It was a kitchen conversation. A woman, Tarana Burke, and a 13-year-old girl speaking in hushed tones while cutting vegetables in a small kitchen some 20 years ago. The girl asked Tarana Burke “Why me?” She had been assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend. She was angry, upset, sad. She felt like her body had been polluted. Tarana knew exactly how that little girl felt. She had heard similar stories before. She wanted to say, “Not only you. Me too.” But she did not. Not that day. In that moment, all she had to give was herself and her own story. And it turned out that was all this young girl needed. To be reminded that she was not alone or misunderstood. That someone believed her.
It took Tarana Burke ten more years to say “me too,” a movement that has transformed into a global phenomenon. Women speaking up, claiming agency to their narratives, saying ”me too,” and standing tall in solidarity. If breaking is an act of violence, healing is a ritual. A sense of community. A feeling of being held. Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, is all too familiar with healing. She says she breaks everyday before she heals. Protects her joy like a warrior.
An Evening With Tarana Burke: Keeping Black Girls at the Center of #MeToo marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the hashtag #MeToo. The event was organized by A Long Walk Home, an initiative that uses art to mobilize and help young people end violence against girls and women. It was held at the MacLean Ballroom at SAIC on the evening of October 4 and began with Paul Coffey, Vice Provost and Dean of Community Engagement, acknowledging the privilege SAIC came with. From funding and donations to access and exposure, infrastructure and the celebrity of the Art Institute, Paul made a point to address this privilege and that the school was to be able to share it all with A Long Walk Home. Big step. Big important step.
The evening was a testament to just how much the women from A Long Walk Home and the Me Too movement loved each other. Helped lift each other up. The cheerful hoots and laughter ate up the formal words of welcome as each speaker, performer and organiser walked up to the stage. Activist Salamishah Tillet, the founder of A long Walk Home, was greeted on stage with a chanting of “We love you.” Tarana Burke was already crying by the time it was her turn to speak.
This was a party. A celebration of everyone who crossed the threshold, everyone who was attempting to, and anyone who felt like they were walking into the fire alone. Every woman in that room felt held. The Me Too movement, at its core, is a declarative statement saying “I’m not ashamed” and “I’m not alone.” It’s also an evocation from survivor to survivor that says “I see you, I hear you, I understand you and I’m here for you. I get it.”
What made this event remarkable were many small details. This was an event organized by survivors, for survivors. Across the ballroom, in corners and on the sides stood a group of art therapists, counsellors wearing neon colored vests with the word “safe” written in bold, creating safe spaces inside a safe zone in case any content was triggering to anyone present.
#Metoo has taken down celebrities one after another. The list keeps growing. On the one-year anniversary of #MeToo, the movement has reportedly spread across sports, entertainment, the church, the military, and even to the point of proposing a Me Too bill in the United States Congress.
As satisfying as it is to see predators held accountable for the trauma they have caused, the Me Too movement is different from #MeToo. The evening made it a point to address that the Me Too movement did not begin this way. It was never about aimed targeting. The Me Too movement was about healing, extending a hand of solidarity, creating a dialogue and building a safe space. More than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes — a higher share than among women overall. For them, this is not about anything other than healing. They know their perpetrators, they live with them. Bringing them down is not in the vocabulary. Healing is.
To Tarana Burke, #Metoo is about money. It is about capitalism. It is a systematic targeting and upsetting of the system. It is satisfying to watch men in positions of power being brought down, but has Hollywood whitewashed the movement? #MeToo has completely taken over the Me Too movement, which was about building safe spaces, and focused it instead on public takedowns. It has left the actual survivors behind and has become about numbers. But the number scale still tips on the white end of the conversation. Who put values on the white girls’ lives and trauma and how are they more important than the black girls’? A spoken word performance delivered by two girls from A Long Walk Home worded this sentiment this way: “they found her body a week after she died, the report said, unknown black body, female, mutilated.”
Tarana Burke was vehement in her answers to the comparison of Me Too to #MeToo. “This isn’t about white people’s take on ‘Me Too,’ this isn’t about their opinion. It is about my community, my children. It is about us, and what are we doing to stop the violence in our own community?” She described “Me Too” as her lifeblood. But as important as it is, #MeToo has moved on from being about healing. “It has moved on because of the privileges Hollywood comes with, and white skin comes with. Not to exempt the struggle of any of these women, I cried for Blasey Ford in her testimony too. But what of this sense of othering of black women?” It is not a global movement, she says, “it begins at our own home. Our children, are your children, we as a community need to address this.”
Tarana Burke was at the Kavanaugh trail. She said she cried after Professor Ford’s testimony, she prayed for her. She was aware that a woman was walking inside an already a hostile room to tell her truth. Holding her composure while reliving every memory of her assault like a slideshow. It takes all parts of your body and mind a force of will to make sure you do not break down.
The conversation concluded with a panel discussion featuring Tarana Burke, Salamishah Tillet, and three girls from The Long Walk Home. One of them was 15, speaking with all the wisdom and idealism of someone who hadn’t lost hope. This event was about hope and faith. This girl was empowered to speak, had agency over herself, her thoughts, and her body. I still struggle to find that feeling.
The question they kept circling around was simple: Why are black women invisible even though they are at the forefront of this movement? Tarana says the community needs to take a stand. They cannot afford to be entertained by the daily news making scandals out of who’s bringing down who. It is the community whose job it is to see, hear, protect and lay foundation for a safe space. To begin conversations, make the trauma visible, acknowledge the problem before beginning to solve it. It is the community’s job, to provide a mechanism to support survivors and give survivors their agency back by keeping them at the center of action, by saying over and over again, “You are not the sum total of what happened to you.”