#MeToo Founder Tarana Burke On Moving Forward


A year after disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein was hit with sexual abuse allegations and the #MeToo movement resultantly upended entertainment, politics, and even awards show red carpets, Tarana Burke, the woman who started the movement more than 10 years ago on MySpace, is sticking to #MeToo’s original longterm goal: to help sexual assault survivors get access to important resources that will aid them in the healing process.

The last three months saw the documentaries Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland bring scores of decades-long accusations against two celebrated pop culture icons to the public consciousness. Fourteen years after Michael Jackson was acquitted on four counts of child sex abuse, Neverland featured the interviews of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who claimed that Jackson sexually abused them as children. Meanwhile, Surviving renewed public interest in the allegations of sexual misconduct involving Robert Sylvester Kelly, known as R. Kelly, resulting in the R&B singer’s indictment on February 22 for 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The news came a year after the Time’s Up campaign’s Women of Color coalition began calling on music corporations to #MuteRKelly. On International Women’s Day, and one year after the Year of Reckoning, Burke reflects on the trajectory of the movement, the importance of more women of color coming forward with their stories, and the moral dilemma of separating the art from the artist.

After gaining so much momentum last year, where do you see the #MeToo movement now?
„We want people to move away from the narrative that’s predominantly about perpetrators and more about the survivors of sexual violence and what they need. We have to make sure that survivors have what they need, but we also have to make sure people have boots on the ground and are invested in the work it’s going to take to end sexual violence. We want people to respond to sexual violence differently, and we want to shift the culture around the way it’s depicted. All of those things are necessary in order for us to move the needle. Beyond that, though, we have programs we’ll be rolling out to help people try to manage some of that on a local level.“

How do you feel about the co-opting of the term „#MeToo“?
„I’ve seen it used as a verb as well. It’s part of the narrative shift. We push back on this idea that it’s a weapon and it’s a thing that happens to somebody—and that’s the part that we focus on. ‚Oh, so and so got #MeToo-ed.‘ That’s actually deeply offensive because it takes away from the person who had the courage to actually say their life has been affected by sexual violence. People need to know and understand that this isn’t something to make a joke about or make light of when it’s actual people’s lives and bodies on the line. We definitely want to reshape the thinking about that. If anything, #MeToo should be used as a verb to describe the action of taking power back into your life and removing shame from the things that happened to you.“

Do you feel like the reactions from Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland would be different prior to #MeToo?
„I think [regardless of when] these documentaries [came out], they would’ve hit hard. Having #MeToo as a movement might’ve provided a framework for people to talk about it, but these claims against these people are not new. I think folks would have responded strongly with or without #MeToo being the phenomenon that it is, and now that they’ve come out in this moment, it’s given us a different way to talk about them. I also think it helps survivors to come forward, as these things often prompt people to do. It just comes at a time when we have better tools in place to talk about it and respond to it, but it’s always going to be explosive to have a conversation about Michael Jackson and child sex abuse and R. Kelly and physical and sexual assault.“

How did you react when #HimToo began trending during testimonies against Justice Kavanaugh?
There’s all sorts of backlash. This is almost like growing pains. We have not, as a country as a world, really dealt with sexual violence out loud, in the mainstream, through pop culture, and these other avenues. We haven’t been confronted with it and we haven’t confronted our own complicity with it, and as we do that and people stand unmoved, it’s going to cause others to react in all sorts of ways. That hashtag is just a direct result of somebody holding up a mirror and saying, ‚This is what is happening. This is what we’re a part of. This is the reality of the world.‘ And they’re saying, ‚No, no, no, it’s not. What about this? What about that?‘ At some point, the list runs out and reality has to set in, so I’m not surprised at the backlash. I fully expect people to be uncomfortable when they’re stripped bare and out in the open. This is our proverbial dirty laundry.“

Do you think we’re moving toward a society in which more people of color come forward to speak about their stories?
„I hope so. Quite frankly, R. Kelly was sort of an anomaly. It took so much work for us to get him into the public conversation in the way that he is now. That has not always been the case. So many women of color and black women have come forward in the last two years to talk about things that happened to them, and their stories don’t get the same attention. When you think about it, we have been having the conversation about R. Kelly and his depravity for 20 years, and in that 20 years, there’s been numerous articles, and alongside that, more than one documentary. There was a grassroots movement, and it took all of that for people to pay attention to what black women have been saying for 20 years. In contrast, it took two articles to bring down Weinstein. It took very well-researched and well-done articles, and I’m deeply grateful for them, but that’s sort of a snapshot of how hard this work is. Yes, things are shifting a bit for black women, but we don’t talk about missing and murdered indigenous women. People have to just care about human life. There are native, Asian, Muslim, black, brown, Latinx, trans, queer, and disabled women—all these marginalized women—who are dealing with varying levels of sexual violence [and] don’t have some attachment to pop culture and celebrity, and we have to care about them, too.

How do you feel about separating the art from the artist?
„I think that’s an independent choice. [Part of] #MuteRKelly was about disabling him economically so he wouldn’t continue to do the things that he’s doing and to take away his power and ability to be able to operate in that way. Taking The Cosby Show off the air is a gesture that shows that people take sexual violence accusations seriously and won’t support people who behave in that way. The reality is, there are too many people with too many different accusations and different places we’d have to shut down in order to do that. Michael Jackson is a perfect example. Nobody is calling to mute Jackson, and that’s not necessarily the call, because he’s dead and it doesn’t impact him the same way R. Kelly does. I think it says something about your moral choice and if you can listen to and enjoy and support a person whose behavior has been proven to be inhumane towards other people. That’s a personal choice, but I think we should be moving toward a culture that doesn’t support them.“

In terms of Leaving Neverland, what are you hoping the longterm impact is?
„I think what’s most effective is that it [spotlights] grooming. In many cases, children are lured into these situations by a trusted figure. I think we need to start having a broader conversation about that, and that conversation can happen whether you believe the claims about Jackson or not.“

Is there anything you’d like to see change for the #MeToo movement as a whole?
„I think people [still] need to understand what our movement is, but I think it’s fine. It has a vision; it has goals and ideas and thoughts about how we move this issue forward. If people are considering only what they see in the media and behind the hashtag, then they won’t understand how we’re moving forward. I think the way we’re moving is the best way forward, which is toward a world that doesn’t have sexual violence.“


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