Back in 2006 Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist from Brooklyn, began using the phrase ‘me too’ on social media. She described it as “an exchange of empathy” that she wanted to connect survivors of sexual violence.
A decade later, in 2017, it was catapulted into the global lexicon after Harvey Weinstein was exposed as a long-time sexual predator.
Burke lit the first ‘me too’ match but it didn’t spread like wildfire until actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter.
“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” she posted at midday on the 16th of October 2017.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. pic.twitter.com/k2oeCiUf9n
— Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Viral is inadequate to describe the response. #MeToo had been used more than 200,000 times by the end of the day, and more than half a million times by the end of the next day. On Facebook, the hashtag was used by more than 4.7 million people in 12 million posts in 24 hours.
For a long time Burke – who coined the phrase and employed it to raise awareness of sexual violence – wasn’t even mentioned. Plenty assumed it was Milano’s brainchild.
Even now, in the media, Burke is often reduced to merely the “founder” of #MeToo when in reality she is a visionary leader – the original carrier – of this global movement. She believes the fact that’s overlooked says “something for how resistant people are to black female leaders”.
October marks the 2nd anniversary of the #MeToo hashtag & the start of a monumental shift. It rose awareness, but we demand more. I wrote this op-ed for @TIME in light of the upcoming #DemDebate. We are voting for accountability in 2020. #MeTooVoter https://t.co/yV8wpKoVd1
— Tarana (@TaranaBurke) October 10, 2019
Burke has spent her career fighting for women’s rights: it wasn’t by chance that she lay the foundations for an unprecedented global conversation about the prevalence of sexual violence. But what #MeToo has come to represent doesn’t accord entirely with Burke’s original intentions.
“The words don’t mean anything different now to 2006,” Burke, who is in Australia for the Sydney Peace Prize, tells Women’s Agenda. “It was about an exchange of empathy between survivors: a declaration that we are here. That we are visible. That’s exactly what the hashtag did – it was an acknowledgement that we’re here in numbers. It was a way for people to find a community.”
But the way it took hold in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein’s public demise meant it became shorthand, in a sense, for a particular kind of sexual harassment: that which occurs in a workplace.
“I don’t feel the movement has been co-opted as much as it’s been expanded to a broader conversation about sexual violence,” Burke says. “My focus has largely been on sexual violence as it occurs outside of the workplace. Now there is a larger conversation about harassment that happens in the workplace. That’s not objectionable but it’s a singular focus on one area of violence where the most privileged women exist.”
How does Burke reflect on the fact the primary focus – particularly in the media – has been fixed on white women?
“That became the early frame but I don’t think the women themselves did so with the intention of co-opting the movement,” she says. “They did so with the intention of exposing and talking about their violence they experienced.”
“What I’ve seen in the last two years is people from across the world trying to work together around this issue but what I have also seen is mainstream media defaulting to continuing to talk about the same people they always have: white cis men and women.”
Burke says women aren’t necessarily to blame for the media’s fixation on them but ought to be mindful of it.
“I do think women with any form of privilege have to use it to amplify the voices of those who are pushed to the margins. We’ve seen that happen to some degree and we’ve also seen it not happen.”
On Wednesday it was reported that a version of an ABC documentary series presented by Tracey Spicer, the co-recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize with Burke, had identified survivors of sexual assault and abuse without their consent. At the National Press Club on Wednesday Spicer publicly apologised for the egregious breach. “To those who trusted me … I am truly sorry,” she said.
It came after a recent BuzzFeed Australia investigation into the management and operation of NOW Australia which Tracey Spicer spearheaded. At the Press Club Spicer also apologised to survivors who had made disclosures and didn’t hear back. She described her response as “wholly inadequate”.
What are Burke’s reflections on this?
“My understanding is that Tracey, like so many other people right around the world, seized the moment to talk about sexual violence and harassment in their industry,” Burke says. “This has happened in India, in Canada and a lot of these people aren’t necessarily activists or practitioners. As a journalist I can see why she wanted to take hold of this and tell the story.”
“If you talk to Tracey Spicer I don’t think she intended to lead a movement and be the face [of it all ] – but she is – and that comes with some form of an arrow.”
Burke says what happens next is critical.
“I think she’s acknowledged her shortcomings and missteps – which is all you can really ask – and see what happens moving forward. I think moving forward she’ll be more conscious… and have an expanded and broader analysis of the breadth of problem in Australia and use her influence to do something about it.”
How should privileged white women in positions of power exercise any influence they wield?
“When you have privilege and you are in a position of power – a lot of times people defer to you. The best use of privilege I’ve seen is when they use it to amplify the voices of others. Sometimes that means passing the microphone over and acknowledging you shouldn’t be the person with the mic. It might mean putting people in positions to tell their own stories. That’s some of the most effective use of privilege I’ve seen.”
Being open to considering the ways in which we take up space is necessary but Burke cautions against becoming paralysed by guilt.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge the privilege you have without being totally mired in guilt for something you can’t change. But a healthy amount of consciousness and self-reflection is really useful. Asking ‘Am I the right person?’ or ‘Is there someone else who should be here?’ are simple questions that help navigate privilege.”
When it comes to the subject of where to next for #MeToo Burke is both hopeful and realistic.
“Uttering the phrase ‘Me too’ really is just the beginning of the work,” Burke says. “It’s not the whole movement itself. It’s what galvanises us and collects and gives community.”
What happens after a person says ‘Me Too’ is fundamental.
“Our first job as a movement is to make sure people have what they need to heal. That’s not happening in large enough numbers,” Burke says. “Before we get policies, legislation and procedures and narrative change, we have to keep the focus on the people who said ‘Me too’ and what they need.”
Healing is what they need and there is no single solution.
“So many of the people [who said ‘me too’] have no hope of accountability for their perpetrators – that isn’t possible for so many. We have to introduce them to whatever resources are available. We need to present alternative pathways for how their healing journey might look.”
“Beyond that, for the people who said it, who received it and for everyone who just want to live in a better world, we need to move the axis,” Burke says. “Whether the action is a commitment to change behaviour, get into the fight, join the front line, people have to commit to some kind of action. Telling stories in itself isn’t going to bring about change.”
Tarana Burke is in Australia to receive the 2019 Sydney Peace prize on behalf of the #MeToo movement. The prize will be awarded at the City of Sydney peace prize lecture on 14 November, and Tarana Burke spoke at the National Press Club on 13 November and will speak at the Collingwood Town Hall in Melbourne on 18 November.