#MeToo movement is not just about white men, Tarana Burke tells HBCU students
Movement’s founder spreading the word at Atlanta University Center, Howard, Florida A&M, N.C. Central and Alabama State
Tarana Burke, the founder of the “Me Too” movement, might be coming to a historically black college or university (HBCU) near you.
She was on Howard University’s campus this week, kicking off a Me Too HBCU Tour. Her goal is to promote Sexual Assault Awareness Month and address where and how black communities fit into the #MeToo movement.
Inside Howard’s Cramton Auditorium, Burke hosted the full day of events, including panel discussions on interpersonal violence and sexual assault. Yaba Blay, activist and founder of the #ProfessionalBlackGirl web series, and Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, participated as well. Blay told the audience she joined the tour because she was discouraged by how black people view the movement.
“I was becoming disappointed by the fact that us folk were calling the #MeToo movement a white movement, that we weren’t taking ownership of the movement, and I know good and well where it came from and who it was ultimately designed for,” she said.
Blay added that the tour provided a space to have uncomfortable conversations about sexual assault in black communities. “This is not an opportunity for Howard to feel good about themselves.”
Burke, a civil rights activist from the Bronx, New York, began using the “Me Too” phrase in 2006 to raise awareness about sexual assault. The phrase gained wider popularity after the use of #MeToo in 2017 as a hashtag following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. Celebrities such as Alyssa Milano, Jenna Elfman, Lady Gaga and Katie Couric helped bring even greater attention to the movement. But over that time, Burke’s involvement was nearly forgotten, as well as the fact that black communities are also affected by sexual assault.
According to Burke, Sexual Assault Awareness Month events were few and far between at HBCU campuses. This is why she chose to tour in April. It’s difficult to know exactly how many awareness month events are being hosted by college organizations this year, as they may not be well-advertised. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center lists various events around the country, but only a handful are sponsored by college organizations. Most are hosted by community centers, rape crisis centers and other family- and women-focused groups.
“I’m watching what these campuses are doing around Sexual Assault Awareness Month and I know that’s not happening on our campuses, but what I know is happening on our campuses is sexual violence,” said Burke.
Kyla Wright, a senior at Hampton University, said there were no events on her campus to raise awareness during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So she, like Burke, did something about it. “It’s important to raise awareness about something that could happen to myself, any of my fellow students, or a combination of both. I saw a lack of events on our campus my freshman year, which is why I created my platform, Operation S.A.S.H. [Sexual Assault Stops Here], when I competed in the Miss Black and Gold Pageant and again in the Miss Hampton University Pageant my junior year.”
Part of Wright’s motivation for the campaign came from a staggering statistic: 1 in 5 female students at HBCUs will experience sexual assault. This rate is comparable to colleges and universities that aren’t historically black.
Burke says the tour is aimed at encouraging black communities to prioritize sexual abuse against black women and spend less time worrying about how white men accused of sexual assault are adjudicated. She said the position that “yes, some black men might be sexual predators, but go after the white man first” is not productive.
“We actually spent the greater part of last year talking about mostly white men, but because most folks weren’t paying attention, because — do you really know Harvey Weinstein? — it didn’t affect our lives. It’s not a person we grew up listening to,” said Burke.
Moore highlights the importance of consent and encouraged students to see it as a measure to allow mutual pleasure, not a beginning-to-end process.
“Just because you start, you don’t have to finish,” he said.
Moore also emphasized that it is OK for black women to not be OK, and that promoting resiliency without healing can be harmful.
“It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t got no black girl magic today.’ Resiliency is about this ability of all us black folk, particularly black girls, to get back up, get knocked back down, get back up, get knocked back down and never critique the thing that’s doing the knocking down,” he said.
Howard students started a Me Too Task Force in partnership with the university to continue the dialogue and provide resources for students. It will be led by students with oversight from the director of Howard’s Office of Interpersonal Violence Prevention, Akosoa McFadgion. The task force was created, in part, because of demands made by HU Resist to fight rape culture on campus in an effort to prevent sexual assault. Last year, this student-run organization led a nine-day protest over various issues, including the way the university addresses students who report sexual assaults.
Burke’s daughter, Kaia, a Howard student, joined as a student member because she wants to help improve campus safety and accountability.
“As a queer and trans-identified person, I should have a seat at the table and be a part of the discussion on what makes this campus safe and how this campus handles accountability. I want to make sure that when we are making these decisions and having these discussions, all perspectives are considered,” said Kaia Burke.
At the end of the day, Tarana Burke presented Howard with a check for $10,000. The money has been designated to help make Howard a safe place for sexual assault survivors. Howard provost and chief academic officer Anthony Wutoh also signed a commitment ensuring the development of Howard as a safe space.
“Howard is committed to fulfilling the pledges that were documented. A number of those things we have already been in the process of doing, and we certainly want to make sure that we are supportive of all of our students and taking a stand against sexual violence,” said Wutoh.
The next stop on the tour is April 9 at the Atlanta University Center. There, Burke will touch on topics of consent, protecting self-worth in black children while teaching them to be vigilant, and the high rates of black girls who experience sexual violence before the age of 18.
“We’ve gotten very used to our pain not having priority, especially if you’re a black woman. We have a problem,” said Burke.
There are three other tour stops after Atlanta: Alabama State University on April 12, North Carolina Central University on April 18 and Florida A&M University on April 19.