Less than one year ago, the hashtag #MeToo sparked a revolution to confront the pervasiveness of sexual assault in this country.
That one tweet, written by actress Alyssa Milano, failed to cite #MeToo’s creator, robbing Tarana Burke of her years of work.
“Oh, my God, those white people are going to steal my stuff,” Burke laughed to a packed audience during a recent appearance at the Suzanne Wright Theater in Center City.
“Afraid” that her work would be erased from the history books, adding to overall erasure of Black efforts and accomplishments, Burke posted a video from 2014. The video depicted Burke at Philadelphia’s annual March to End Rape Culture, where she gave a speech explaining #MeToo – three years before the hashtag hit the twitter-verse.
“Number one, you can’t take what’s mine,” the sexual assault survivor and activist said. But she also realized the movement is at the same time, not hers. It’s everyone’s.
“People will find any reason to blame women. We invent ways to blame women,” Burke continued, warning it deflects from the issue of sexual assault. “Those rich, elite white women did not wake up and decide to take something from me.”
Burke added the subsequent Hollywood’s “Times Up” movement is separate from the #MeToo campaign. In turn, all of the donations to Time’s Up during the hype of the tweet never made their way to Burke’s organization, which maintains a stronger focus on women of color of sexual assault since they are a more at-risk population. In the last year, #MeToo has partnered with The New York Women's Foundation to provide grants to local grassroots organizers fighting for the cause.
Wrestling with the shell-shock of the trending ##MeToo on social media was just one topic of many during Burke’s discussion. Hosted by the The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, the night included a brief speech, a conversation with the organization’s president and CEO, Craig Snyder, and a Q&A with the audience.
During the Q&A, Burke answered a question that encompassed Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s recent report of rampant sexual abuse in Pennsylvania churches.
“A real big key for some of these religious institutions is coming to the reality that this is in your church, it’s in your mosque, it’s in your synagogue, it’s everywhere,” said Burke, the senior director of Girls for Gender Equity, which provides opportunities for girls and women of color. “[Sometimes] it takes a revolution inside the church that’s not about the leadership. It is about the people standing up and saying this is the reality and whether you want to face it or not, it’s still going to be here. This is how movements build and people decide to push back collectively.”
Burke noted #MeToo has spiritual roots, citing Philly’s Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church as the movement’s birthplace.
“What [Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller] did was he allowed us to create a sexual assault survivors’ ministry in the church,” explained Burke, who currently lives in New York. “The congregants were the ones to say this is a pain, this is a collective trauma that we recognize in this congregation that we have the power to do something about. Help us. And based on that, he was like ‘What can I do?’”
Burke acknowledged #MeToo has also had negative ramifications on the conversation of sexual assault. She discussed its weaponization in the political sphere, such as forcing former Sen. Al Franken to resign from office, to shortchanging discussions of consent into only “guilt and innocence,” such as with actor Aziz Ansari.
Burke did not hold back from the hard questions, referencing journalist Ronan Farrell in how she views crediting the stories of sexual assault.
“This work is not about believing all survivors or believing all women. You see that all the time, ‘believe all women.’ I don’t believe that. I do believe that we have to listen to all women, that we have to listen to all survivors. Even that is revolutionary,” said Time’s 2017Person of the Year. “It is revolutionary for a woman to have the space to stand up and say ‘this thing happened to me’ and not be shut down immediately and not be pushed to the shadows and not be made to be silent.”
Burke explained that “#MeToo is not to blanket the conversation, but to be a basis to drive the conversation forward and talk about sexual assault on a “spectrum.”
“We have to be able to talk about it in that way, because it is dangerous if we don’t and it’s a disservice to the survivor if we don’t,” explained Burke. “I think it’s respectful to give survivors their own conversation and their own moment.”
After the talk, a report surfaced that actress and director Asia Argento, the first accuser of sexual assault against director Harvey Weinstein, allegedly paid off claims that she sexually assaulted an underaged actor who was 17 at time. California’s age of consent is 18.
Burke took to Twitter on Aug. 20 to write simply, “there is no model survivor.”