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Me Too founder Tarana Burke: ‘You have to use your privilege to serve other people’

After Weinstein, Burke’s slogan was adopted overnight by people sharing their experiences of rape and sexual assault. The women’s activist is using her high profile to help the young women she has spent decades fighting for – those who have suffered abuse, and don’t have a voice

by  Portrait by Ali Smith

Main image: Tarana Burke at her office in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Ali Smith for the Guardian

The idea of attending the Golden Globes was a challenge. “When Michelle called me and said: ‘I would love to take you to the Golden Globes,’ I said: ‘Why? I’m trying very hard not to be the black woman who is trotted out when you all need to validate your work.’” Ouch.

Actors and activists … Meryl Streep, Ai-jen Poo, Natalie Portman, Tarana Burke, Michelle Williams, America Ferrera, Jessica Chastain, Amy Poehler and Saru Jayaraman at the Golden Globes.
 Actors and activists … Meryl Streep, Ai-jen Poo, Natalie Portman, Tarana Burke, Michelle Williams, America Ferrera, Jessica Chastain, Amy Poehler and Saru Jayaraman at the Golden Globes. Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

“Well, Michelle is very thoughtful and she said: ‘That’s not what I want to do.’” Instead, the two of them came up with the idea of “flooding the red carpet with women activists – I know some badass women activists from around the country, across the spectrum, all races and classes, different issues – and we wondered what it would look like if we used the time usually allotted to [red-carpet trivia] for our issues.” There were eight activists in the end, a smaller number than they had originally wanted but a signal, she says, of “how women have historically supported each other”.

It is possible that Burke’s use of the term “safe space” has already annoyed you; it’s a term that, like “trigger warning”, “micro-aggression” and “rape culture”, has come to act on some people with the force of a hostile ideology – either that or make them glaze over. Last week in Le Monde, Catherine Deneuve signed an open letter denouncing the #MeToo movement as totalitarian, and a similar piece ran in the New York Times grumbling that it reduced women to the level of “Victorian housewives”. No one used the term snowflake, but that is the implication: that #MeToo is driven by the same people who think books should be banned and pieces of art they don’t like taken down from museums.

Burke, it must be said, is not this person. She is open to criticism. She allows that in a movement so large and fast-moving there are inevitable and considerable shortcomings. “Sexual violence happens on a spectrum so accountability has to happen on a spectrum,” she says. “I don’t think that every single case of sexual harassment has to result in someone being fired; the consequences should vary. But we need a shift in culture so that every single instance of sexual harassment is investigated and dealt with. That’s just basic common sense.”

Burke’s prediction that Me Too, in its latest iteration, would be a disaster was not because innocent men might suffer, or because the difference between assault and harassment might be lost, but because victims of sexual violence might be poorly served by the publicity. For two decades, Burke has done the grinding, unglamorous, financially ruinous work of setting up programmes to help victims of abuse, and that didn’t tend to include sharing their status online. As it turns out, she thinks the de-stigmatising effect of #MeToo represents a greater gain than the anticipated risks, and if she is unmoved by the accusation that we are in the midst of an overcorrection, it is because she has seen what the alternative – doing nothing – looks like.

Burke speaks at a rally in Hollywood, California.
 Burke speaks at a rally in Hollywood, California. Photograph: Chelsea Guglielmino/FilmMagic/Getty

She is also aware of the numbers. At one of the first Me Too workshops Burke ran, for high school-age girls in Tuskegee, Alabama, she asked the girls to fill in a worksheet noting three things they hadn’t known before they came, adding that if they needed help, they should write “Me Too” on the paper. “Doing it that way, it wasn’t like: raise your hand if you want a Me Too sheet!” she says. “We weren’t asking people to out themselves.” At the end of the event, she and her colleague collected the sheets. “I’ll never forget,” says Burke. “There had been 30 or so girls in the room and we expected around five or six Me Toos.” There were 20. “And we looked at these things and said: ‘Oh, shit.’”

The work that grew out of that is almost too subtle for the volatility of the current moment to bear, but it is the basis of what Burke hopes Me Too will become; use the hashtag, she says, “but let’s talk about why, and let’s talk about what happens after”. For Burke, that means confidence-building which is to say , establishing the difference between self-esteem and self-worth. “I think a lot of girl-centred programmes are like: ‘We want to build your self-esteem by telling you that you’re beautiful, and asking you to tell yourself you’re beautiful every single day!’ That rang false to me. Because I can tell you that if you live in a world that devalues you, there is nothing to support that message. I want girls to feel worthy just for existing, because for black and brown girls – and actually just for girls – it’s ‘You’re worthy if’; so, if you’re the smartest girl, or if you’re the prettiest girl, or if you run the fastest. There has to be something attached to it to add value to your life and that can become something you become consumed with – ‘I have to have this thing; I have to be beautiful’. So, for me, it was like, ‘Let me teach you what the world thinks about us, and let me teach you what we’ve seen the world do to girls who look like us. And let me teach you why they’re wrong.’” 

Burke is, of course, not immune to the forces she is teaching the girls to resist, although, as she points out, she is also a single mother of a 20-year-old daughter and has a badass attitude and a lot of life experience. Still, when she logs on to social media and isn’t quick enough to filter the comments, there it is: the thing from which all women are supposed effortlessly to move on, because to do otherwise is to be a Victorian. “Oh, every day,” she says cheerfully, of being attacked by trolls. What do they say? She smiles. “They say: ‘You are too ugly to rape.’”

It is possible that, thanks to #MeToo, some women who might usefully have shrugged off a minor grievance may decide to pursue it. They may – in the language of the times – internalise an idea of themselves as victims. This is the argument running counter to Me Too and it’s one that, rightly I think, Burke laughs out of the room, not least because, even with the huge swell of #MeToo testimony, it is still not exactly cool to out yourself as a victim of sexual violence.

What, I ask, of the argument that there will be collateral damage and some men will be overly punished for minor transgressions? “I hate that,” says Burke. “I don’t want that to be true. I’m sure it will be true, just as there is a small percentage of accusations of sexual assault that are just not true. But I tend to pivot away from that because people tend to blow that up and make it the main thing; ‘What if she’s lying?!’ OK. But it’s, like, a 3% chance.”

She also won’t have it that sexual violence and sexual harassment are entirely unrelated things. “[People say:] ‘There’s sexual harassment over here and you shouldn’t conflate it with rape,’” she says. “Which is true; those are two very different things. But they’re on the same spectrum. Sexual harassment is like the gateway drug. It’s the entry point. ‘Nothing happens, so let’s go a little bit further.’”

Buke and actor Rose McGowan at a women’s convention in Detroit.
 Buke and actor Rose McGowan at a women’s convention in Detroit. Photograph: Alamy

The greater threat is that Me Too is an invitation for women to whom nothing serious has happened to assume the status of victims. Burke fairly screams at this. “Of all the critiques – and I’m very open to critiques of this work – that one in particular makes me crazy. Because I think the women who are saying that don’t realise what they are doing. There is inherent strength in agency. And #MeToo, in a lot of ways, is about agency. It’s not about giving up your agency, it’s about claiming it.”

What about the temptation to overstate minor transgressions? “There was a murky time – maybe it still exists – when people would say: ‘Well, this guy one time touched my boob; I don’t know if I can say #MeToo.’ And I’d say to people: ‘I cannot define how you or your body responds to things. I can’t tell you that’s not trauma.’ I’ve seen cases with young people and families where there is a child who has experienced some form of sexual violence and there areis one set of parents who say: ‘That’s just kids experimenting.’ And there are others who say: ‘I’m going to get my kid into therapy, this is traumatic.’ Some of that is based on the response of the child, and I think that happens in general. It’s what you respond to.”

It is also the language in which you choose to respond. “When I first started Me Too, young people had no language to talk about this,” she says. “And that’s something I’ve seen change; young people have a way to talk about it now. Hearing the words ‘rape culture’ doesn’t seem foreign to them.” You can dislike the tone of this language; you can find it aggressive, or vague, or wide-reaching, but there is no doubt that to the person drenched in shame, hearing the words “rape culture” communicates at the most basic level: it isn’t your fault.

Burke has been through this experience herself; as a child, she was assaulted by some boys in her neighbourhood, and it is one of the things that motivated her to become an activist. “I grew up in, not poverty – that sounds a bit Tiny Tim – but, you know, low-income, working-class family in a housing project in the Bronx. We didn’t have a ton of resources. But my mother was very determined – she had me in all sorts of programmes; anything she could put me in, she did. And I read a lot when I was young. Those were the things that helped change the trajectory of my life. And the first glimpses of healing, and understanding what had been happening to me as a child, came from the literature that I read. So I had this ‘out’ that I saw the girls I worked with did not have.”

The process of healing is one that she would say is never complete, and part of Burke’s discomfort with the spotlight – “I’m uncomfortable being the face of this thing; I didn’t want to be a figurehead” – is that, she says, “I’m still dealing with my own stuff.” She is squeamish about what she calls, drily, her “15 minutes”, not least because people keep encouraging her to monetise it. “Ever since this went viral, people have been saying: ‘You should sell Me Too T-shirts! How do I get those T-shirts?!’ Everyone has a stream of income idea.” (In fact, there are Me Too T-shirts that Burke has, for years, barely been able to give away. Until recently, every time she wore one out of the house, guys would read the slogan on the front and say flirtatiously: “Oh, me too! Me too!” Then they would see the back, which read something like “end sexual violence now” and Burke would wait, amused, for the terrible silence. “The guys would be like: ‘Er, I’m so sorry.’” She laughs uproariously.)

Anyway, she says, “We don’t sell the T-shirts because they are a gift. A lot of times I hand them out and say: ‘Whenever you’re ready.’”

Between Time magazine and the Golden Globes, Burke’s profile is continuing to grow, and she is determined to rise to the demands. “Inherently, having privilege isn’t bad,” she says, “but it’s how you use it, and you have to use it in service of other people.” For what feels like the first time, the privilege she is referring to is her own, and it is the privilege of an extremely large audience. “Now that I have it, I’m trying to use it responsibly,” she says. “But if it hadn’t come along I would be right here, with my fucking Me Too shirt on, doing workshops and going to rape crisis centres.” She gives a huge laugh. “The work is the work.”

 Tarana Burke will be speaking at the All About Women festival in Sydney, Australia on 4 March