With Tarana Burke’s debut memoir, Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, the activist is telling her own story for the first time.
Burke first uttered “Me Too” in 2007 “to raise awareness of sexual assault and connect victims to resources.” There were concerns that Burke would be uncredited for this advocacy: in 2017, Alyssa Milano tweeted “me too,” sparking a tidal wave of survivors using the phrase to disclose their experiences with sexual assault and harassment.
Despite “Me Too” being seen as a phenomenon among white women, Burke has emerged as a household name in this fight. Over a decade later, the work is as relevant as ever, with the recent conviction of R. Kelly perhaps offering a sense to some Black women that the movement can serve them too.
In a Q&A with ESSENCE, Burke discusses what the #MeToo movement means for her, what she envisions for its future, and the role, or lack thereof, of the criminal legal system.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: What made you feel compelled to write your book and tell your story now?
I think there’s no better time than the present. It’s been four years since #MeToo went viral, and I have been careful about how I share the details of my life and my story, mostly because I don’t think the details of my story are relevant to having people understand [the] movement. But, I wanted to be able to tell my story on my own terms, in my own pace, and this was just a great time to do that.
ESSENCE: What was your headspace like while writing the book? I was extremely moved reading your story, and I can’t imagine what it might be like to relive some of the dark moments from your past, so can you tell me more about that?
It was very difficult. It was an incredibly challenging writing process, both because I never stopped working, and because I wrote the bulk of this obviously during the pandemic. Life is still going on around you, and I had to contend with digging into a part of my past that I had, to some degree, thought I’ve come to terms with and others I hadn’t come to terms with, and I was forced to do it during the writing process.
ESSENCE: What advice would you give to a young woman who was sexually assaulted and worried about saying anything or speaking out due to the shame and perceived repercussions they feel coming out of it?
Well, I don’t think that speaking out [publicly] is necessarily a part of the healing process. I think that if you are surrounded by people who you think might shame you or are in a situation where people may not accept you, then you don’t have to tell your story. The most important person to tell your story to is yourself. Then, start the process of trying to get the resources that you feel like you need, whether that’s therapy or finding community.
But this idea that you haven’t started your journey until you’ve told your story is a myth. We carry enough shame. If there are people around you who are going to just double down and make that worse, then you might be making the right decision not to tell them. I encourage survivors to be really careful about who they disclose to and try to be as sure as you can that these are people who will be supportive, loving, understanding, and compassionate, so that she can start creating the kind of community that she needs, and sometimes the community we need is not the community that we’re in.
ESSENCE: Do you see a path for the law or criminal justice systems to do right by survivors of sexual assault?
I think that you can’t adjudicate healing. I think that the reason why questions like this come up is because the laws on the books that we have right now are ineffective. But they are in existence– it is against the law to sexually harass or sexually assault somebody. It’s the implementation of those laws that we haven’t seen done effectively, or the fact that they’re not a deterrent for people actually committing [a] crime. I tend to lean toward cultural shift and narrative change than laws and policies.
We just experienced a governor who was signing laws into effect with one hand and running his hand on the back of the state trooper with the other. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have strong laws in place, but it’s really hard to use the law to find accountability. I think you will find that most survivors would say that their ultimate goal is not to have the person who harmed them arrested, but [rather] to feel personally whole again, and we can’t lean on laws for that.
ESSENCE: You just referenced Governor Cuomo, and it seems like there continue to be new developments, such as the recent allegations against [his brother and CNN correspondent] Chris Cuomo. Do you think that we will ever be in a place where the Me Too movement will be no longer needed?
I think that we will be in a place where we can shift culture to the point where it’d be almost second nature for people to understand boundaries and respect bodily autonomy. As long as there are people in power, there will always be people who will abuse power. It’s something that we have to continue to fight against, but I think it’d be less and less the more we re-socialize young people to understand things like consent, so that when you hear about rape, it’s just as bad as when you hear about murder [and] they equate it [with] this [being a] heinous a crime. I think we can get to that place.
ESSENCE: How does the Me Too movement make space for trans and non-binary people, and how can we expand the conversation beyond the experiences of cis-women?
The Me Too movement is not a women’s movement, and I think that’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions about it. It’s a movement for survivors, no matter how they identify, no matter what race they are, no matter what gender they are. It’s not a women’s movement because only women don’t experience sexual violence. The movement to end sexual violence hasn’t done a great job of making sure people understand this is not just about women. So, we try to solve for that in the programs that we do, the message that we put out, representation that we show, and the work we do.
But, as long as people keep thinking that hashtag Me Too and what they see on the nightly news is the Me Too movement, then they will never find the representation they’re looking for, they won’t see the voice that they’re looking for, and they certainly won’t see themselves reflected in it, because that is a very finite thing that has been chosen by mass media. The Me Too movement is about people who’ve experienced harm, and people who want to stop folks from experiencing that harm. We’re about healing and action. It is incredibly inclusive, but it’s not incredibly visible.
ESSENCE: We’re living in this world of sound bites, but how can people get to the heart of really understanding what everything is about, beyond the hashtag “Me Too”?
I think that it’s gonna be the same as it was before #MeToo went viral. We have a better positioning now, because so many people are familiar with it and it’s become a part of the pop culture lexicon, but it’s going to take people really investing in what sexual violence is and what it does in our communities. Not just in the mainstream, not just in high profile cases, but in everyday people right around you, your siblings, friends and co-workers.
It’s us divesting from what the media tells us it is, and really trying to take our own understanding [of] sexual biases and social justice issues. We have to invest in it, in the same ways we do gun violence, climate change, or police brutality. This is a mainstream social justice issue that is impacting millions of lives, as evidenced by the number of people who have actually said #MeToo publicly. That’s something that we can quantify. We can actually go and look at the people who have said this thing has affected my life. When something has affected that many lives across the country and across the world it should follow that it gets equitable attention, and we haven’t seen that. So those are the kinds of shifts that we need, [and] I think it takes multiple interventions in order for societal change to happen.
We’ve seen it before—25 years ago people smoked cigarettes on airplanes, in airports, in bars, and it was on television. It was still acceptable, but there were multiple interventions over time. There were research interventions, [such as] secondhand smoke will kill you; there were legal interventions where tobacco companies were sued and had to shift policies; there were narrowed interventions where you stopped seeing tobacco use in mainstream media and in movies and television, and advertising; [and there were] legal interventions [where] laws were changed where it was illegal to smoke in certain places. It’s going to take multiple interventions like that for us to have a different mindset around sexual violence, and until that happens on a large scale, we won’t see a complete shift. Obviously, cigarette smoking is still a thing, but it is nowhere near as popular as it was 25 years ago. My child who’s almost 25 is like, “Oooh, cigarettes are so nasty!” It has become taboo. And I think that’s exactly what can happen with sexual violence.
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ESSENCE: When I read the beginning of your book, I was extremely riveted by that story because I remember seeing everything go viral in the moment. You referenced waking up the next day, and realizing that it wasn’t about you, but rather about the kind of work that you were then going to dive into. But, in a world where the work of Black women so often gets co-opted, how were you able to do that?
I still don’t know how I was able to do it. I think this [was] a perfect storm. I don’t think what has happened to me is normal by any stretch of the imagination. I just showed up to say, this is the work that I’ve been doing, and I have something to say, I have a vision here, I have a body of work, I have something to offer, and people listened.
People often talk about white women co-opting the movement, but the reality is those white women were just survivors who were trying to tell their truth, and they were not poised to start a movement. I don’t think any of them had that in the back of their mind as a possibility when they came forward to talk about their experiences. So, that left an opening for me to be able to say, well, there is a movement behind this, there is more to this than just two words. It was a phenomenon at a time when people wanted to understand why are there so many people saying it, and it created a space for me to step in. But you and I both know it could have gone any way, and I’m just grateful it went this way because I was able to contribute to a conversation that is difficult for a lot of people to navigate and that was desperately needed to have in a different way than we’ve been having prior to now.
ESSENCE: You mentioned running into your former assailant, and now they’re a police officer with a family. What advice would you give for someone in that situation? Do you think that you would ever confront that person?
I don’t know that I would ever confront them, but who knows what the future holds. It’s hard to give advice. I think that you have to figure out what you need in the moment, which can be really difficult. For me in that moment, I needed to leave, I needed to be away from there because I couldn’t handle what was happening. Fortunately, I had my mom there, who was able to get me out of there quickly. Other people may need that moment to confront [that person]. I can’t tell people how to handle those kinds of situations. All I can say is to put yourself first, put your needs and what you need in that moment before anything else. If you need to run, then run. If you need to ignore them, do that, but whatever you need to survive through that moment, short of doing something that is going to be detrimental to your own future, I think that people need to do that.
ESSENCE: For part of the book, you were talking about your own feelings and relationship to beauty and ugliness, and it was very reminiscent of The Bluest Eye. How, in a world in which beauty is so often equated with Eurocentric-ness—how can we teach the next generation of young Black girls, and what are you telling your own daughter to reconcile their own conceptions of beauty?
It was difficult, even with my daughter as pro-Black as my house was, as many loving and affirming messages that they were showered with. We still had a moment, at about 10 or 11, when they said they wanted Hannah Montana’s nose. I remember feeling like I have failed in some way, because this was still in their mind, but it also helped me realize that pop culture is really hard to fight. It’s a difficult battle, which is why we have to fight in all the ways we can. The places where we can have representation are important, but because we can’t always guarantee representation, the messages we have for our children at home, like, ‘you are beautiful despite what the world says to you, you are worthy, despite what the world tries to tell you about who you are and what girls like you are really worth.’
I’ve been in so many situations where you can be loving and affirming to your children or to other children around you, and they go to a family reunion or something like that, somebody will say, “You black, I ain’t know you was that dark,” so we have to be vigilant and protect our children, protect their hearts, protect their esteem, [and] their sense of self-worth at all costs. Even in front of our families and our loved ones, you gotta check people for those things right then, “Don’t say stuff like that to my child, to any child.” It takes a sense of vigilance because we really are up against all of pop culture and internalized oppression. So, it’s an uphill battle.