It’s been just over a year since the explosion of #MeToo revelations and demands for accountability, and Tarana Burke, who is credited with being the founder of the movement—she began to popularize the phrase as early as 2006, as a rallying cry for her online and offline work with survivors—wants to make sure we haven’t missed the point. The movement’s true mission, as Burke sees it, is making sure that survivors of sexual violence have the resources they need to heal, as she explained recently in The New York Times. But during this year of reckoning, most news coverage focused on the Hollywood moguls, top-tier comedians, publishing luminaries and others accused of sexual violence who work at the highest levels of media, politics, and entertainment. The well-being of survivors, especially those whose assaults weren’t perpetrated by famous men, has become an afterthought.
Burke, a longtime warrior for gender justice and against sexual violence, has lead workshops primarily for women and girls of color in Selma, New York City, Philadelphia, and beyond. (This Chicago Tribune article describes the years of organizing she did before #MeToo exploded, and Burke’s own recollections movingly recount what motivated her to do this work.) This past year has taken her from those intimate conversations to our television screens and the pages of glossy magazines, and in the past month it seems she’s everywhere.
In addition to that Times interview, she guest-edited a recent #MeToo story package for Essence. But it was a video for The Cut that grabbed me like no other coverage of the movement has. In it, we hear from Celeste Faison, a black-liberation organizer who at 13 met and worked with Burke in one of those early workshops. “The way that you showed up for me makes me want to be forever in service to you and to your work, because it’s transformational,” Faison tells Burke. “I’m a testament to that. There’s a lot of Celestes.”
We also meet Burke’s daughter, Kaia Naadira, a 21-year-old college student who talks in the video about how Burke created a safe space for Naadira to open up about a sexual assault that had happened years before. “Part of it was going to the workshops with her and watching her talk to other people my age and seeing the way she was interacting with them and understanding that she could hold whatever I had to give her,” Naadira explains. I’m a relatively new mother, and the conversation between Naadira and Burke was a revelation. I needed to learn more from Burke about how adults can teach the children in their lives to feel safe in their bodies. Just days after the midterm elections, I had the chance to do so when I interviewed her at Facing Race, a biannual conference hosted by the organization Race Forward. This year, 3,500 social-justice advocates and organizers gathered in Detroit to make sense of the ever-shifting conditions in which we find ourselves. After Burke’s keynote, I asked her what message she has for parents and how she has helped her own child on a path toward healing. The interview that follows is edited for clarity and length.
Dani McClain: How did you decide to bring your daughter’s experiences as a survivor into the #MeToo conversation? Was that the first time you’d talked publicly about that experience?
Tarana Burke:It was the second time. The first time was accidental. The first time was the first week #MeToo went viral and they were with me—my daughter’s pronouns are “they”—just going around to do interviews, and I did a video for Mic. [The producers] asked them to come at the end, like, “Come in and talk with your mom,” and it just came up organically. Neither of us was planning it and I don’t think my daughter was ready for the response that they got. But it was good. Some of the response was from young people reaching out to them and saying, “Thank you for talking about it. It helped me talk to my mom.” Then they felt like they wanted to share more. So the second [opportunity] came around.
We talk about it all the time, as mother and daughter. The story of how we got to the point where my child could talk about it is important, because it was a lesson for me. That moment changed how I talk to parents.
DMcC: How so?
TB: My daughter was sexually assaulted at 5. I knew in my body when it happened. I could sense it. I felt it, and I saw a shift in their behavior. And I was doing this work, so it was familiar. From 5 until 11, I kept asking the wrong questions: “Has anybody every touched you? Has anybody ever put their hands on you?” Just over and over again. But meanwhile I was doing this work with my kids [in workshops] that was really compassionate, that was about helping them come to terms with whatever happened to them without talking about [the details]. The way that I was working with the young girls in my program was through writing exercises and these really intimate chats. But I wasn’t utilizing that at home, and it made me realize a bunch of things.
One, I was putting that thing on my child that so many of us do to black girls, that says that they’re stronger than they are, that they don’t need that same kind of compassion. It needed a different kind of approach. The most important thing that came out of that for me was I shifted the way I asked the question.
Black mothers, women of color, I think even women from low-wealth communities—we’re so protective of our children, and we ask the questions out of sheer love and protection and just ignorance of what’s the best practice. You can stop almost any woman and talk to her about how her parents or elders in the community or family talked to her about her own safety. You get the ground rules: Don’t sit on anybody’s lap. Don’t walk away with strangers. Don’t let anybody touch your private parts. We get those drilled into our heads from a very young age. I think we fail to add the caveat that if any of those rules are broken, that it’s not your fault. It’s never the child’s fault.
At the same time we’re drilling [those rules] into their heads, in many cases, they’re in violent situations with us. We’re spanking them. We’re beating them, which teaches them to lower their inhibitions around violence. We’re also not doubling down to say, “If any of those rules [around safety] are broken, it’s not your fault.” Our children so desperately don’t want to get in trouble, that they end up feeling complicit in their own abuse. It’s what happened to me, and it’s what happened to my daughter.
I kept asking them directly, “Has anybody ever touched you? Did anybody bother you?” My daughter consistently said “No,” because she thought if she said “Yes,” then it would also reveal that she broke a rule. She went off with a stranger. She let a stranger touch her private parts. She didn’t see it as abuse or assault or a violation. She saw it as her breaking a rule, on top of knowing that the feeling of it wasn’t good.
This is the thing I talk to parents about: These are small children who are holding all these things that adults can’t even handle. They’re holding the shame of what actually happened to them, and then the fear of getting in trouble, being ostracized, all these things that children should not have to deal with. I talk to parents about what empathy looks like for your child.
[When Naadira was 11] I was doing my baby’s hair, and it came up for me again. It would just come up in my spirit sometimes to ask, and whenever it came up, I would ask. This time I said, “You know, there is nothing that you could do to separate you from my love. Nothing.” I said, “I need you to know that. There’s nothing you could do that would make me stop loving you. So if there’s anything you ever have to tell me, you can tell me. I would never stop loving you. If you think you’re going to get in trouble, don’t worry about it.” I just kept priming them like that. Then I said, “If it’s hard”—and this is exactly what I do with my kids [in workshops]—“If it’s hard, you can write it down.” I left them with a paper and pen. When I came back, they wrote that story down. My heart was broken, because I felt like I’d wasted six years, racing around trying to get it out, knowing that something had happened but not being able to connect to it and driving myself crazy. I was thinking about myself and not the best way to talk to my daughter. It changed everything for me. I redid my whole parent workshop. Before that, I was always talking to parents about protective measures. I shifted from that framework to a framework that talked about protecting our children and teaching them vigilance but not fear.
DMcC: Instilling “vigilance but not fear…” It’s such a delicate balance. I have a 2-year-old, and I don’t know how to do that.
TB: Because it’s difficult. My daughter went through a period of being frightened of black men. We would walk down the street past the basketball court, and there’d be brothers playing ball and they would tense up and get behind me. I was like, “I can’t have you walk through the world scared of black men. But I need you to be vigilant because these men who look like this could also be your attacker.” [Editor’s Note: Most sexual violence is intraracial, according to data from the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. The exception is crimes committed against Native women. Eighty percent of those assaults and rapes involve white perpetrators.]
So it was a lot of conversation. I would find examples in our lived experience of ways that you can be careful and not walk around with fear. Sometimes we would go to the basketball court and I’d say, “We can watch the game, but if somebody comes over and starts talking to you, just be mindful of your safety. You can still have the conversation.” It took a lot of trial and error, but it’s possible.
DMcC: We can’t be with our children all the time. How did you made sure that others in your daughters’ life reinforced the values you wanted them to have?
TB: When I was raising my daughter, I would hear a lot of time, “You’re so strict.” And I wasn’t strict with them, I was strict about the things they could be exposed to. We stopped doing Disney when my daughter was 8. When I started sitting and watching the shows I was like, “This is awful.” My child said to me at like 8 or 9 that they wanted Hannah Montana’s nose. And I was like, “That’s it!” These are hard decisions and they’re not popular with other people, so in terms of advice I would say that you have to be prepared to not be popular. But I’m so happy with who I’ve raised, the human being that I have responsibility for is big-hearted and free, and I learn from them. My daughter’s turning 21 and is a junior in college and is queer and open and non-binary and just all kinds of things that I learn from on a regular basis. I didn’t give those things to them. That’s who they are. But I gave them the opportunity to grow into them freely.
DMcC: How do we talk to our children about sexual violence, but also help them understand they can find pleasure and joy in their bodies?
TB: This was a hard one, and I struggled with it all through my daughter’s preteen years. Honestly, what made it easier in my situation was because they told me about the sexual violence at 11. They came out at 13. When they came out, it gave me an opportunity to talk about sex and sexuality. And in terms of their therapy around healing around the sexual violence, I could incorporate that into the conversation. That’s a thing you don’t want to happen, obviously, but it did give me an entry point to talk about [the assault] specifically and juxtapose it to, “You can’t build a life around this trauma. Your life can be this way.”
I think nonsexual pleasure is one of the entry points to talk about it, too: Nonsexual pleasure in your body. We talk about joy a lot in our family, because it’s central to my work. I think one of the methods for parents is that you don’t have to deal with the sexual part of it necessarily, if you deal with teaching your child to curate joy in their life very early.
We celebrate everything. I didn’t do the tooth fairy or Santa, but we had substitutes. When my daughter lost a tooth, we had a big-girl surprise. We would have mommy-daughter days, and we would just do a lot of joyful things. And every little thing that happened that made them feel good, we would talk about it. And so that was my practice of making sure my daughter could identify joy in their life in ways that I couldn’t when I was young. They were a dancer, so if they figured out how to stand en pointe, or whatever that thing was, we would celebrate that. “How did that make you feel?!” It just would be a lot of, not necessarily the action that had happened, but the feeling it gave them, so they could really get in touch with that feeling. I think as they get older, it’ll help them connect with these other feelings. You can have pleasure in your body. You can live a life that’s joyful, even if it has trauma in it or in spite of how people tell you you have to live.