Five years since #MeToo, Tarana Burke is looking ‘beyond the hashtag’

Since the phrase ‘MeToo’ hit the zeitgeist in 2017, Tarana Burke has earned a global platform. But as she tells theGrio, her focus on Black communities and survival has never wavered.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview with Tarana Burke in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement. The second installment will be published on Sunday, Oct. 16.

It only took a hashtag to forever change Tarana Burke’s life as she knew it. Five years ago, the veteran activist and community organizer was already over a decade into her life’s work, having made the decision in 2006 to focus her advocacy on Black and brown girls, women, and femmes whose lives had been disrupted by sexual violence. A survivor herself, she named her movement for a phrase she both wished she’d said and heard in the aftermath of sexual assault: “Me too.”

Tarana Burke attends the red carpet event for “She Said” during the 60th New York Film Festival at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on October 13, 2022, in New York City.
(Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for FLC)

On Oct. 15, 2017, that phrase hit the zeitgeist—not in reference to Black and brown communities but a predominantly white cadre of actresses in Hollywood speaking out about sexual violence at the hands of one of its most powerful figures, Harvey Weinstein. Encouraged to find solidarity through the use of the hashtag “#MeToo,” the phrase spread like wildfire across social media unidentified with the woman who had long been utilizing it to empower survivors. That is, until Black women roundly sounded the alarm, forcing a correction: Tarana Burke was the creator of the #MeToo movement.

Within months of that recognition, Burke was a national figure, memorably attending the 2018 Golden Globes alongside Best Supporting Actress nominee Michelle Williams. By the end of that year, Burke’s platform was global, as her November 2018 TEDTalk, “Me Too is a movement, not a moment,” went viral.

Five years later, Weinstein’s crimes are still making headlines; Burke has become a two-time bestselling author and in-demand speaker, whose name has become ubiquitous in the fight against sexual violence, and #MeToo has become both a global movement and organization. For better or worse, it has also become a catch-all for conversations about sexual abuse and assault across the spectrum, regularly used in political discourse and popular culture alike. So, five years after #MeToo became a global phenomenon, how does Tarana Burke feel about the movement she launched now?

“Well, I feel a lot of ways,” she told theGrio ahead of the hashtag’s fifth anniversary. “I feel like the ways that people traditionally measure movements like this don’t work for something like #MeToo because we’re talking about people’s lives being impacted in ways that are hard to understand. And so the way I talk about the last five years is not in terms of what #MeToo has done—you know, not in terms of the cases that have been won, or the laws that have been passed. I think about what #MeToo has made possible.

“I feel like we had this moment that helped propel the movement into the mainstream has made so much more possible [in a short time] than what would have been possible probably in 20 years with just our hard work and tenacity,” Burke continued. “Again, that’s not to say that there’s not a lot of work to do, but it would have taken us a lot to move the needle in the way that it’s been moved over the last five years. And I think that’s really exciting.”

Nevertheless, Burke would be the first to acknowledge “the ups and downs and ins and outs and back and forth” of building, sustaining, and protecting the public integrity of a movement on the scale of #MeToo. That, of course, includes “the backlash…the struggle that we face in trying to get people to see this [movement] for what it is.”

“[#MeToo] is not about so much of what people have tried to make it about,”said Burke. “It’s been reduced to a verb. People have tried to water it down to a gender war. People have said it’s anti-Black. People have said it’s anti-male. People have said it’s cancel culture. Everything except an opportunity for us to expand the conversation; to build on the work of ending sexual violence,” she added.

I think people forget that the millions and millions of people that said ‘#MeToo’ have never really gotten an adequate response…we don’t think about what we owe them. And so part of our work is about what do we owe the folks who said #MeToo?

— TaRANA burke

“We live in a country where there’s a new—a newact of sexual violence every 68 seconds. That is a real number that happens to real people in America. That’s not a global number, that’s just in this one country,” she noted. “So we literally don’t have the time to have these kinds of ridiculous conversations that do not advance the cause. It’s exhausting.

While grateful to lead a platform that provides a point of empathy and validation for survivors, Burke can’t ignore how #MeToo’s now-global scope has made the movement she created constantly vulnerable to misinterpretation and appropriation, often pulling its focus far from the community she initially intended to serve.

“[P]eople feel like they have ownership of it,” she said. “I have one way of thinking about and looking at this movement and there are people who define it differently, who think about it differently, and that’s really difficult. So that when we don’t show up in a particular way, or I don’t show up in a particular way, people think of it as, ‘Oh, well, you’re not doing a good job with the #MeToo movement.’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m doing a pretty good job. You just define it differently than I do.’

“[Y]ou think you have a right to define it differently because it’s so big,” she continued. “It’s like when a new slang term or something comes out; people take it and they say, ‘Well, it means this in this part of the country, but it means that in that part of the country’…People take ownership of it and they make it mean what they want it to mean. And I can’t really do anything about that.”

Case in point: Burke has always maintained that the movement she built both preceded and far exceeds the hashtag that made it famous. However, it is still largely identified by the hashtag, both in public discourse and by the media, which overwhelmingly adheres to an AP Stylebook recommendation that references to the movement be styled “as a hashtag, even when not explicitly describing tweets related to it.” (Editorial note: theGrio also adheres to AP Style.)

What five years of being in the zeitgeist have taught Burke is that #MeToo must define itself for itself and the communities it intends to serve. To that end, the fifth anniversary of #MeToo kicks off a yearlong initiative the organization has titled “Beyond the Hashtag.” It includes the launch of its social and political framework, which has been nearly five years in the making. Opening with a letter to survivors and ending with an urgent message to those in the field, the #MeToo framework launched this week and is now available to view on the organization’s website.

“[W]e’ve spent the last two years really sitting down and taking stock in what is it we do,” Burke explained. “So much has changed in the last five years, I wanted to make sure we were able to articulate clearly for people who we are, what we do, and what we can be accountable for. What can people hold us accountable for?

“We’re putting out our own framework that helps people understand what #MeToo actually is, what our work is, what it means to say the #MeToo movement, what it means to do the work of the MeToo movement,” she continued. “And that will quiet some of the ‘#MeToo is dead; #MeToo is failing’—you know, all of that kind of stuff that people say. If you understand who we are, who we say we are, and what we do, we are right on track. We’re doing our work just the way we said we would.”

She may now be a global figure, but Burke still keeps community as her personal focus—and is careful not to conflate #MeToo with the global fight against sexual violence. “There’s a movement to end sexual violence, which is very broad, very vast, and has existed for many, many decades. I did not start it, and I won’t end it,” she made clear. “And then, there’s the #MeToo movement, which is very, very much something that is very specific and got blown up with the hashtag. But the movement and the work itself is something that I created, and so I feel very comfortable in creating definitions inside of that…But also, I think I can never put the genie back in the bottle.”

Still, she says, “there’s so much more” to #MeToo. Most importantly, “we’re trying to build the response to survivors. I think people forget that the millions and millions of people that said ‘me too’ have never really gotten an adequate response…we don’t think about what we owe them. And so part of our work is about what do we owe the folks who said #MeToo? We think that we owe them safety. We think we owe them resources. We think we owe them action and healing. And that’s what’s next.”

Read more from #MeToo founder Tarana Burke in the second part of her interview with theGrio on Sunday, Oct. 16.

Maiysha Kai is theGrio’s lifestyle editor, covering all things Black and beautiful. Her work is informed by two decades’ experience in fashion and entertainment, great books and aesthetics, and the brilliance of Black culture. She is also the editor-author of Body (Words of Change series).

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