In 2006, civil rights activist Tarana Burke, now 45, founded what would become the #MeToo movement to support survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities. Burke was among the men and women named Time Person of the Year in 2017, collectively called “the silence breakers.”
Q. There’s been a backlash against #MeToo amidst examples of people getting fired for doing something relatively minor compared to more serious crimes. With all that collateral damage, what do you say to the notion that the movement is using a sledgehammer instead of a scalpel?
A. Everybody’s trying to figure this out. Some stuff that’s happened has been heavy-handed. But that’s not the fault of the movement. This is an unprecedented historical moment. We have never confronted sexual violence in this way in this country. We’ve never taken a step back to listen, to really understand the effects of sexual violence, from sexual harassment to rape and murder. And so you’re dealing with millions of women, mostly, who have been shamed into silence forever now having their own personal reckonings. Like, Oh my God. I have an opportunity to say this out loud, and people will hear me, and I want to get this off of me. And it’s been wonderful to see all these people coming forward and talking about their experiences and sharing this hashtag on social media to say: You’re not alone. Particularly for people who said it for the first time. You put it out in the world. It came out your lips. You’re still alive. You made it. It’s out there, and you lived.
But the media’s fed the fire. In those initial articles, women were not calling for anybody’s head. They didn’t say, as a result of this, “We want Harvey Weinstein out. We want him dead.” The call was, “We want the world to hear what we’ve been through. We want the world to understand the system that we are living in that allowed this to happen. We want the world to see what it takes for a woman to survive and thrive in this country.” But we skipped over that. And it became: These women spoke, Harvey Weinstein lost his job. These women spoke, Matt Lauer lost his job. These men spoke, Kevin Spacey lost his job.It became this, like, sicko tennis match, almost. Like, oh, let’s see what’s going to happen next.
The problem is we home in on the perpetrator and make these un-nuanced decisions – and rob ourselves of opportunities for reckoning. Culture shift doesn’t happen in the accusation; it doesn’t happen in the disclosure. Culture shift happens in the public grappling with these questions. Because nobody has firm, definitive, perfect answers.
Q. What tends to surprise people about you?
A. They expect me to be more severe. Just this idea that we’re anti-men. But this is about empathy. I just try to carry the message I wanted when I was a kid: It’s not your fault, it’s not your shame, it’s not your blame. Nothing’s wrong with you. There’s no special curse on you that made this happen.
When I meet survivors, there’s a part of me that knows. I know by how they approach me – I can feel it. I’ve been in places like Red Lobster – true story – and I went out on a limb big time. It was a white family in Alabama sitting at the table across from me, and everything in my body knew that that little girl at that table – she might have been about 8 – that something had happened to her. The mother went to the bathroom. I just went up and I said, “Your daughter’s so beautiful.” And she’s like, “Oh, thank you.”
I said, “I do work with kids, and some of the kids I’ve worked with have experienced trauma” – I was being as vague as possible. “And this is going to sound really strange, but if you would, talk to your daughter and make sure she’s okay.” I said, “I try to tell all parents that.” She said, “It’s so crazy that you said that. Our family is dealing with an issue …” The girl had been touched by a family friend. And me and that mother stood together in the Red Lobster bathroom crying.
Q. Is there advice that somebody gave you that really helped guide you in all this?
A. The best advice I got when I was young was that I was powerful. Now. That there was nothing I had to do, or change, or become, to be powerful. And the advice I give is: Just do the work. There’s no shortcuts. If #MeToo didn’t go viral last October, I would still be marching around with my little “me too” T-shirt on and trying to get people to talk about it, trying to make a difference.
Q. It must be surreal to go from working in the trenches for years and years to suddenly having the bright spotlight on you.
A. It is. And kind of jarring. I don’t have a problem with obscurity, but the big, giant platform is certainly good. I get to sit at tables, be a part of conversations and get resources that I just never dreamed of having access to. That comes with the visibility. The challenging part is I don’t want to be caught up in that. Right? Like, if you’re going to celebrate me, you have to be committed to interrogating why you know me. You have to be committed to understanding that I represent something — always.
KK Ottesen writes for the Washington Post.