When activist Tarana Burke coined the #MeToo movement, she knew it would start a culture-shifting conversation about sexual violence. But three years after that movement began, she believes that change hasn’t been as far-reaching as she’d hoped, especially for Black women who’ve faced some aspect of sexual abuse or violence.
In an interview with Jocelyn Noveck of the Associated Press, Burke looked back on the effect of #MeToo, especially following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the Black women who felt left out by its efforts, saying ‘Where are WE? Where ARE we? Where do we show up?’”
“The world was changing but we weren’t being swept up in those changes,” Burke told Noveck. “It’s almost like trickle-down theory: ‘Let’s just hope some of this goodness will trickle down to Black folks and they will benefit from it.’ Well, that’s not going to happen unless we are intentional about addressing the issue.”
According to the We, As Ourselves mission statement, “Many factors leave Black survivors unprotected and vulnerable to sexual violence, including a series of norms and narratives shaped by historical and systemic barriers rooted in a legacy of slavery and the commodification of Black bodies, cultural and societal myths about Black women’s sexuality, misogynoir, and the adultification of Black girls, and the complexities of speaking out within the Black community.”
To that end, this new initiative is committed to “Fighting for Black survivors to safely share their stories and experiences; upending historical and cultural narratives that harm and silence Black survivors; and working in solidarity with our community to create conditions where the stories of Black survivors can be heard, believed and supported.”
Noveck outlined some of the initiative’s concrete plans, which includes “narrative research, conversation guides, a five-part event series and ‘rapid-response tools’ to support Black survivors who come forward.”
Burke told Noveck that starting this conversation and centering it around Black female voices is key to its success.
“The biggest part is there is an initiative,” she said. “There’s been work done on local levels, by grass-roots community organizations. But we’ve never had a national campaign specific to Black survivors of sexual violence … Raising the flag and having decided to talk about it alone is a big deal.”
In a statement, Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center elaborated on that idea, saying “The labor of Black women lies at the core of our culture, our economy and our democracy, yet our voices and our needs are continually sidelined and ignored both by the media and our institutions writ large. Safety begins by listening to Black survivors and trusting them to know the conditions that will allow them to rise to the fullest of their potential, above the harm and trauma that continually tries to silence them.”
“For generations, Black women have been excluded from the conversation,” added Monifa Bandele, chief operating officer for Time’s Up Foundation. “When they are included, the narratives created around Black survivors, women and girls are dangerous, destructive, and undermine their credibility and experiences at every turn … We will no longer allow this to happen under our watch.”
In their announcement of the initiative, Burke, Graves and Bandele penned a letter to survivors, saying:
“Historically, justice for survivors has been a virtue almost exclusively bestowed upon cisgender, white, able-bodied women. Black survivors who report sexual assault or violence are less likely to be believed than their white counterparts. Our stories are often quickly discarded as lies before they are even fully heard. Black survivors are not afforded the level of attention, care, and impartiality that we deserve – and problematic media and cultural depictions fuel a culture of disbelief that pushes survivors further into the shadows. Moreover, internalized shame about sexual violence has us apologizing and making space for the harm-doer without addressing the harm done or centering the survivor.
“The level of violence that has occurred against Black survivors for so long demands stories and headlines that center them across all media – mainstream, Black, and non-BIPOC outlets. Amid a historic reckoning on racial justice, we can’t say that we value Black people and then remain silent when we suffer. If we aren’t actively and consistently voicing our opposition to this behavior, then we are supporting it. When Black survivors share their stories, we must hear their truth with the respect and dignity they deserve.
“We’re hearing your stories. And we’re long overdue for the kind of cultural shift and reckoning that all survivors deserve. To the Black survivors who continue to come forward in the face of what feels like insurmountable barriers and backlash: thank you, we see you, and we hold space for you. We reaffirm our commitment to ending sexual violence. And to do that, we must disrupt it at every turn.”