Me Too's Tarana Burke Says 'Make Space' for Black Survivors in New Sexual Violence Initiative

PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify perspectives on the push for equality and justice

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke. Photo: W Magazine

Tarana Burke is the founder and executive director of me too. International. The activist launched the movement in 2006 to promote unity among sexual violence survivors. Since then, the hashtag has been used by millions of people around the world, but Burke says many of the public sexual violence narratives have not included Black women, girls, trans and gender-nonconforming survivors. In order to change that, Burke and 'me too.' International teamed up with the National Women's Law Center and TIME'S UP Foundation to launch We, As Ourselves. The new initiative aims to change the conversation about sexual violence and its impact on Black communities. Here, Burke speaks to PEOPLE about the new campaign and why it's necessary to shine a light on the experiences of Black women.

We have made it very popular to celebrate Black women. We talk about Black women saving democracy and Black women showing up when they really need them and we got "Black Girl Magic," but we do not make space for Black girls' pain.

If you're going to talk about how many of us show up to vote and all the magic we have, you have to also talk about all the trauma that we hold.

It took about a year for us to develop We, As Ourselves and to come up with the right thing at the right time, that strikes the right balance.

We decided to launch it at the end of Black History Month and the beginning of Women's History Month because it's representative of the intersection that most Black women find themselves in.

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke. Marla Aufmuth/TED

The campaign is largely about addressing the deficit of attention when we hear Black people come forward and say that they've dealt with sexual violence. I see it as a continuation of the work of the #MeToo movement.

The interesting thing is that Black women have never been left out of the #MeToo movement, but we have been left out of the media coverage of the #MeToo movement and we've been left out of the popular narrative of what the movement is.

When the Weinstein scandal first broke, you had actress after actress after actress coming forward and saying, "This happened, this happened, this happened." We didn't hear a single word from Harvey Weinstein until Lupita Nyong'o came forward. And then suddenly he had to speak out and say that this didn't happen.

We also have years of stories and anecdotal evidence of sexual violence being weaponized against Black men, from Emmett Till to the Central Park Five. But we don't often discuss how sexual violence has been weaponized against Black women.

Tarana Burke
Tarana Burke. Courtesy Tarana Burke

The culture of silence runs so deep in our community that it creates the illusion that it is something insurmountable. If you can't talk about it and name it, then you absolutely can't work to dismantle it.

These are difficult conversations. It's not easy to talk about the things that happen behind closed doors or things that society has told you should cause you shame. But if we don't talk about it, nothing will change.

A lot of this campaign is focused on putting out better information, educating mainstream folks in everyday America who are not thinking about this as an issue and shifting the narrative of how we make that change.

Among the ways we plan to do that, We, As Ourselves created a video tribute called "Love Letter to Survivors" which features prominent survivors, activists and celebrities, including Gabrielle Union-Wade, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Tamron Hall.

It was really wonderful to have the group contribute their voices because it's more than who you are and what you do for work, but who you want to show up in the world as. And many of the survivors in the video were speaking from a place of authority and experience.

I hope the campaign normalizes the conversation around sexual violence in the Black community. It's very possible for us to make some tremendous strides if we can think about it differently and give each other some space and some grace.

If you want to help a survivor, don't try to change them or dismiss them. Don't try to convince them that they're crazy. Give them an ear, listen and create a safe space for them to share their story. Because sharing your story is a gift. We don't owe our stories to anybody.

But remember that trauma is not the totality of Black womens' lives. We're not the sum total of all of these horrific things that happen to us, but they still have to be addressed.

And that's all we're saying. Who are we when we're not performing and showing up for other people? We just are looking for a little bit of reciprocity.

RELATED VIDEO: Celebs on Activism and the Future of Black Americans

Sexual violence doesn't discriminate. But while we are bonded by the experience, we still have to examine the roles that got us there. There's no way that we can function in the world together if we don't care about experiences beyond our own.

It is important to understand other people's stories because liberation is not just about myself. I don't know all Black stories. I don't know how Black military people live. I don't understand the Black disabled community. That's not my experience, but I want to know.

And if we all make an effort to understand the people we're fighting alongside, it'll make for a better world.

— As told to Joelle Goldstein

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

Related Articles