Tarana Burke discusses her me too movement, Hollywood’s hashtag co-opting of it

Activist talks about ending sexual violence against Black girls and women

The first time Tarana Burke presented a wellness program for middle school girls in Selma, Alabama, in 2005, she distributed sticky notes to each child. Then she asked the girls to write one of two thoughts: things they learned from that day’s session or “me too,” indicating that they had experienced sexual violence.

“Me and my home girl went back to our room, dumped the sticky notes, and there were all these ‘me toos.’ Seventy-five percent of these girls wrote ‘me too.’ We just cried. We were ill-equipped,” Burke told Cathy Cohen, the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, at a recent event at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts,

Those were the early days of the original me too movement—and a dozen years before actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase in response to a friend’s Facebook post suggesting that women who’d experienced sexual abuse or harassment post the words to show the magnitude of the problem.

When Burke discovered how rampant sexual assault was among middle school Black girls in Selma, she struggled to figure out how to respond, even though she’d been working in community organizing for nearly a decade at the time.

“Then I realized what had helped me,” Burke told Cohen during the conversation in March. “The women who wrapped their arms around me, literally and figuratively, and just improvised, just showed me deep amounts of grace and empathy, made me feel so safe and made me feel like I was OK, like I was a person, like what happened to me mattered.”

Burke has become a prominent activist for racial, economic and gender equality. Her acclaimed memoir, “Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement” (2021 Flatiron Books), in which she recounts her personal story of sexual assault, is a New York Times bestseller.

Finding her way

Burke and Cohen covered an array of issues related to the topic of sexual violence—from Burke’s own experience to Milano’s co-opting of me too, from the importance of discussing sexual violence in the Black community to a more productive way to fight.

“I did not identify as a survivor,” Burke said of her sexual assault, which occurred when she was 7 and from ages 9-12. “For all those years as a child, I felt complicit in my abuse. The men who molested me, in my mind, were not wrong or bad. I was a bad girl who had done a bad thing.”

To compensate, Burke tried to be “the perfect little girl” for many years. She ran track, was on the school honor roll, participated on the debate team. She regularly attended confession at her Catholic school, fabricating modest sins because of her shame, then doubling the penance the priest recommended.

When she got to high school, “my religion became Black power,” she told Cohen. “I just decided to embrace anger as a new form of power.”

Fighting became an outlet for her rage. She was suspended 11 times in ninth grade before transferring to a different high school. By then, she’d grown tired of fighting, joined 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement and became active in civil rights in college.

After graduating from Auburn University at Montgomery, Burke went to work for 21st Century in 1996 in Selma.

Spark for the movement 

Several events in her life drove Burke to begin the me too movement in Selma. Particularly powerful were her declining to share her own sexual assault when a girl who shared her sexual victimization with her, and revelations of criminal charges against civil rights leader James L. Bevel for sexual abuse.

She was shocked and distressed to discover the vast, celebrity-driven social media storm that occurred immediately after Milano’s 2017 tweet, which the Associated Press reported was shared in more than 12 million Facebook posts, comments and reactions by 4.7 million users around the world in the first 24 hours.

And Burke remains agitated about the hashtag version of me too.

“When people hear me, they want to talk about court cases and Harvey Weinstein and R. Kelly,” Burke said, referring to prominent court trials of the two celebrities, “and I’m like, ‘That’s b—t y’all. That’s just smoke and mirrors to confuse you.’ I am hoarse from yelling at the top of my lungs, ‘Stop being diverted. Stop being confused.’ They put a hashtag in front of the s—t I’ve been doing for 20 years and told y’all something else and y’all run behind it.

“And [they] keep celebrating me,” she added. “Stop celebrating me and talking about that nonsense. That’s not my work.”

Today, Burke leads me too., a global nonprofit that supports sexual violence survivors with several programs. Stopping sexual violence against Black girls and women remains a central effort.

In response to Cohen asking what the Black community should do to tackle the issue, Burke said the broader subject of sexual violence in the Black community must be discussed, even if it is “one of the most difficult things to do,” largely because sexual violence has been weaponized specifically against Black men.

“We have seen it over and over again,” Burke said. “We’ve seen it in the media. We’ve seen it in our communities. We’ve seen it in the most horrific ways actualized in our community.”

But, she noted, Black people must accept that the issue carries many truths.

“It is also true,” she said, “that R. Kelly is not Emmett Till.”

Conversations about violence against Black girls, women

Sexual violence against Black women, Burke said, remains an undisclosed crisis. Serious discussions about human rights, mass incarceration and police violence must include conversations about sexual violence against Black women, she said.

“You have to unpack these numbers,” Burke said, after sharing statistics on violence against Black women. “They’re not just numbers that we’re throwing out. This is adversely affecting us.”

Burke said her next book, “Revolutionary Grace,” might be controversial, in part because her vision of “a politic of liberation” includes “a politic of grace.” She’s been watching the way we fight, and thinks we need more grace, humility, and hope – but not in a way that equates those features with weakness and people who are pushed aside.

“I have decided that I don’t want to be in movement spaces with people who do not believe in politics that include love and grace and hope and accountability,” she told the audience. “But you cannot be accountable if you don’t believe in love.

This story originally appeared on the Harris School of Public Policy website.