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Tarana Burke on race, violence and #MeToo

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Late spring is my favorite time of year. It’s the time when I’m awakened by the sounds of baby birds chirping for their mama and I’m greeted by the blossoms that have been watered by the winter and early spring precipitation. The feeling of newness of life and beginnings pervades the air, making me imagine that truly anything is possible.

But, in stark contrast, April is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month — a time to focus attention on one of the worst, darkest and most violating experiences in many people’s lives. It’s a time to examine whether sexual violence is simply the result of the actions of individuals or if it’s due to the culture’s messaging.

I recently had the incredible opportunity to hear Tarana Burke, civil rights activist and founder of the #MeToo movement, speak at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Rosenna Bakari, a UCCS visiting assistant professor in the Counseling and Human Services department, sexual assault survivor and all-around badass, moderated the conversation.

Burke was one of the group of women Time magazine called “The Silence Breakers,” who collectively were named “2017 Person of the Year.” She started using the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 to bring awareness to how widespread sexual abuse and assault are in society. In 2017, amid the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal, the movement gained significant traction following Alyssa Milano’s viral tweet that included the hashtag #MeToo.

So how big is the problem? According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), “Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes that victim is a child.” The National Organization for Women further notes that one in three women is a victim of domestic violence, and one in five experiences sexual assault. “These numbers underscore the epidemic of sexual violence in the U.S., which disproportionately impacts women of color, immigrant women, LGBTQIA+ women, and disabled women.” NOW adds, “For African American women, sexual assault and violence are incredibly pervasive issues that routinely go unreported and under-addressed.”

Burke says, “Black women experience the second highest rate of sexual violence in this country and violence usually happens intra-communally.”

So let’s hit pause there. No, this isn’t another commentary on “black-on-black crime” — which happens at a similar rate as white-on-white crime, by the way — nor is it reason to believe that black men are more likely to rape women. Rather, Burke pointed out there are two injustices here: Black men have routinely been falsely accused of rape throughout our country’s history and black women have suffered real violence at the hands of black (and other) men.

Yep, there are some very tough racial issues contained within #MeToo. Here’s another one: The perception that #MeToo became about white women, even though women of color and other minorities are more likely to be victims. (According to RAINN, “American Indians are twice as likely to experience a rape/sexual assault compared to all races.”)

But while Burke’s work has largely centered on helping black and brown girls who’ve been sexually assaulted, she dishes no shade.

“People talk about the white women in Hollywood co-opting #MeToo. No, they didn’t... The reason that I push back against that narrative is because folks will find any reason to blame women,” she says. “They didn’t do anything but — with shaking hands and swollen hearts — come forward and tell their truth. It’s funny how we mimic patriarchy.”

Burke says it’s our obsession with celebrity that drives the media to report only certain stories. But she says focusing on division doesn’t serve us.

And she’s worried about another issue: The ripping down of the meaning of #MeToo. 

“Anybody can hashtag #MeToo anything; people can pick it up and say, ‘Look what the #MeToo movement has done now.’ It waters down our actual work and it invalidates our vision,” she says.

By the way, the movement isn’t a “witch hunt,” she says, with “a list of men we are trying to take down.” Rather, #MeToo is about making sure that survivors have the resources they need to craft their own healing journey. That goes for women of all kinds as well as male victims.

The other component is really shifting the culture, Burke says.

“Allowing a culture to continue that says you can touch me however you want if you’re a ‘good guy,’ creates space for violence to happen.”

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