With the explosion of the hashtag #MeToo, many women have been encouraged to both speak out on sexual harassment and in some cases name their accuser. The woman behind the hashtag, Tarana Burke, is hopeful that this wave will continue and that black women will be able to be empowered equally as white women who have seen their accusers not just outed, but also fired or face charges.
Burke began working with young girls who were survivors of sexual abuse in Selma, Alabama. She said she began seeing the correlation between the girls that acted out the most and once she got to know them finding out that they were victims of sexual abuse. She recognized the behavior because she was one of those girls.
“It was a very familiar behavior pattern,” she tells me by phone from New York. “Although for me, I skewed towards perfectionism as opposed to acting out. I figured I’m just going to be the best student, the best everything and nobody will be able to tell that I’m in pain and nobody will be able to tell this thing happened to me.”
Burke is an advocate for having culturally competent people aid workers for sexual abuse survivors. And to have black women have voices in relaying their stories.
READ: Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ Are The Silence Breakers of the #MeToo Movement
“It takes someone who can look at a black girl and see her humanity. Whether it is perfectionism or acting out, to be able to say something’s not right,” she says. “What was fascinating to me was I found the longer I worked with kids and the longer I worked with these girls that were getting suspended and getting kicked out I realized that’s the way they were dealing with their trauma. There are all kinds of studies about how people see black girls and think they’re older. People look at our children and lack a capacity to have empathy. They don’t see trauma and pain, they see trouble. People don’t take a moment to say this is a child and something must have happened that’s responsible for this behavior. ‘What kind of trauma did you go through?’”
Still, there were barriers to getting the girls to at first disclose their trauma and then be able to process it and have a language for what happened to them. Some of the early workshops she helped to run were about giving girls the language to talk about what happened to them. For many, they not only didn’t know how to process it, but they didn’t know what to call it. “They didn’t know what statutory rape was,” said Burke. “They didn’t know if your boyfriend is 21 and you’re 12 that’s a f—–g crime. They didn’t understand nuance.”
And when they got to the point where they were able to talk about it and use language to define what happened to them, Burke found that there were limited resources—therapists and support workers—for people in marginalized communities—low-income, LGBT, black women and men, Latin, disabled. “People in non-black communities tend to go to therapy or have access to therapy. Our folks are not going to rape crisis centers or going to seek them out or they’re not going to seek a counselor. One because of the stigma and two because a lot of those services aren’t culturally competent. They don’t know how to communicate with our children,” she realized.
So she created her own non-profit, Just Be Inc., which helps to rectify the problem of limited resources for these communities. She says placing the focus on the people with the least resources helps to have everyone supported. When you do it in reverse, giving resources to folks who already have resources, then wait for them to remember to spread it, it’s never going to happen, she’s observed. On MySpace in the mid-2000s she created a forum for survivors of sexual assault to have an exchange, allowing people to understand that they weren’t alone.
She created a design for t-shirts that read, “Me Too”. She had the design, but no money for the t-shirts. A producer named Dominique from the show The Simpsons, contacted her via MySpace and sent her 500 t-shirts in the mail for free. Burke was inspired by this generosity to keep going. Over the years, she found getting people to wear the t-shirt was a triumph. It took so much for people to disclose what had happened to them. For many it took decades. Others chose to live with the silence forever. She was frustrated by people who criticized women who took decades to reveal their trauma and felt empowered by other women to tell their stories.
“That’s probably one of the most disturbing things in the world to me is how people point fingers and ask: ‘Why did you wait so long? Why didn’t you tell people? I didn’t even tell my mom the things that happened to me until I was like 30,’” she says. “There’s so much pain and trauma that it makes it hard to talk about.”
What’s more is people were confused about whether their street harassment was worthy of a #MeToo hashtag as much as someone else’s rape. Burke says she makes sure to talk about it on a spectrum so that people understand that it is all related. One may be different from the other, but it’s all related.
READ: HBO Removes Russell Simmons From ‘All Def Comedy’ After Sexual Assault Allegations
“If we don’t talk about eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace, then it hinders the conversation around ending sexual harassment in the street or in schools,” says Burke. “People don’t understand that allowing sexual harassment to thrive creates a culture and opens up space for sexual violence to happen. That has been my goal in this moment—to give some context to it and allow people to connect the dots. It’s all related.”
When Burke talks about the future, she says that her focus will continue to be centering marginalized people and supporting survivors. She’s inspired by the #MeToo hashtag in places like Sweden who have taken it to another level, by adding other hashtags like #MeTooWaitresses or #MeTooClergy, or to bring attention to other industries besides politics and Hollywood.
“I never thought I’d see the day where there would be consequences for sexual abuse perpetrators against white women. It makes me hopeful that there’s the possibility for other people and for other industries,” says Burke. “We may not see a Harvey Weinstein level reckoning, but it could help shift the dialogue into low wage jobs or other areas with people that are not just celebrities and politicians.”
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.
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