“Look around. All the books, podcasts, articles, conversations are about how white people can be better. I don’t give a shit what you do as a white person except get your foot off my fucking neck! How do you watch Black people die in the street and then turn around and want to help white people?”
It’s 1pm in Baltimore (we’re on Zoom) and Tarana Burke is gracefully folding laundry at home as she speaks these words, giving voice to a feeling that I have had since May (and the killing of George Floyd): “There’s nothing special or different about Black people that you have to learn to treat us like human beings.”
The American novelist Toni Morrison was acclaimed for refusing to frame her work for a white audience – “I’m writing for Black people… I don’t have to apologise” – and I get the sense that Burke, educator, activist, survivor and mother, is cut from the same cloth. Burke is a household name in certain quarters of the US for her tireless activism on behalf of Black women and girls who have survived sexual violence. It was Burke who coined the phrase “Me too” to encapsulate the shared experience of millions of women, 10 years before it was adopted by a global movement that has changed public discourse around sexual violence.
“No matter who wins next week, our struggle will continue,” she says, when we first speak just before the US election. “Will we still have to work as hard as we’re working now to make Black lives better? Yes. But I would rather pick an opponent who will at least come to the table, who I can negotiate with.”
I catch up with her again when Joe Biden’s victory looks assured and note the tone of nervousness and caution. She is “scared to be optimistic”, she says, adding: “I’ll feel less trepidation on January 20th.”
Of course Biden in the White House does not mean her work is done. “There’s no policy or law, or even administration that is going to come in and wipe out sexual violence,” she says. But the fact that the Democratic campaign made reference to tackling sexual abuse is cause for hope.
“Kamala Harris talked about clearing up the rape kit backlog [the backlog of unanalysed sexual assault forensic exam evidence] in the United States, which is massive, and about having paid sick leave for survivors of sexual violence.”
And Biden? “He endorsed the VAMA [the Violence Against Women act which as senator he co-sponsored in 1994]. It’s definitely a flawed piece of legislation, but it’s useful. He’s done pretty extensive support around sexual violence on college campuses. It’s On Us [a social movement created by Barack Obama and his White House Council on Women and Girls to combat sexual assault on college campuses] was another programme he supported.” But, she adds, what’s happening below the big tickets is even more interesting. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib were all re-elected. We have the first trans legislator. We have openly Black gay men in legislation now.”
Tarana Burke was born 47 years ago into a working-class family in the Bronx, New York. Her mother and stepfather were pillars of the community: “There wasn’t a child there that grew up hungry because they knew they could knock on our door and eat.” Reminiscing about hot summers in the Bronx, she remembers how her stepfather would open up the fire hydrants. “You would see him coming down the street with the wrench and the kids all going crazy.” Today, she speaks of the neighbourhood as “the centre of creativity”, pointing out that it is the birthplace of Cardi B, AOC and hip-hop. “We were low in wealth, but we were rich in culture,” she says. “I actually went to rent parties. People were not going to let you get evicted. I’ve seen men come together to catch the dude who’s breaking into folks’ houses. And you don’t call the cops because the cops will come and elevate it. We’ll take care of it because we don’t want you disrupting the community.”
Aware of poverty, injustice and sexual violence from a young age, Burke became politically active early too. She studied at Alabama University, where she set up press conferences and protests around economic and racial justice. After college she stayed in the south, living in Selma and working at the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, where she assisted with the annual commemoration and celebration of the Selma Voting Rights Struggle. Later, as executive director of the Black Belt Arts and Cultural Center, she oversaw cultural community programmes for underserved youth. By 2003, she had set up Just Be, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to the wellbeing of Black girls aged 12 to 18 through workshops and training programmes focused on self-discovery.
It was in 2006 that Burke started campaigning with the phrase “Me too” to highlight the pervasiveness of sexual abuse and as a way to show solidarity with other survivors. The idea had been growing since 1997 after a conversation with a 13-year-old girl who had revealed to Burke that her mother’s boyfriend had been sexually abusing her. Burke was left speechless at the time, and afterwards wished she had simply said to the girl: “Me too.” As a survivor of sexual assault herself, Burke decided to make it her mission to find a way to let other women know that they were not alone. She founded the Me Too movement to focus on assisting and giving a voice to “a growing spectrum of survivors – young people, queer, trans, disabled, Black women and girls, and all communities of colour”.
Fast forward to 2017, when the hashtag #MeToo took off after being tweeted by actress Alyssa Milano following accusations against the now disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein. Tarana Burke’s name was largely absent from the conversation at that time but eventually she was acknowledged as the originator of the phrase and made one of Time magazine’s people of 2018. That same year she was one of eight activists invited by A-list actresses to walk the red carpet at the Golden Globes. Burke has said publicly that she doesn’t have an issue with the fact that it was only when white Hollywood celebrities joined in that the #MeToo movement reached millions. She is aware that it was the only way for it to gain international attention. Plus, Hollywood is not her battleground. “For me, it’s not about Harvey Weinstein. That’s not what my work is about.” Her work is about elevating the stories of women who are perpetually unheard – their Black and brownness often rendering them invisible. “Prior to #MeToo going viral, it was a real challenge to get folks who believed in social justice, who were progressive thinkers, to hold sexual violence in the same regard as they did other issues.”
How have this year’s Black Lives Matter protests affected her work? “Some people said to me: ‘This is not your moment. This isn’t about Me Too. This is about Black people.’” But excessive police force and sexual violence are “inextricably linked”, she insists. “Sexual violence is an issue in the country that is so deeply pervasive that it is actually enacted by law enforcement people. They’re not just inept at investigating and dealing with it, they’re also perpetrators..”
It is not the founders of BLM – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, whom she knows and loves – who refuse to see the overlap, but the “people who call themselves allies of this movement who have tunnel vision, who can’t think about two things at once.” One thing is for sure, the killing on 25 May of George Floyd has upended the world. “It sparked a particularly aggressive energy that is deeper than electoral politics. People are prepared to do what they have to to change our immediate condition, but it has also sparked people to invest in prolonged change in a way that I haven’t seen in a while.”
With regards to sexual violence, Burke wants to see more outrage, the same response that is given to senseless shootings. “If a child is shot in the street, we have seen over and over again how communities rise to the occasion. People are going to march. They are going to have board meetings. They are going to say we cannot have this kind of violence in our community – it’s unacceptable, and they are right. When a child is molested in that same community, the message is different. Nobody’s marching. Nobody’s talking. In fact, what we are told either directly or indirectly is to be quiet. That it’s a family problem. Nobody feels responsible for that child’s safety and wellbeing. That child has effectively died as well.”
The solution, as she sees it, will come via the power of collective responsibility. “There’s not an instance that I can think of when I have healed myself by myself, where I’ve gotten out of a deep dark place by myself. And so, I try to prioritise community care. If it weren’t for these Black women I surround myself with, I would not have made it.”
So with the right resources and knowledge, can a community protect itself? Burke seems to think so. “Ten years ago the idea of defunding the police, which has been around for quite a while, was a very fringe idea,” she says, but now, “mainstream news is talking about it. White Hollywood actors and actresses are screaming for defunding the police.”
But, she continues, “I’m not going to support something that takes money away from the police and puts it into social services.” In the US social services are seen by some activists as being an institution that upholds white supremacy, disproportionately targeting Black families (Black children are far more likely to be taken into the foster care system, for example). She suggests participatory budgeting as a solution. “I used to do participatory budgeting sessions in New York, teaching people about it. You can take your city’s budget, bring it to the community and have the community vote on what they need.”
Solutions are Burke’s gasoline. She believes rape culture can be tackled in the same way as smoking culture – pointing to the multiple medical, cultural and legal interventions that eventually shifted public consciousness. But she isn’t waiting around for the world to catch up with her efforts to build a safe society. “We did the work around the survivors’ vote, the #MeToo voter. We did the Survivors’ Agenda and the Survivors’ Summit — to raise the profile of survivors of sexual violence, as a constitution and as a voting block. So people can engage from a place of power. So now when we come to the table, we’re coming with both policy solutions and cultural interventions.”
The pandemic has made her work harder, but not undoable. “We did a survey around how the pandemic was affecting both intimate-partner violence and sexual violence, and it was really just devastating to see people who are staying in dangerous and harmful situations because the pandemic is creating economic situations that don’t allow them to leave.” She says it’s been a challenge but she’s determined to give whatever she can. “Around April, we put out a resource guide for survivors on our website that has now been translated into three different languages. It’s one of our most downloaded resources. People are grateful for it.”
Burke is a wizard with words; not surprising for someone who encapsulated the shared experience of millions of women with just two short ones. She woos me with a slingshot analogy that she’s been keeping in mind to understand the current state of American politics. It goes like this: history is the forked stick. Those trying to make progress are the rock, while Trump and the forces of the far right are the rubber band pulling back. “What they don’t realise is the further they try to pull us back, they’re just giving us energy to go further.” And if the rubber band breaks? “We’re just going to pick up the rock and throw it anyway!”
For someone who does such heavy work, Burke’s spirit is paradoxically bright and our conversation is punctuated by frequent bursts of laughter. I put it down to what it means to be of Caribbean descent, her family being from St Kitts; she embodies the essence of the island whose traumatic past doesn’t spoil its beauty or daunt its strength. She makes sure to look after herself too, has a network of girlfriends and a healthy relationship with the word no. “People will run you if you let them,” she says, “particularly Black women, because there’s an expectation that we will show up. There’s an expectation that we will take care of it.” She knows how to separate real life from glittery showbiz. “It’s nice to go to the Oscars and meet celebrities and hang out with Jay-Z and Beyoncé . But those people don’t pick up the phone in the middle of the night when I’m really upset. So my circle of friends and my partner are very important to my mental health.”
When it comes to organising, Burke thinks it comes down to just two things. Love and action. “That’s all it is,” she says. “I have an unyielding love for my people. Everybody I know who does this work gets frustrated and upset at some of the stuff they see coming out of their own community – but we come back every day.”
Healing, for Burke, must be a priority. “When you’ve experienced trauma, it fundamentally destroys part of you. But that doesn’t mean that what you create from those pieces isn’t a beautiful thing.” The future isn’t this terrifying, cavernous thing when Burke talks about it. It has promise, perhaps even a heart. “Progress is not binary,” she says. “Like Mariame Kaba [the American activist who campaigns on prison issues] says, ‘Hope is a discipline’, and you have to exercise that muscle on a regular basis.”