the current state of Me Too, recent headlines about gendered violence in the Black community, and the effort to create anti-carceral community tools and networks of support for working-class Black women.

You do a lot of work trying to explain to people the divergence between the Me Too movement and how it’s been covered in the media. What do you think caused that divergence?

I get why there was a divergence — the news media is definitely not there to advance our movements. I think it’s caused by the largeness of the hashtag #MeToo. You have this huge moment that happens, and the media is the only place you know to get information, unless you’re plugged into a movement already. People already didn’t even see Me Too as a sexual violence and social justice issue, so you have these huge stories of these huge figures that people follow already, and it’s easy to say, “Oh yeah, Me Too is that thing of Hollywood with that that guy.” I think that makes people feel disconnected.

It took time for people to know that there was a preexisting movement called Me Too and I was connected to it. I still get that every day —  people who are like, “Oh, I had no idea.”

Do you have any thoughts about what media can do to make their coverage more survivor-centered?

There’s so many more interesting stories to tell, so many more necessary stories than to keep even talking to me; I’m not the only survivor. Black women have the second-highest rate of sexual violence in this country, but Indigenous women have the highest rate. There’s just not enough stories about this.

You talk about proximity and how that affects how we relate to each other, and I think that bleeds into the media space as well. It’s not a secret that journalism is overwhelmingly white. 

I do a lot of speaking. These moderated Q&As — there’s always some young college student, or sometimes the faculty, who asks something about intersectionality when they really mean diversity. And now I’ve gotten in the habit of being like, “Let’s unpack what you actually mean here.” I’ve been doing the work for a long time, and have friends from different cultures and backgrounds who do this work. When we sat down to talk to each other, we realized that whether you’re Southeast Asian or Black Caribbean, we often carry a lot of the same experience, but the reasons why we’re silent, the ways that we were exposed, all of those things are different because of our backgrounds. You can be looking at three brown women who are survivors, and have completely different stories that mirror stories from people similar to us, but not each other.

You’ve launched We, As Ourselves. Did you start the organization in response to the media coverage of Me Too?

We, As Ourselves came before we even had a name. Time’s Up called a huge meeting in 2019 of all these different Black actresses and academics, all kinds of folks, because of a couple of things. One, people will often conflate Me Too and Time’s Up. Two, there had been the backlash to the R. Kelly documentary. One of the things that emerged, of course, was that Black women aren’t being seen in this moment. Time’s Up felt some sense of responsibility because people are like, “Hollywood and white actresses are taking up all the space,” but it’s more than that. There’s a bigger reason why Black actresses haven’t come forward with their stories of sexual violence or survival. When we come forward, the backlash is intense in a way that other communities don’t have. Two, mainstream media isn’t often interested in our stories unless it’s connected to something white or gonna get clicks for them. Then the second R. Kelly documentary came out, On the Record was announced, and Kobe Bryant died.

That conversation was a hellscape.

It wasn’t even about him and the sexual-assault allegations — it was the response to Gayle King asking that question. Gayle wasn’t the first person to ask that question, wasn’t the first journalist to ask it, wasn’t the first celebrity to come forward or even bring up the subject, and, in my opinion, she  soft-balled the question. I felt like she was setting [Lisa Leslie] up so that she could give a response in defense of Kobe Bryant, not tear him down.

I was stunned at the way people in our community were responding to her. That kind of horrific response — this is a 65-year-old black woman, you would never curse out your auntie or your mom’s best friend. So we came together, like, “Okay, it’s time to have some sort of strategic intervention around this.” We got the name way later — some point in 2020 — after the Paula Giddings quote.

We, As Ourselves is a partnership with the Me Too movement and the National Women’s Law Center, but also with Time’s Up. There’s been a lot of conversation about Dr. Esther Choo from Time’s Up Healthcare, who allegedly failed to report complaints of sexual harassment made by a colleague at Oregon Health & Science University. Some board members have resigned as a result. 

This predated that, so it wasn’t a part of the consideration because it wasn’t a part of information that we had yet. People have questions, particularly when they see and catch things in the media, and they should come forward and say, how do you stand on this thing? As an individual and as somebody who works closely with Time’s Up, I think that’s welcome. They put out enough information about their position and what’s happening, and it has caused some real internal, deep rethinking about how things are structured and how things are rolling out. I really respect Tina [Tchen].

The work to end sexual violence is long and varied, it’s been around for decades — but this iteration of the moment is very new, and organizations like Time’s Up, or even Me Too, came together quickly. This is not in any way to make excuses for any issues that people have with the organization, but I do think that we have to find ways to grapple with our challenges around people who are trying to do good work, publicly and openly, with integrity and with some grace.

You’ve highlighted the overlap in police violence and sexual violence. Have you thought about how to fold that into the greater defund police movement — lots of people ask, “What about rapists?”

We definitely support the idea of defunding police in our organization. Many people in this movement to end sexual violence stand in support of that. The whole system has to be revamped — we need to look at some of these social-service organizations that really operate like law enforcement. We need to really look at the services that are pipelines to prison and dig out the root causes. People try to say, “Why are you talking about this? Me Too has nothing to do with this.” Let me tell you how it does. Excessive force is the No. 1 complaint against police in the country, followed by sexual violence. The case of Daniel Holtzclaw; the two police officers accused of raping an 18-year-old Puerto Rican girl in New York — there are cases across the country.

The things that are currently in place to support survivors of sexual violence right now aren’t working. Woefully under-trained, underwhelming law-enforcement officials are handling rape cases, a backlog of rape kits. Defunding the police is not going to make this flurry of sexual-assault cases happen — “The police are defunded, so we can go out and rape with impunity.” People have been doing it anyway.

Most organizations you amplify emphasize a transformative-justice approach. I feel that’s inherent in the principles of We, As Ourselves but I don’t think that’s emphasized explicitly?

When people ask me about it, I say I’m a student. I couldn’t call myself an abolitionist, because I’m still studying and understanding what that means in a real way. Like I said, the systems we have in place aren’t working. But I also believe that not everybody is there, and if we are going to be an organization trying to represent survivors, support survivors, stand up for survivors, we have to be able to hear all survivors. So a survivor coming to us looking for this person to be arrested — that’s not our personal belief, and what we can do is educate them about the other alternatives, but in this moment, we also have to hear and support where they are, and try to bring them along. I don’t want to take a position that says we have no space for you, because everybody’s not there. I would rather take a position of trying to bring people to a new understanding of what’s possible, while supporting what is here right now.

There has to be an in between — it’s a nuanced position, and some people see it as waffling. But as long as everybody’s not there, we have to make space for survivors who aren’t and help bring them.

You went on CBS’s morning show to talk about We, As Ourselves with Gayle and mentioned specifically how we have accusations against famous men, but don’t focus on survivors and what they need. One story that struck me was the reaction of a lot of Black women with the announcement of Toyin Salau’s passing.

Toyin’s death — every time I think about it, it just sits on my chest. When I did the piece for Essence, I reached out to a bunch of her friends. They were all her age and so vulnerable in different ways. As horrific and tragic as it is, there’s just so many girls who experienced that, so many young Black girls who are vulnerable in a way that Black and brown girls often are. In Toyin’s story, she had housing insecurity, this kind of looseness in her life, where an organization or a group could have come in and held her tighter.

I want you to think about the Black women and girls in your life, stop for a second and be invested in what you’re hearing, because this is our own community, and history tells us that we are the only ones who save ourselves. If we’re not invested in this crisis in our community, the crisis only gets bigger.

I think the word survivor is an essential term, but Black women also experience a lot of socializing to be mules for greater labor. Often the assumption is that we’re doing well because we don’t talk about it or present a specific veneer in front of white people. 

In my new book I wrote a letter to my future self about the health issues that I’m experiencing now, and it’s been eye-opening, to say the least, to come to that realization that everything from a neurological condition down to grinding my teeth comes from stress and trauma. I had this line in here: “I don’t know how we missed the connection between strength and excellence. Do you get it now? I know you probably still call yourself a freedom fighter. But I wonder if you have mapped out a path to your own liberation. Black excellence, strong Black woman, thank a Black woman, Black girl magic. They are all about our labor, not our liberation. We will die on the vine for them if we don’t stop and realize that we are sick.”

I think people are genuinely uplifting Black women, but it is empty. They thank us, talk about our magic and all of us these other little things, but every one of those are connected to our labor. There’s no massive movement to just let us be. We’re not teaching you or lifting you or saving you or liberating you, we’re just existing, and it is exhausting. But more than exhausting, it is killing some of us.

I’m so tired of all of it. Anti-racism, saving the democracy, all of it.

There was this great piece on Vulture by Lauren Michele Jackson, who wrote about anti-racist book lists. All these white people have clubs and read The Fire Next Time or Audre Lorde, but if you haven’t had any sort of education or training around respecting Black people as people, what does you reading James Baldwin by yourself for the first time do?

I was so stunned last summer. All of us — me, Sonya Renee Taylor, Yaba [Blay], a bunch of Black women that I know — got hundreds of thousands of new followers because all of these white people were rushing to figure out how to look good and where to get anti-racist information. First of all, that’s not by any stretch what I think I’m doing; I’m just talking about my life.

The empathetic part of me gets seeing something so tragic and feeling helpless, but you watch them turn to Black people and say, “Help us, what should we read, who should we talk to, who should we follow?” All I saw was white people saying, “Teach me. There was nobody saying, “My God, Black people need a rest.”

So yes, read your little books, check off your little list, join your little clubs, I don’t care. Get your bag that says I’m an anti-racist. If you have not successfully even attempted to engage with Black humanity — and that doesn’t happen on Instagram — then I don’t care about your anti-racist training. It is illegitimate to me and just something to make you look good.

It seems like every time there’s a highly publicized case, people think this time will be different. Every time, everyone thinks that this is going to be the watershed moment that opens the floodgates toward systemic recompense in the music industry, urban industry, whatever synonym they want to use for places where Black people work.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I’m one of those people, sometimes. There’s different communities waiting for their so-called Weinstein moment, but I think you have to understand why a Weinstein moment could happen.

I often compare R. Kelly to Harvey Weinstein — Black feminists have been talking about R. Kelly since 2008. There have been major media exposés on R. Kelly — Chicago Sun-Times, Miami Herald, BuzzFeed, the Village Voice. Before Me Too, I wrote about R. Kelly when the BuzzFeed thing came out. There have been mainstream-media exposés with court documents and interviews with survivors over and over. #MuteRKelly actually predates #MeToo — they started in August when that BuzzFeed piece came out, and #MeToo going viral propelled it into a larger hashtag. It took two international hashtags, countless exposés, and then finally, on the heels of the viral moment, the documentary coming out — to get people to have a national dialogue about R. Kelly and get the prosecutors to take a second look at the case. That evidence they used to arrest him has been here — Jerhonda [Pace] and all the rest of them have come forward before. All of that to get us to the place where people see R. Kelly regularly as a predator, where his name has become synonymous with this behavior. Harvey Weinstein was exposed in two articles and he was done.

[R. Kelly is facing multiple sex abuse charges, with accusations including sexual assault, abuse of a minor, racketeering, obstruction of justice, and making indecent images of minors. He has pled not guilty to the charges.]

R. Kelly also gets pulled into this greater narrative of Black men being hypertargeted in this movement, which, if you look at the raw data, doesn’t necessarily seem to add up.

That drives me insane. The fact that Black people, particularly Black men, have said that Me Too is about taking down Black men — were we practicing on them 200 white men? The New York Times put out a list once of men whose lives have been impacted by Me Too. I went through that list name for name — only about 20 were people of color. Even fewer were Black men. When I hear this accusation from Black men — give me the names, because I want to stand up for them. R. Kelly, serial rapist that y’all know about — y’all saw the video of him peeing in the little girl’s mouth; Russell Simmons, who had multiple women who are not even in that movie come forward; Bill Cosby predates Me Too, but more than 60 women came forward and he admitted it, which is why he’s in jail.

There’s a whole slew of Black men like Neil deGrasse Tyson, who may have an asterisk next to their name, but their lives have essentially gone on. There is a real horrific history of sexual violence being weaponized against Black men in this country, from Emmett Till to the Central Park Five to Brian Banks, usually at the hands of white women. R. Kelly ain’t Emmett Till.

Some things that we talk about apply to women and even Black women universally, but some go to class. The trauma of sexual assault can mean taking time off and lost wages. Trauma leads to severe depression, and all of a sudden, CPS is at your house, because people think that poor Black mothers can’t raise children. Have you thought about how to fold that into We, As Ourselves?

I had to start finding my own pathway to healing, because I couldn’t afford what people were telling me healing looked like in the world. I was a single mother of a small child and working in a nonprofit making no money. I can’t buy your seven-DVD series because I can’t afford that, and I’m not making a decision between paying my rent and doing that. I think about class all the time. I’ve been to events, Black events around sexual violence, that are situated in Harlem, I don’t see people from the from the clinic here, I don’t see nobody.

I come from this, I come from the projects, the hood, if you will — and the violence that happened to me happened in those spaces, so I know what that looks like, and I also know that you have to speak a particular way and speak with a particular intention to get the attention of the women who put their head down and keep moving.

A lot of survivors experience shame. How do you get people to see that that’s a white-supremacist tool? Have you gotten people to start to process that? 

I will be honest and say I don’t think that we have done a great job of unpacking that. In a world of dealing with survivors, so much is about helping people to unburden themselves with the shame in the first place — there’s that double whammy of this personal experience and this larger lived experience, and all of it is shame being heaped on. Other people are not using the word shame but are having these more robust conversations about white supremacy — it helps people situate how it impacts their lives. Shame is the answer to so many questions; we’re just not asking the right questions.

A lot of media is very committed to a narrative, right? “This happened and everything happened happily ever after,” or “My life is still in complete disrepair.” There’s saying that there’s no perfect survivor, and then there’s really meaning it.

Survival looks different in different places for different people in different ways. Some people are surviving well. We need more space for grace for those of us who are working towards a similar thing when we cause harm — because we do sometimes, whether intentional or unintentional. This is where the transformational and restorative practices come into place, but there has to be space for us to be called in and create the space for accountability, but also to be in support of one another. You may not like my tactics for getting to where we’re going, but if my tactics don’t fundamentally harm anybody, and they’re just ideologically different, that doesn’t make us enemies. It may not make us allies, but it certainly doesn’t make us enemies.

There’s a particular way that we latch on to the narratives that we didn’t even create, and just feed into them, and we look around and, all of a sudden, we’re enemies with people who we could just let be. It’s exhausting, because I feel like I’m trying to just do my work. I appreciate and I’m grateful for the opportunities I get, but I also sometimes feel like, let me just keep my head over here and keep working.

Tarana Burke Is Just Trying to Do Her Work