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Brown, B. (Host). (2020, March 23). Tarana Burke and Brené on Being Heard and Seen. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-tarana-burke-on-empathy/
BB: On this episode, we’re talking to my dear friend, someone I just respect more than I can even say, Tarana Burke. Tarana has been working at the intersection of racial justice and gender equity for nearly three decades. Fueled by a commitment to interrupt sexual violence and other systemic issues that disproportionately impact marginalized people, particularly black women and girls, Tarana has created and led campaigns that have brought awareness to the harmful legacies surrounding communities of color. Specifically, her work to end sexual violence has not only exposed the ugly truths of sexism and spoke truth to power, it’s also increased access to resources and support for survivors and paved a way forward for everyone to find their place in the movement. In 2006, Tarana founded the Me Too movement. Today that hashtag, the changes we’re seeing, the voices we’re hearing, she started that movement, and she started it in community centers and church basements, and working one-on-one with young girls and women.
BB: I want to let you know that today’s episode has some very candid and explicit conversation around sexual violence, so if this is a topic that is especially difficult for you, don’t listen alone. Listen with a friend, listen with some support. And if that’s not something you can do, that’s alright too.
BB: Okay. Tarana Burke, why are you so far away today?
TB: It’s so… I wish I was there… It was really for Corona, but actually I don’t even drink beer. Yeah, this is sad that we are all in four corners of the earth trying to connect to each other still. This doggone virus.
BB: It’s tough. The last time we were together, I think this was last time we were together, we were in the back of a car singing…
BB: We were making videos of us singing, I think, Earth, Wind and Fire.
TB: Yes, and you really brought it home with that, “Do you remember…” if –
TB: If I remember correctly, I think that you took the high notes there and it was very good.
BB: I don’t know. Because I have the video, I might have to put it up on the Unlocking Us podcast page.
TB: Yeah, that would be very cool.
BB: I just know that we were laughing so hard, you can barely make out the song.
TB: Yeah, well, there’s that. But that always happens. This was…
BB: That always happens.
TB: Good times.
BB: Well, we are responsibly socially distancing, and I wish you were here so I could give you a big old hug.
TB: I know.
BB: And kiss your cheek. But you are there and I am loving on you from here in Houston.
TB: Sending the same to you.
BB: And I want to jump in with the big news first.
TB: Let’s go.
BB: You’re engaged.
TB: I am. I am engaged now for…What is this month? For about three or four months? Yeah. I am.
BB: Tell me.
TB: I am…Well, funny story. It’s a person I’ve known for 30 years. Yeah, it’s so interesting how life works. I met him when I was 16, and he was older than me, and I didn’t know he was older than me at the time. He didn’t know how old I was. I didn’t know how old he was. And we sort of talked for a little bit. And I will never forget the day we were…We were like…He lived in my complex, my project, where I’m from in the Bronx. And so, I’d never dated a guy in my neighborhood before, and I walked into this building and he was talking to me about being a grown man, all this other stuff, and I was like, “You’re not a grown… ” Because I assumed he was like 19, because he was in college. And he pulled out his ID and it said, ’65, and I was like, “You are a grown man.”
TB: I was born in ’73. This just can’t work. Yeah, I was like, “I’m sorry. You’re too old for me.” And so I stopped dating him, but we kinda stayed friends, and then from that point on, I dated him again, a little bit in college. And then my…So I’ve had two stepdads, and unfortunately, both of them have passed away. And the first one died in 2001, and I hadn’t seen him in a few years. I was doing all of the funeral arrangements for the…I’ve never…it was the most grown-up thing I’d ever done at that point.
BB: Yeah. That’s hard and grown up.
TB: Oh yeah, my mom just couldn’t pull it together, and she’s usually the person…she’s the rock in the family. And she couldn’t quite pull it together, so I’m making arrangements for the funeral, and I literally physically bumped into him on the street. And it was like, “Haaaaaa.” [mimics angels singing]
TB: And he just…he’s a barber. And he took off the rest of afternoon and he literally just took me around to get to the flowers to buy the clothes, he took me to lunch. And I just was like, “Thank you. I don’t know how I would have made it through this day.” That was 2001. But I lived in Alabama and he lived in New York. So we dated a little bit then, but that didn’t work out. So we’ve done this dance of friend, dating, friend, dating forever. And a few years ago, I moved back to New York. He got in touch with me. He always finds me. It’s very interesting. Social media came about and he figures out a way to find me, or he’ll go to my mom’s house because she’s lived in the same apartment for like 35 years, so…
TB: He’ll find me. Anyway, he found me a few years ago. We started dating again. The timing was just off again, it was like I was trying to pull my life together after Kaia went to school. Long story short, we had a little bit of a tumultuous time between 2015 and 2017 trying to date, and right before Me Too went viral, I just was like, “I don’t want to see… I don’t think I want to see you anymore.” He had done some things that just really, just got on my nerves. I was like, “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.” Like, “We’ve been trying so long, I’m just done with it.” And I stopped talking to him. And then, last year…and I was serious. I was like, “This is it. I’m done.”
BB: You were seriously done. You were not like…
TB: Yeah. I was done. Now, I have to tell you, this man has asked me to marry him twice before, and I said no. And so, that’s unusual for men. Mostly they think kind of, one time and then that’s it. So…
BB: That…Yeah. I don’t blame them.
TB: I had said no. So, anyway, and I think when I said in 2017 that I was done, he was kind of done too, because he was like, “You can never make up your mind. I’ve been sure for 20 something years and you’re never sure.” So we both…we went our separate ways. Anyway, last year, unfortunately, my other stepfather passed away, and it was really hard because it was really sudden.
BB: Oh, no.
TB: Yeah, he went into the hospital on April 11th with…No, he woke up, like April 11th he was fine. April12th he went into the hospital, and they said he had sepsis.
BB: Oh, God.
TB: It just went…It just got increasingly worse. Come to find out his cancer had come back, and it was stage four metastatic. And within six weeks, he was…we were talking about having to take him off life support. And it was in that moment that he comes back. I get a text message randomly saying, “I keep thinking about you, I can’t stop thinking about you. I’m sorry for whatever I did.” And I get these messages every few months, but this time I was just like, “Oh God, I really miss him.”
TB: And so, I answered it. And God, he’s the kind of person if you give him an inch just, just…he’s just relentless.
BB: He’s going to take your heart.
TB: Oh, my gosh. But that’s really so literal because this time, whatever happened in the 18 months that we were separated, changed him. And he says this himself. He’s like, “I didn’t know how serious…when you left, and we went our separate ways.” He’s like, “The minute I walked out the door, I was…this is… I should have fought. This was a mistake.” So, the things that were driving me crazy, he had started working on, or at least acknowledging. And I’ll tell you the biggest lesson for me. So, he came right before my dad passed, literally the day or two before, and then we talked on the phone and then the day after. So my dad was…my stepdad was Muslim. So he was buried immediately. He passed away at like 12…like right after midnight on Friday, and he was in the ground by Saturday night.
TB: Which was also…I’ve never had a Muslim funeral. I’ve never done…had that experience, and so, it was jarring to have just seen, you know, been with the person.
BB: Yeah, there’s a cadence…
TB: Yeah, right?
BB: Yeah, in our life and our death in our tradition where it’s like it’s slow, and people are coming into town, and it’s a week.
TB: Right, and you do all of these arrangements. This was like, “Get it done.” And he’s literally in the ground on Saturday night and…yeah. You know, now that I’ve had the experience though, I kinda appreciate it. I kind of have an appreciation for how quickly that moved, and it forces you to just come to terms. And then…it’s not that you don’t continue to grieve, but it situated the grieving process differently for me.
TB: But I was really hurt on Sunday, and he came and got me and took me to the park. And we sat in Central Park for like, six hours. After he had worked an eight hour shift overnight. And I was just like, “Wow, I really miss him.” And there were some things we had to untangle.
TB: Always…you know, coming back into each other’s lives and…but then it was this moment when he said to me, “Are you ready to get married?” We had been just talking maybe two or three weeks, and I thought, “Oh God, here we go again with the marriage thing. It always comes down to this marriage thing with you.” And he said, “I’m not saying I want to get…we don’t have to get married tomorrow, but I’m not going to proceed from here if you’re not ready to get married.” And I was indignant. I was like, “Are you giving me an ultimatum?”
BB: I can see your face. I know your face well enough that I can see it right now, like, “Uhhh, huh uh.”
TB: I was like, “Wait, what is happening here? I thought you’re supposed to be grateful to be back?” And he was like…
BB: Where is the gratitude? Let’s just revel in that for a while.
TB: And he was like, “I do, I love you, I’m glad that we’re back together, but if you’re… ” I said, “Are you saying to me, if I don’t marry you, that you’re going to leave?” And he said, “Not right away.” [laughter] And I was like, “Wow.” So, I said, “Okay, I need a minute. Just let me sit with it.” He was like, “Tarana, it’s been 30 years. You know or you don’t know.” He was like, “If it’s not true, then just say it’s not…it’s not going to happen. But you know.” And I just…I was like, “Wait. I do know.” I was just so scared. It was just so scary to me.
TB: But you know what? The conclusion I came to…I’m going to wrap this long engagement story up. But the conclusion I came to was, really, not like I don’t have anything to lose in a way that is dismissive of how much I love him, but I have done heartbreak already. I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I’ve had…he’s broken my heart. I’ve had other men who’ve broken my heart. I know what that looks like, I know what it feels like. I really don’t know what the other side looks like. And if I walked into this situation and it didn’t work, I know how to survive, right? Because I’ve done it. I’ve survived heartbreak. I have much experience in coming back from that. But I don’t have any experience in being loved fully and completely and having somebody who is dedicated to being a better person, making you a better person, having a really good life, wanting to love you to life as opposed to loving you to death. I haven’t had that experience, and he’s so committed to loving me and I just…I was like, “I want to know what this is like on the other side.” Not that I think it’s not going to work out, but again, if it doesn’t, I’ll be okay. I have evidence that I can survive a heartbreak.
TB: So, Christmas he came with this ring and proposed in front of my whole family, officially. I had already agreed that I was going to do it, but this was the official proposal, and now here we are, we’re getting married this summer.
BB: I’m really, really happy for you.
TB: I’m so excited too. He’s a good person.
BB: It’s funny, because I don’t think I’ve done anything in my life harder, more vulnerable, riskier than letting myself be loved.
TB: You said a whole world there. [chuckle] Ugh, God, it’s hard. Isn’t it ridiculous that it’s so hard? It’s hard.
BB: No, it’s… I don’t know. It’s… Right after Steve and I got married and we had a long off-again, on-again seven years, because we met too when we were young. And…right after we got married, I was seeing a therapist because I was like, “This is not going to work out.” [laughter] And I finally went into the therapist one day and I said, “This is just not going to work. I just can’t do this.” And she said, “Yeah, I share your concerns.”
TB: Oh, wow.
BB: And I said, “Exactly, right?” [laughter] And she said, “Yeah, it’s just…he likes you so much more than you like you.”
TB: Oh no!
BB: I was like, “What?”
TB: Hit you like a ton of bricks.
BB: God, that’s bullshit. You’re fired! [laughter] I was like…yeah, I was like, “What?”… She just said, “You know, he really sees you and loves you, and God is that terrifying for you!” And it is. And it’s so messy. It’s the only metaphor I can think of for how it feels for me is we have this bathroom where we have sinks that are kind of on different sides of the bathroom, like same bathroom, but two different sink areas. And mine is 100… don’t listen to this, Steve. [laughter] 100 times grosser and messier and cluttered than his. But if one thing is out of place on his, I’m like, “I can’t live like this.”
TB: Exactly! Oh, my God. Why are we like this?
BB: It’s like I can deal with my own shit, but now I have to untangle my shit from yours, and then you…you’re bringing your own mess into this, which is probably not even as messy as my mess, but it’s hard.
TB: Brené, you have really…you just explained our life just now. [laughter] Because I’ve also never lived with a man. I lived with my daughter’s dad for maybe six months when I was first pregnant. We broke up a long time ago, and so I’ve never as an adult, as a full-grown functioning adult, I’ve never lived with a partner, so this co-habitation thing has also been interesting. [laughter] Oh, boy.
BB: Are y’all living together already?
TB: We’re living together, and it’s been six months that we’ve been living together and…oh, it’s so interesting sharing space. I’m a Virgo and I am…I’m 46 and I’ve only raised a child… You know what I mean? So my co-habitation is I’ve been in charge of everything. [laughter]
BB: I don’t know what Virgo means, but I do know what 46 and in charge means.
TB: You know? Anytime I’ve shared space with another person, I could say, “Pick up your stuff.” Excuse me. “And I want this to go here and that to go there and I don’t want to hear anything about it.” And he’s like…it’s interesting. He’s clean. He’s a very clean person, but he’s not an orderly person.
BB: I know what you mean.
TB: Ugh, it drives me nuts. So, he’ll be like, “Oh, I don’t want…I hate to see dishes stacked up in the sink,” but then he’ll get up and have cereal and leave the cereal box open on the counter, with the bowl, with half a thing of milk in it. And I’m looking at him like, “Who raised you?” [laughter]
BB: And it’s so funny because if you’re in a good place and you’re feeling in love, you’re like, “Aw, sweet guy, let me put up the cereal box.” And if you’re not in a good place, I’m like, “This clearly demonstrates the core differences between our values and what we believe about the world and each other, and this cereal box is everything.”
TB: It’s a metaphor for…exactly, for our existence. No, it’s been…We have…We’re going to couples counseling, and it’s been great because he’s a guy’s guy and has never done anything like that, so having him there…he sat there the first few sessions kind of looking like, “I don’t know this lady.” [laughter] And I’ve been in therapy for years so I’m just like, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I’m not interested in this.” [chuckle] But then he’s found out that, “Oh, wait. I can say the things that I can’t say to you in here… And you can’t get mad? You can’t let… You have to listen?” Now he’s loosened up.
TB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s good, it’s been such a growth process for me, and I don’t think I’ve done anything…honestly, this sounds terrible to say, but I don’t think I’ve done anything in a long time that really pushed me and made me grow, do you know what I mean?
BB: Oh, yeah.
TB: It’s just… I kinda feel like I’ve been coasting on what I know, how I know how to live, working on myself and trying to be better and maintain the betterness, [chuckle] but not… You think you know it all. Even some of the things that we’ve discovered in therapy, or I’ve discovered about myself is like, “Tarana, one, you don’t know it all, at all. You don’t have all the answers. You’re not right all the time [chuckle] and this person is a human being who has some insight and who actually knows you.” And that really gets me. He calls me on things.
BB: That’s the worst… That’s just the worst.
TB: It’s the worst. [laughter]
BB: And it’s the best. It’s like to be seen and known and loved. It’s why we’re here, right? And then…
BB: Why do you want to punch somebody in the face sometimes? I don’t know. It’s like, “Don’t see me. Don’t know me.”
TB: Yeah, I just…I know. “And don’t know me, just look away, please. Stop being right about me. Go away.” Yeah, that vulnerability thing is interesting, and it’s interesting to watch him find safety, because I also know…this is a, a 54-year old Black man who has been trained to, “You work hard, you take care of your family, you love your woman, you take care of you kids,” like that’s his thing, and I’m just like, “You deserve a more robust life than that. [chuckle] You deserve to be joyous and happy and vulnerable, like this is a place where you can do that,” and cracking into that and watching him respond…he’d never smiled in pictures before. He’d just always…you can look back years and years in pictures. Unless he’s with his kids, he’s barely smiling, and I have this picture from his birthday. I took him to Orlando…I had to go to Orlando and he came with me, but we made it into a birthday trip and went to the race car thing, like the NASCAR.
TB: So he got to like race the cars and then he won a little trophy, and then we took this picture after. And he has the biggest…he looks like a 12-year-old boy. I put that picture up in our bedroom because I’m like, this moment right here is just a reminder that you deserve to feel like this all the time, or as much as possible. Right? Like it’s okay, he felt like…I think so many men feel like they can’t tap into that side of themselves because, you know…
TB: What does that mean about you? Yeah, so it’s been great for both of us, I think…
BB: Well, I’m really happy for you.
BB: And feeling all the bumps with you. And you know…we just gotta keep showing up with the people we love, right? Even when we have no idea what we’re doing.
TB: Yes. That’s a validating feeling, even when we have no idea.
BB: Even when we don’t know. And you know, that’s like, Steve and I, had no…our parents are both…Our…We have eight now. Four sets and eight parents, everyone is divorced and remarried, and divorced, and remarried.
BB: We didn’t have a lot of models about what it meant to be with someone…
BB: In a way that we want to be with each other, so we just try to…we just try to commit to keep showing up and figuring it out, and sometimes it’s so…it’s hard.
TB: How long have you been married? Now, it’s been about 20…
BB: We’ve been together 30 years.
TB: Wow. That’s just so long.
BB: Yeah. And married 26 or something. I think together, 32 maybe… And together 26, I mean, married 26.
TB: That’s amazing.
BB: So I want to ask you something, because you said something that, I want to talk about Me Too.
BB: And I want to talk about something you just said about your fiancé, that reminds me of something…a quote that I read from you. You said, “Love your wife, take care of your family, work hard… ”
BB: “But there’s more. And that more is joy. And that more is fully living and leaning into the vulnerability, including the beautiful love moments and the joy moments, and those things that are just so hard”. I read a quote by you and I’m going to try to grab it because I’m actually pulling it out in my head right now, but it said, it was talking about Me Too, Black Lives Matter, “These are not anger movements… ”
TB: Oh yes.
BB: “These are declarations. We’re not in these movements to live a life full of anger and rage, we’re in these movements to declare that our lives matter, that you’re not alone if you’re a survivor of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and that we are entitled to full lives of joy.”
BB: Did I get that close?
TB: That’s the quote. I remember that now. I don’t remember the interview, but I remember saying that. Yeah, because I think people get that wrong so much that it’s…because we’re interconnected as people, just humans, that I think there is…This is just my thinking. I always feel like, “Well, I hope there is research to back this up.” [chuckle] But I think because we’re interconnected as people, as human beings, that when one group of human beings talk about the ways that their lives have…the world has failed them, the way that these systems of oppression have failed them, whatever, other groups of people feel like it’s an indictment of them, or that they are somehow personally responsible for each individual life. There’s accountability that has to happen around oppression. We know about White Supremacy, we know about all of these different things, but mostly we are talking about like…we need to have the ability to say, it’s just like everything else, you have to be able to say it out loud and declare it so people understand it, one, that you have to… If you can’t hear me, I feel like you can’t see me. [chuckle]
BB: I think that’s right. That’s so…Say it again.
TB: If you can’t hear me, then I think you can’t see me. It’s just like if you’re on a deserted island and I’m screaming, and screaming, and screaming, and yelling. I’m not thinking that you can see me because you can’t hear me. I’m like flapping my arms and yelling and waving and you know, people just…it doesn’t feel like you can be seen if you can’t be heard.
BB: That’s right. I think that’s so…Wow. It’s so…I just have to take a minute with that.
BB: To be seen and known and loved is the only reason we’re here.
BB: And if you can’t hear me, you can’t see me.
TB: Yeah. It’s an important distinction I think for people because it’s…you don’t have to take an affront to me raising my voice, to me. You don’t have to be…feel like it’s a personal affront, right? I’m saying… I have to say “this happened to me too.” It does as much for me as it’s doing for the world. Like I need it personally, but the world needs to hear it too, because we will erase groups of people if they’re silent. We will just forget they exist because it’s easy because who wants to look at the mess? It’s like…
TB: We were talking about [chuckle] our house earlier. There are two types of people. I always think about the people who sweep piles into all over their house, but they don’t actually pick them up [chuckle] and do anything about them. And then that people who will sweep it up, put it in a dustpan and throw it away, whatever. But you know we don’t like…those of us who sweep it up and put it in the garbage, we don’t like to look at mess, we don’t want to look at that. I want to just put it away and make sure it’s in the garbage, whatever. And you’ll forget about things if you don’t see them. We don’t want…I would rather not look at the mess, even as a Black person, I would rather not think about racism and oppression. As a survivor, I would rather not think about the things that I don’t have and the things that happened to me. I don’t even want to think about them, so I know the people who don’t experience them don’t want to think about them. But how do we live together if we’re not privy to…or have a whole space for everybody’s experiences and reality. How do we co-exist? Just in general.
BB: I don’t think we can. And I think this idea that..this idea about being heard, wrapping words around experiences, about movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, not being movements of anger, but expressions of our wholeness, the dignity, the love, the joy, I just…I don’t think anyone has lead me more fiercely and lovingly through that understanding than you.
TB: Oh, thank you. [laughter]
BB: For folks listening right now, so Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement in 2006, and it wasn’t a hashtag, it wasn’t a Hollywood movement, the way I understand it, and correct me if I’m wrong, Tarana, it was a movement that happened in community centers and classrooms and church basements.
BB: And places where you needed young girls who were sexual assault survivors to know that they were not alone.
BB: Is that right?
TB: That’s absolutely right. It came about at a time when I just feel like there was an awakening, like, I was looking around at these babies in our community, these young girls mostly, who were in our program, I was…my best friend at the time, and I had started this Leadership Program. It was the girls like empowerment and leadership program called Just Be. And my goal, because I came up through a leadership program that really changed my life, and I wanted to continue that experience more directly with black and brown girls. I did not…I didn’t think about this until I got into the work, even though I came from this sort of civil…I was in Selma, Alabama, so I was surrounded by people who had made civil rights history, who had been a part of the movement in one way or another, who were just really grounded in a social justice legacy. And I knew those people personally, and I knew the trauma that they had experienced, both from being directly in the movement and just from being in living in low wealth, under-served communities for decades. And I also know that when the movement left and all the hoopla died down, those people were left just to exist on their own. Selma is in Dallas county in Alabama is one of the poorest counties in Alabama.
TB: You know, people don’t realize that this place that gave us democracy, you know, [chuckle] that reinvigorated democracy in this country, it’s been ignored. And so I went in with this goal of empowering these girls, to make change in their community, creating, doing leadership development with them, so that they can go and affect change, you know have the power to do that, and also to be grounded in a sense of self-worth, like personally, so when they go into a world that says that they’re not worthy, as it often tells black girls, that they would be empowered to face that lie. But what I’ve found were a bunch of girls who are very eager to do that work, but who were also carrying so much trauma and so much pain, and it started to feel…the reason why I compare it to the civil rights folks is because it started to feel unethical if that’s the right word. It was like, to some degree, unethical, to ask these girls to go out and fix the community, to be empowered to go in and go back and create change in your community without empowering them to create change in their own lives, like without addressing the trauma that they were holding in their own lives, it just…
BB: As if it were just normal.
TB: Yes, we can’t just skip over that.
TB: And I think that’s what we do for a lot of activists, we want them to be on the front lines, we want them to fight against social injustice, but we’re not dealing with the traumas they’re holding in their own communities, whether it’s the trauma of…poverty is traumatic.
TB: Or violence. All of these different things occur in our lives and we don’t work on folks inside the same way we work on the outside. And so it was like, I need to pull back and figure out one, what does it look like to speak…I don’t want to sound like a pastor…because it wasn’t in the same way, but to speak healing into these girls lives to…
BB: No, yeah, I mean I don’t know if that’s pastorial or not, but it’s accurate.
BB: How do you speak healing…
TB: How do you speak healing?
BB: Into their lives.
TB: And it was at a time when I was doing, I was on this personal journey, it was the beginning of The Secret, you know, I was reading all the Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant…
TB: All of that, anybody. It was a self…
TB: Yeah, mindfulness and self-awareness was at a high at that moment, and I was just voraciously reading everything I could, and those things…this is probably too… [laughter] I don’t… I’m not disparaging anybody, this is my personal experience, but those things weren’t helping me, and I think it was because it wasn’t speaking to what I was looking for.
TB: Which is also why, some years later, when I found your stuff, I was like, “Thank you, God.” [laughter] The difference is the self-help stuff that I was reading at the time felt like…It made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
TB: Do you know what I mean, it made me feel like…
BB: You’re broken, fix it.
TB: You’re broken, you need to go outside of yourself to find joy. You don’t… you have to go. I remember when I found The Gifts of Imperfection, and I just…oh, I know because of the TED Talk, that’s why, I was like, “How did I… “Yeah, I have a friend named Nancy, who I’ve been Facebook friends with for like 15, 10 years [laughter] or whatever, and she’s a psychologist and she posted your TED talk, and I was like, oh my God, I have been talking about shame and not vulnerability necessarily, but what the danger of shame and what it does to us and particularly in survivors of sexual violence, and generally related to being black people in America, and how we… Just all this stuff around shame, unfounded. I didn’t have any research or anything like that, and then I found you and I was like, “See, [laughter] she’s just… The lady said it. She… ”
BB: The lady said it, but you know the thing is that, I just got…But you had lived experience of working with thousands of people who have lived that, and my research is just…I think you have taught me, there’s no way I could have told you more about shame than what you taught me, that’s kind of where we met in this kind of like, “We’ve got to name this thing.”
BB: And so…
TB: Yeah. I realized when I was with the girls is that, “Oh, if we don’t deal with the shame factor, we can’t even get to the healing factor.” They were wrapped in it. It had become yet another layer, and I had it too, right? I was walking with it, but it’s…you know how children will do that. When a child mirrors some of your insecurities, you see it clearer and you’re like, “No, no baby, not you.” And then you realize, “This is the thing I’m holding.” And I’m looking at these little 11 and 12-year-old girls who are the same age as I was when I was going through this thing, who have just adopted…Their shame is like a coat of armor. They had just adopted this thing, “I’m not going there, I’m not dealing with that. I am definitely this type of person, and so I operate from this place, because I’m this type of person,” and that thing that they had taken on, that this type of person was only because of shame.
BB: And their experiences were sexual assault.
TB: Yeah. And among other things, but I remember very clearly, I’m writing right now, so I’m writing about a lot of this, and a lot of this has come up and it has been really painful, because I remember…
BB: It has to be.
TB: Very, very clearly knowing and understanding at about 11, 12 years old that I was a particular kind of girl, that I had gone past the threshold of whatever a good girl was, a clean, good, right girl was. I couldn’t be that. This is because I had been molested. And I’d been sexually assaulted, and I did not ascribe anything to the perpetrators, to the people who caused me harm, because I felt complicit in my own abuse, and my complicity caused me deep shame. And so I just decided, “I’m just this type of girl. And these type of girls, these things happen to these type of girls, and the best that I can do to hide the shame, is to pretend to the world, to at least to make the world think that I’m a better person. So I’m going to be perfect. I’m going to have straight A’s; I’m going to do great in sports. I’m going to do everything I can to create this veneer of perfection so nobody can see what’s really underneath here, which is this horrible girl who can’t even keep people from touching her.” It was so complicated for a 12-year-old to carry that, and I was Catholic. [chuckle]
BB: It’s impossible, right? The load is impossible. Because part of the dynamic that no one understands is what you’re naming right now, again. You coming up with language for us, which is, so much of sexual abuse is making sure that the victims and targets and survivors of it feel responsible and complicit in their own violence.
TB: Yup, yup. Yes, so much of it. That’s part of the first key of unpacking how you start this journey to healing is…I remember going through this group therapy thing around for survivors, and we went to…we got to week three or something like that, and they said, “We’re going to deal with anger, how you… ” It was a religious, it was through a church, and it’s like, “How do you release your anger towards the person who caused you harm?” and I remember talking to the group facilitator after because I would help co-facilitate sometimes, and said, “I don’t actually have anger towards the people who did this to me, not in the way that you’re thinking.”
TB: I’ve talked to other survivors who are like, “Oh, I hate them, I want them to die, or… ” those kinda…I didn’t have that, because I took all the blame on myself. So I was mostly angry at myself. I didn’t have the kind of anger that…Well, I had some. I was like, “Why did you pick me?” kind of anger, “I wish he would have just picked somebody else,” which is terrible from a child’s mind, but yeah, it took me a minute. I had to dig in and get the anger against them, and that was actually therapeutic for me, and it was an opposite kind of thing. I had to become angry with them so I can displace some of the anger I had for myself that I had harbored for myself and put it where it belongs, which is why I always tell survivors, “You got to put that burden where it belongs. It’s not our burden to bear.”
BB: It’s such the most complex, difficult part to me, of shame, is when we internalize, like we internalize the responsibility, the blame, because sometimes I think externalizing it without the right support in place is maybe too much to bear?
TB: Yeah, no, I think it is. I think externalizing it and saying, “You did this, or this is… You caused it,” it just… There’s so much involved in that. There’s so much understanding, particularly if it happened as a child. There’s so much understanding that we don’t have yet, even about how the world works, that is required to do that, that you have to…for many people, and I don’t think we talk about it enough. There’s these ways that we talk about healing and survival that are really dogmatic like, “You do this to get here. This person feels like that, this person feels like that.” And it’s like you said, it’s really messy and complex, it’s not…we don’t all experience it the same, we don’t all feel the same, even for shame. Speaking about like the diversity of people who experience sexual violence, I have talked to people who are from Asian families, from Southeast Asian families, from African immigrant families, black American families, Latinx families. The universally, shame is a factor in what we experienced, but why we have shame varies…
BB: That’s right.
BB: I think that’s right.
TB: By culture.
BB: Because shame is driven by messages and expectations that are absolutely socio-culturally driven.
BB: It’s the standards are so… I guess the expectations and messages that feel shame are so culturally bound.
TB: Yes, they are, which is why we have to be careful about how we…Which is why I think a lot of people can’t find themselves in the messaging that is out in the world around survival and around sexual violence and around… I think a lot of survivors of color feel lost or left out or not seen, because we’re not speaking specifically about how…When I talk to folks who are from Asian families, and they talk about the complete family shame.
TB: And a lot of immigrant families have the same thing, or you talk about people from Latinx communities who the reasons why we don’t tell. They don’t tell, not because…if they had different choices, they might tell, but we did a PSA where the woman is, I think Columbian or Honduran, I can’t remember, I’m sorry. But she’s talking about why she didn’t tell when her uncle molested her because she didn’t want her family deported. She didn’t want to risk bringing law enforcement into their lives and their family being deported. I didn’t tell.
TB: And I probably could have said, as an adult, I know that if I had said what I needed to say the night that it happened. That my mother and my stepfather would have absolutely responded well and believed me. But I, as a six-year-old child, Black girl being raised in an intercity community with a lot of police activity and a lot of police violence, even at six years old, or I was six going to seven, I knew consequences. And so I put together inside of less than a minute, if I say this to my father, he’s going to get his gun that I know he has, and he’s going to go get this person, and then he’s going to go to jail, and it’s going to be my fault. I made a very adult decision at like six, seven years old, based on the world that I lived in and what I had seen and how our cultural norms in the community that I was being raised in. And so these things vary from person to person, community to community, culture to culture, and we have to be sensitive to that.
BB: And I think it’s…there’s no way, again, to go back to what you said earlier, that I think is so, for me, just life-giving and changing. We can’t see people if we can’t hear them, and so we have to hear the stories and hold everyone’s story as their truth, whether it reflects our own experiences, it doesn’t matter. We have to stop putting people’s stories through our own experience and take people’s stories as the truth.
TB: Yeah, and you bring up something else. I think that’s also important in terms of this movement. As hard as that is for a lot of people, and as difficult, and big a task that is, it’s also important because if the people don’t understand what survival looks like, then they really won’t be in a position to help survivors. Because I make this joke all the time about, we’ve been watching Law & Order: SVU for 20 years, and [chuckle] the lens that most a lot of people see, or they have gotten the breadth of their knowledge around sexual violence. Thank God the show has shown a great diversity of issues and things like that, but it is also a television show.
BB: It’s a drama.
TB: It’s a drama, and they get to dramatize things. They get to have a happy ending. They get to tie it up neatly in 45 minutes. That’s not how life works. And I’m telling you, nothing made this more clear for me in the last two years, than the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the response to Dr. Blasey Ford. And watching people, even folks who were supportive of the movement, liberal folks, whatever you want to call them, who were still questioning her, who still wanted her to be a stronger…to have a stronger testimony. Who wanted her to remember more. Who wanted her to be different. And then the naysayers, of course, who were like, “Oh, she’s clearly lying because she doesn’t remember this.” Because…I’ve watched people pick her apart and pick apart her story, and then I’d listen to those of us who have survived this thing, and we all thought the same thing or similarly. It’s so amazing that all these years later she has the level of memory that she has and the things that she remembered are very specific to the way it made her feel. When you listen to her testimony, she’s like…
TB: I remember, what’s that word she said? She said, In my…because she’s a scientist, she said something, it left an indelible mark in her or something.
BB: And the laughing.
TB: And the laughing and the smells. Like all the things that trigger us, that we remember. I had this encounter, I tell this story often, because it brings it home for people. I had this encounter in a bathroom, because I was there at the…In the hearings, which was also life-changing, but I was in the bathroom during the break right after she testified. We were all just like emotional and people were trying to pull themselves together, and this woman who recognized me starts chatting and says, “Oh, you know, that was something, wasn’t it? Oh my goodness.” And I was like, “Yeah, blah, blah, blah.” And then she said, “I just wish… wish that she was just…I just wish she had a little more detail. I wish she was just a little bit stronger, right?” She is, for lack of a better way to put it, we’re on the same side [chuckle] here, this woman and me.
TB: I was feeling some comradery with her for a moment, just to have somebody to unload on, and she said that, and it was so jarring to me. And I said…and I very rarely talk about my personal experience on purpose, but I turned to her and I said, “You know what?” I was 45 at the time. I said, “I’m 45. I was first molested when I was six years old. And so that means for the last 39 years I’ve been carrying this.” And all of the people who know me, everybody who knows me closely, my close friends and family, they know that I have a terrible memory. Like I’m notorious. Everybody knows like, “Write it down for Tarana. She’s going to forget it.” But that’s the thing I’m trying to work on. But everybody knows it.
TB: And I said, “It took me years to figure out that the reason why I have this terrible memory is because I’ve spent every day for the last 39 years trying to forget. We don’t want to have these memories. We don’t want to have every detail. Imagine having every single detail of everything that happened to you. The worst thing that ever happened to you, holding every last detail for 40 years. It’s horrific. I’m glad that I don’t remember the color of my coat, or the pants that I was… I’m glad that I don’t have those memories. I don’t want them. And so the fact that she could muster up what she could in there, is heroic.”
TB: “And I hope that she can forget all of it at some point, because that’s the only saving grace for some of us, is to get this thing out of our bodies at some point, and we never really can. So do not stand here and tell me that you wish she had more memory, because should she suffer more? Right? She’s already doing this thing for us that’s so heroic that she absolutely doesn’t have to do, and we only say, ‘Give us more. Give us more,’ because we don’t understand survival, we don’t understand what it looks like, what it feels like, what it costs. And because we don’t have that information, other people who have control over our lives, whether they’re jurors or lawyers, or people who make decisions about the lives of survivors don’t have enough information about what survival looks like. They double down on our trauma, because you’ve made this decision based on something you saw on TV, or some way that somebody else you know survived, and it’s just not… It’s not right and it’s not enough.”
BB: I’m really just taking it in right now, Tarana. I’m just, I’m hearing what you’re saying, and I just keep thinking about the human need to separate ourselves from people who have experienced things that we fear. And the need for me not to believe things are true, because if they are true, it hurts too much, or I’m too afraid, or I have to reflect on my own experiences and that… give me…I’ve never thought about it until this moment where you’re like, “Give me more detail,” like, “Shit, man. I’ve spent my whole life trying to wake up and not remember every single detail.” But we’re not survivor centered. We’re first protect the power systems in place centered. Then secondly though, for those of us who really are trying to do the right thing, our self-awareness is not honed enough to think about what you’re saying, and I just…
TB: Yeah, because she meant well. This woman definitely was not anti, and she probably wished her well and thought highly of her. It wasn’t mean, it just was unaware. And in a political context, it gets even worse.
BB: Oh, God, yeah.
TB: We’re so divided.
BB: Because then you’ve got the barricades. The barricades are built in.
TB: Yes. But there’s this deep polarization. I have people who support the President, his Administration, whatever, who write into our social media pages. Well, and particularly around this, when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening, saying things like, “Oh, goodness, I was sexually assaulted when I was a kid. It’s not that big a deal. She needs to get over it.” I mean, tons of those letters. Or women saying, “Oh, she’s lying. This happened to me when I was such and such, and I remember every single detail down to the letter. She’s just trying to take down the President.” And I’m like, “Y’all, listen. [chuckle] Listen. How far gone are we? Really, like we’re almost depleted of compassion. If this is the place that we are in, that we can’t even take a step back to see and hear. You can want this man to take the place on the Supreme Court and acknowledge that this woman is telling the truth. You just have to be honest with yourself, and it’s the kind of honestly that people don’t want to face.”
BB: That statement right there, Tarana, you are creating an internal tension within people that we are slowly but surely losing our capacity to hold. Do you know what I mean? Like that we cannot hold two competing ideas very well together, so we just have to just…
TB: Let one go.
BB: Trounce the idea that gets in our way, ideologically.
TB: I’m going to tell you that thing, I say this when I have conversations, I’m really struggling in this moment. Mostly inside of the black community, I’m struggling with the rejection of the movement as an… And people seeing it as an attack specifically on black men. It’s a growing narrative that is really, I think, dangerous, and it’s dishonest, but it’s also just really dangerous. We already have a very small amount of real estate on which to build this movement inside communities of color. And so when narratives like that pop up, they take up so much more real estate that we need, and that thing you said is the thing that I try to drive home all the time about, our ability to hold two truths at the same time, or more than one truth.
BB: So for people listening that don’t know, you and I are friends, I follow your work, I know about the tension and the attack on the Me Too movement within communities of color. Can you help people talk about what that…when you see the narrative on Twitter and it’s just…It’s so not factual, and it’s so easy to just check it.
TB: Yeah, it’s really…
BB: But…What’s the narrative?
TB: Well, there’s this growing narrative that black men are the target of the Me Too movement which has been started inside…with these small groups of…pockets of people on social media mostly, and it’s based on the fact that…it’s complicated but not complicated. It’s based on the fact that R. Kelly…when the R. Kelly documentary came out on Lifetime, it was over three days, it was really sensational, and it was huge. And it aired over and over again, and it got a lot of attention, and for the first time we had people outside of our community talking about this thing that we’ve been talking about inside of our community for 20 years, and it got an incredible amount of attention.
BB: So R. Kelly the musician…
TB: R. Kelly the musician, right, who…
BB: Multiple charges?
TB: Multiple charges of sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, everything you can name, who has been targeting black teenage girls for years in his community. I mean, from middle school, girls as young as 13 for years and years and years. And black women mostly have been railing against him as an artist, as a person, as a perpetrator, as a predator for years, and to no avail. His music is still played, he still was touring, he was still very widely popular and accepted. Even Lady Gaga did a show with him…did a song with him and performed with him at some big award show in this last decade. So it’s been really hurtful for a lot of black women that we could not get attention around this person. And then the Harvey Weinstein case happens, and all of a sudden, the whole world stops because we had these different looking survivors who had these rich, white, wealthy, glamorous, famous women who came forward who, again, I see as survivors, first.
TB: I’m not…this is not about them and them coming forward. They are survivors and they deserve to have that space to come forward and tell their truth, but I think what it brought up for a lot of people in the black community is…well, for black women, for sure, is that, why is it that we can’t get the same attention, we’ve been talking about a predator in our community in a similar way. Well, all of a sudden, when we do get that attention…Now, if you know, those are people who follow the movement know that the most popular celebrity cases have mostly been white men, you know, have been Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and Louis CK, and on and on and on, they were these cases of white men. Even prior to Weinstein, we had Bill Cosby, but then there was also Roger Ailes and the other guy from Fox News. So there’s…
TB: But to…instead, these pockets of black people who are anti have said, “Well, Bill Cosby went to jail and now R. Kelly has been arrested.” Because he was arrested and indicted for the multiple charges after the documentary aired. “Why aren’t any white men going to jail?” And it’s like…It’s not…First of all, is not that simple, but, secondly, Harvey Weinstein, it took a while, but he was definitely arrested, charged, indicted, whatever, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, this narrative of like, “Why do we keep talking about black men?” has been growing and growing and growing, and some of it comes from a very real history that we have in America of black men being falsely accused of sexual violence.
TB: Right? That’s a very…I mean, from Emmett Till to the Central Park Jogger case…
BB: That’s right.
TB: We have seen black men historically in this country be falsely accused or sexual violence be weaponized against them, and so that’s a harmful and hurtful part of our history that you just can’t erase, that it just is what it is, it’s real and it’s there.
BB: But that we have not owned.
TB: That people have not owned, that we don’t talk about, that we know…
TB: But in our community, we know it, right?
TB: And so, for many people, when a black man is accused of sexual violence, we have… It gives us pause first, like, “Wait, who’s the victim? What happened?” All the things that we do not encourage people to do when folks come forward have become standard in the black community because we’ve seen it so many times, we’ve seen the false accusation. So I get where the immediate, like, the distrust comes from, I understand that very clearly. So that’s a truth. But here’s another truth that also doesn’t get held up and that we don’t talk about, that black women have the second highest rate of sexual violence in this country. We have the second highest rate, yeah, of sexual violence in this country behind indigenous women. That is a very real thing, and so that is another truth. And, yet, a third truth is, in every single community, every community, there’s no special depravity in the black community, there’s nothing that makes our men have a predilection towards sexual violence… nothing like that. But in every single community, crimes are committed against the people who are in closest proximity.
TB: So that means that white people tend to kill, murder, rape, da da da, other white people. Asian people, Asian people; Latinx people, Latinx people; and black people, other black people. That’s why we rail against this idea of black on black crime, because people commit crimes against the people who they live closest to, and we tend to live in pockets together. But again, if we know that that is also true, now we have three truths. If we hold all of those truths, then we have to understand both the sensitivity around calling out black men around sexual violence, and black women’s need to be seen as survivors of sexual violence, many times at the hands of black men.
TB: Not always, right? We’ve seen Daniel Holtzclaw and other, the guy in South Carolina. We’ve seen major cases erupt of white men who are…or men who are not black, who actually committed crimes against black women, but by and large, just like in every other community, that’s our reality. So if we only hold the one reality of the history of black men being falsely accused and we operate from that place in this moment, what happens to the masses of black women who have experienced sexual violence? We get erased again. We weren’t seen when Me Too went viral. That was mostly not women of color at all who were put on the forefront. If we acknowledge that that’s true so then you have white women covered. If we only deal with the history of black men being falsely accused and come to their defense every single time a black man is accused and don’t want to hear anything else, where does that leave black women? And that’s all I’ve been saying that my work has always centered black women and girls for that reason, because somebody has to speak up for us. Somebody has to say that we matter. Somebody has to prioritize our pain.
TB: And my hope would be that the entire community could embrace that and say, “These individuals who’ve been the R. Kellys, or the Bill Cosbys who have been called out.” Mind you, there haven’t been a ton of black celebrity men who have, not to say they don’t exist, but they haven’t been called out and pointed out as perpetrators in this moment. A lot of that is because black women do not want to be held responsible for being the one to call out these black men. And in the last few months we’ve seen the repercussions of that, right? Oprah Winfrey, Gail King, Jada Pinkett Smith, Janelle Hill, myself. Other black women who stand up and say anything, not accusatory, not…but anything that looks like we are trying to hold a black man accountable for behavior. But even black men like R. Kelly. There is this backlash and this vitriol that says, “You hate black men,” as opposed to saying, “You know what? These particular black men do not represent black manhood.”
TB: R. Kelly is not indicative of the black men I see in my life who raised me, who love me, who I’ve been surrounded by for most of my life. He’s not indicative of that, and so we want to make sure the world knows that when somebody is preying on our community, we want them held accountable. That’s not the narrative that has taken shape, right? And so, going all the way back to what you were saying before about the need to separate ourselves from the things that we fear, I think that is so much of what we’re seeing is rooted in that. If we have to start looking internally and saying, “We have to address the rate of sexual violence that is happening. Also, not just to women and girls. In our community, period. Black boys, black men, also are survivors.”
BB: That’s right.
TB: We have to, like every other community should do it.
BB: And all of us.
TB: All of us. Collectively, but then also because of those cultural differences, we have to take a step back in our various cultures and ethnicities and talk about and think about the way it affects our groups of people. It’s very important that we do that, and if our response to that is, “Why are you always talking about black men? Why do you hate black men?” I’m like, “Come on, y’all.” This response is coming from fear, and shame, and a lack of ability to be vulnerable, really. I know vulnerability is hard for us. We can’t all afford vulnerability. But we need a modicum of it in this moment in order for us, and compassion to say like, “This is just the truth. It’s just the truth,” and we have to just sit with this truth and unpack it and figure it out and come up with some solutions. We have the ability to do that. I know that was really long, but it’s just, it’s sort of complicated and nuanced, so I just wanted to be clear that I got through the whole thing.
BB: I think it’s complicated and nuanced, and I think that’s why I want to have these conversations with people like you, because when we lose our capacity for complicated and nuanced, I think we lose our capacity for change. And I guess what I’m struck by, Tarana, as you’re talking, is that how complete oppression is as a tool. That in white supremacy, it’s not just what you see, it’s the ramifications are so bone-piercing. This idea that we see it in other communities, we see it with women who try to hold other women accountable, “And how could you ever do that, and you’re setting us all back.” Or it’s oppression, just every door you try to open, it has already set a trap there.
TB: Yup. It feels impossible.
BB: Do you know what I’m saying?
BB: I was so struck with by, of course, you know it. Of course, you know what I’m talking about, because you built this, your work on this, it’s just…I sometimes think, and I’m thinking on my feet right now, so I don’t know if it’s going to make sense, but oppression almost seems to be completely predicated on not being able to hold multiple truths at one time, and assigning rank to truths, so that what we’re taught are smaller truths get crushed in the process.
BB: Do you know what I mean? It almost seems like the greatest weapon against oppression, white supremacy, is critical, nuanced thinking.
TB: Right. Because it is a ranking of truth, so if I am oppressing you through race, and then I have created this lie that I am a supreme being, and this truth is the highest truth. It is absolute and all-consuming that this is true. And I have to proliferate everything that you believe, everything you see, everything you hear with that truth. This is the thing I was saying about grounding our girls in a sense of self-worth, because that’s a tool to fight back that lie. It’s a tool against that lie, and we have to live our lives and build a literal arsenal to fight the lies that are created and put out in the world as truth.
BB: You started the Me Too movement, what was that, 14 years ago?
TB: Yeah, what is this? 2020? So…yeah, good grief, 14 years ago.
BB: By literally looking at young girls in this community that you were mentoring and teaching and modeling how to reclaim their own self-worth and value, you looked at them and said, “Me too.” It’s become a hashtag now, and whiteness has been centered on it, a little. Would you agree?
TB: Oh, yeah.
BB: The thing that I think about you, when I think about Me Too and the history and just my friendship with you is, would you say it’s true or not true that, the Me Too movement that you created is a movement that is survivor, empathy, and love-focused?
TB: Absolutely. One hundred…our tag line was “empowerment through empathy”.
BB: Oh, really?
TB: Yeah, that’s the original tagline for Me Too, on our t-shirts and everything, it’s empowerment through empathy. Because what struck me about using…and that actually came to me before the idea, to use the words “me too”, when I was trying to figure out, “What was the thing that worked most for me in my healing journey when I started trying to figure out how to feel better about myself?”
TB: And it was the moments that I had deep empathy with other people, I’d had this…I didn’t have language, I didn’t have… We weren’t survivor, healing, that just…I didn’t have that language even in my own journey, and I remember meeting with this group of women who were in California, these activists, badass radical women, who we were doing a digital storytelling project and just kinda hanging out after, and somehow another turned to survival. Talking about sexual violence, and I felt brave in that moment, even just saying something about being a victim. Because I just didn’t even talk about it, I was on a journey, but it was very personal. And one of the women stopped…I’ll never forget this Indian woman, she stopped, and she turned to me and she said, “No. No, no, no, no, no. We don’t use that language. You are not a victim. You are a survivor.” And although we use it widely now, it was not widely used then and…
BB: Yeah. Cutting edge then, geez.
TB: Oh, yeah. And it just blew. It was…
TB: Those moments. I was like, “Oh my God,” just what it made me feel like was, it feels so much better to feel like I have overcome something, rather than succumbed to it. Like, “Oh, this thing didn’t kill me. I’m still here, I survived.” And so I took that nugget and these women allowed me…they just saw me. We talked about…a lot of what I do in our healing workshops comes from that experience because we didn’t tell our stories, we didn’t sit around talking about all these gory details, we talked about things like being afraid of the dark. You know?
TB: We talked about what our sex lives were like, post these things, and I thought, “I feel seen…I have a group of people who deeply empathize with my life as a survivor.” And I needed that, I needed to feel like I wasn’t just like, “We all survive.” Survival is very isolating. The violence is isolating. So even though you see the numbers and the data, and you know it’s worldwide, intellectually you know it’s widespread, it feels… It immediately feels like somebody is othering you and putting you in a corner.
TB: And a lot of times I love…obviously, I love your explanation of the difference between empathy and sympathy, and I use it a lot, and one of the other things I tell people too, is that for survivors sympathy sometimes can feel like othering. So people will say to you…
TB: “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” And that little piece right there that happened to you feels like an arm…I’m in a studio with my arms up, putting the arm’s distance, because it’s a separation between you over there that that thing happened to, and me over here. And I know people mean well, obviously, when they do that, they’re trying to be there for you and support you. But it’s such a different experience than somebody saying, “Gosh, that happened to me too.” And the minute you have that, how I explain it to people sometimes is that you have created a community, even if it’s just for five minutes. And…
BB: They’re powerful words, aren’t they?
TB: They’re powerful words, we now…there’s a thing I know about you and that I understand fundamentally about your life, in just saying those words in this moment, that so many other people don’t get. And that is what empathy between survivors can feel like. And why…for me…Me Too originally was about empathy between survivors, like I see you, and I see you too.
TB: And so, yeah, definitely, it was about love and empathy and healing, and the power that is created, that empowerment was about the power that’s created between two people when there is that exchange of empathy.
BB: How do we…I am a firm believer…and I get this question a lot. I believe empathy is possible between two people who have not had the exact shared experience, but who are willing to hold people’s stories up as truth and listen and learn. Do you believe that?
TB: Absolutely, I get that question a lot too, “What if I’m not a survivor? Can I empathize?” And the reality is, we’ve all felt pain, most of us have experienced trauma, most of us have experienced loss. These are the things that people carry, the residue that the trauma leaves is very similar to a lot of different things. And so you can pull from that place and say like, “I get this,” if you can get past the…this is why I try to get away from the details sometimes, because if you can get away from the details to what it is that it left with you, then there’s a better chance of people connecting to that, right? Because you don’t have to have this thing…
BB: I ask people all the time when we’re talking about empathy, and I said, “Raise your hand if you know rage, powerlessness, pain, trauma.” A lot of us have had the experiences that we need to share genuine empathy. Not all of us are willing to tap into them to make that connection. And so what I think is impossible, is to both self-protect and insulate, and see and hear other people at the same time.
TB: Oh, yeah, it’s literally impossible. It’s literally impossible. People won’t go there. That’s such a great way to approach that, to ask people, because that’s similarly, that’s what I tell people like, “There are things that I am holding that I’ve experienced, that you have, that literally have nothing to do…could be the loss of your mom that brought you to this place.” But at the end of the day, it’s even with other survivors. There are so many survivors who I get this message all the time, or this question, “Such and such happened to me, but it wasn’t that bad.”
BB: Yeah. Comparative suffering is what we call it.
TB: What is it called?
BB: Comparative suffering.
TB: Oh, exactly, that’s it. Exactly. Thank you. I’m always learning. [laughter]
BB: It’s hard. Let’s rank it, “Because I’m ashamed to take too much of the trauma and empathy space for my story, because I know there are worse stories,” which is just the most dangerous narrative of all.
TB: It is, and I’m always…this is what I tell people when I get that. And I get it from a lot of young girls, and I go to college campuses and I say, “What matters is what it left you with. The thing that happened,” and it sometimes could be…
TB: Like, “You were not sexually assaulted, you were harassed, the thing that it left you with is what matters. This is what your…I don’t…The details don’t matter. I mean they matter to you personally, but in terms of what it did to you, because there are also people who have had very similar experiences who walk away feeling completely different.”
BB: That’s right.
TB: I have met survivors who have, when they say the thing and they experience, I’m like, “Yeah, that was not consensual. [chuckle] This would be date rape, or this would be whatever,” and they’re just like, “Okay.” They didn’t take it that way, they didn’t internalize it that way. I don’t want to give it to them. I don’t want to create that thing for them. If you walked away and it didn’t leave you with a thing, then I’m grateful that you don’t have to hold that burden. But a very similar experience could happen to another person and it ruined them. And it just takes them down and makes them feel just awful, and they are left with this pain and/or rage or shame, or like all of these things. And it’s okay, and you have the right to acknowledge what you feel. You don’t have to rank it; you don’t have to compare it to anybody else. It’s yours.
BB: It’s interesting, because when we study empathy, what we have found is that the willingness to see and hear people and be with them in their pain is the big piece of empathy, and that sometimes people who’ve had the empathic failure happens for two equal reasons. One, you invalidate, minimize, or maximize an experience. You’re not with someone where they are, or equally, you’ve had the exact same experience, and you attribute all of your…What you would call what you were left with to them. So it is like there’s no script for empathy. It’s like, “Am I willing to be with you, hear you, and believe you?” And that’s hard. I want to read something that you tweeted and then I want to read what some responses were. You sent out a tweet after the Weinstein verdict that said, “For the record, I’m clear that this verdict and sentencing is squarely due to the survivors who stepped in out of the shadows and bravely told their stories. I am here to support them.” In response someone wrote, “I know that I’m young and still in the process of becoming, but as a historian in training, I’m going to make sure the history books have your name on their pages. You have given a face to the brown, black, beige and pink bodies who not only survive, but heal and thrive. Thank you.”
TB: Oh, you bet. [laughter]
BB: Another response. Another response @taranaburke deserves all the praise and recognition in the world. You can’t build anything without a strong foundation. #MeToo is that foundation. And Tarana Burke, you built it.” Another response, “Thank you. Many women today got some justice because of you. @taranaburke you gave these women the help and support they needed to speak out. #MeToo is the foundation. None of this would have happened without you.” It’s…
TB: I didn’t see these responses. I sometimes tweet and then turn off the computer. [laughter]
BB: And I get that, but I hope you know that. And I think there is rage, and I think rage and anger are important and they can be catalysts for great change, and I don’t know there’s been ever really massive change without some of them. I think they’re really hard ways to live and too high of a price to pay to live with those. But you have built a movement that is so based in love and empathy and so survivor centered that I hope it becomes the model that people use to build other great movements that tackle the shit that we’re up against today in the world.
TB: Yes, indeed. Wouldn’t that be nice? I do…
BB: It would, and you did it.
BB: And I know that that’s hard for you, because I’ve read a lot of your…I read you and listen to you all the time, and I know that you hate…you always think the movement and Me Too is bigger than you or anyone else, and no one should be centered in the work but the survivors, but I just have to say to you that I think it’s important for people to understand who you are, your intention behind the movement, and the work you tirelessly do to keep re-centering the right people.
TB: I appreciate that, I do. It is hard sometimes because I very much feel like this current iteration of Me Too, what we’re in now, was built on the backs of survivors. And these folks who courageously came out and did not know what to expect, did not know what was going to happen, did not know how it was going to help or not help. And posted and tweeted and #MeToo all over the place. I think when people accuse me of courage, as my girlfriend says in a poem, people are like, “You’re so courageous and you’re so heroic,” and I’m like, “I feel really dutiful.” Part of what coming up with this idea and the movement around Me Too made me feel like when it went viral was like, “Oh God.” One I thought, I would never get my arms around it, and then I thought, I have to get in it, insert myself in some way to try to at least keep it grounded on these people.
TB: If we can’t have as much courage at least as the people who had the courage to say, “Me Too”, then we don’t deserve to be… You don’t deserve to be a leader; you don’t deserve to call yourself anything related to shaping movement. So I feel like my job for the last two and a half years has been trying to… Sometimes it feels like yelling into a well, but to try to keep shaping and shaping and molding and shaping and directing people away from the salaciousness and the headlines, the stuff that will move you away from these people who bent over backwards to make sure that we see them and we hear them. And we have to keep seeing them. And I feel like in a lot of ways, we haven’t given them anything in return for that courage. So as much as I can to try to answer that, that feels like the call, that’s the work. You gotta keep remembering these people. That’s why I just keep bringing it back to them because if they aren’t center, then we just get lost in verdicts and headlines and who’s next, and all that kind of stuff.
BB: I hear you. I hear you, loud and clear.
TB: Thank you. I appreciate it.
BB: Let me ask you a question, and this is where I can get really pummeled online and I just feel so sure in my answer, but I trust you on this.
BB: Can we use shame as a social justice tool?
TB: As a tool? You have to say more. What do you mean by that?
BB: So I’ve always believed that…I’m thinking about the Audre Lorde quote that, “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” And this idea that we can use empathy, accountability, and justice as social justice tools, but I don’t know that we can use shame, belittling and humiliation as…
TB: No absolutely. Okay, I’m glad you cleared that up, because I was like, “Where are you going with this?” [laughter]
BB: Were you worried that I had…
TB: I was a little bit worried.
BB: I had turned.
TB: I was like, things, this is… I’m just want to…say like, say more. [laughter]
BB: I really… [chuckle] I was like, “Wow, she’s gone into the same moral,” because I know you well enough to now when you’re like, “Uh-huh, say more.” [laughter] “Help me understand.” That you’re like, That’s Tarana Burke for bullshit. [laughter]
TB: No, absolutely not. It actually makes me feel…I get it, people are like, in this moment, it is easy to slip into what we’re seeing, into the same place. And in a lot of ways, fighting fire with fire feels good…
BB: It does.
TB: Because it feels…right, like I’m getting you the way you got me. But we end up in the same exact place. If we’re not aiming to be better…sometimes you just slip, sometimes you just…I don’t know, something gets the best of you, whatever. But at least acknowledge…
BB: Your pain.
TB: Your pain, right. So acknowledge that this is not the best way to operate, I just did this because I was in pain or whatever. But no, shame is definitely not a social justice tool. It needs to be relegated to the same place all the time. And I feel like if we start pulling in tools like that and using them as an excuse to fight for justice, there’s no place for it. And we will end up in the same exact places. It actually speaks to the thing I was saying about the issues we’re having internally in the black community, and that some of this is about people not wanting justice, but wanting to have the same privileges as the oppressor. And so they use the same tools as the oppressor internally in our community. And it’s just not effective, we’re going to end up in the same places. So no. No, no, no. Absolutely not.
BB: It’s helpful for me. I just think, especially when I think about sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence, all violence, where humiliation, belittling, shame are the tools of silence.
TB: Oh yeah. Well, you see now the jokes around Weinstein were awful when people talking about him getting raped in jail…
BB: Yeah, oh God.
TB: And he’s going to…that’s not helpful, it’s just not helpful. It’s not useful. And really what people who do that don’t understand is that they’re not allies for the movement, because that is contributing to rape culture, and rape culture creates the space for violence. So we need to dismantle the culture that creates the space for violence, if we’re going to ever see an end or an interruption of sexual violence. So it’s just not… I think they think that they’re making us feel better, or maybe they’re making themselves feel better, they’re just…but you’re not, it’s a disruption of the movement, and it’s really moving backwards not forward.
BB: Don’t become the thing we fear.
TB: Yeah. Come on. Didn’t Brené say that? [laughter]
BB: And thank you for giving me a chance to explain myself with your, “Tell me more.” [laughter] Hey, if you’re listening right now and you ever find yourself in a conversation with Tarana Burke and she takes a deep breath, long enough to say a short prayer and then says, “Tell me more,” you better get your shit together. [laughter]
TB: I think because we stopped and I was thrown, I was like, “Wait, which… I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I’m going to listen. I want to listen.” [laughter]
BB: Ten, very fast questions, are you ready?
TB: Oh, oh, okay, let me take a sip of water. Hold on a second. Alright, lightning round. Here we go.
BB: Lightning round. Vulnerability. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
BB: You’re called on to be brave, but you’re in some real fear. What’s the first thing you do?
BB: Something that people often get wrong about you.
TB: That I’m not funny. [laughter]
BB: Really? You’re so funny.
TB: Yeah, people think I’m so serious. I’m like, “Nah, no.”
BB: No, you’re… Yeah, well, you know what? You are dualistic… You are funny and you’re serious. [chuckle] Alright. Last show you binged and loved.
TB: Oh my gosh, this is so typical, but Unbelievable on Netflix. [chuckle] It’s about sexual violence, I know, but it’s so good. [chuckle]
BB: Okay, favorite movie.
TB: Color Purple.
BB: A concert you’ll never forget.
TB: Oh, the reunion tour of…Puffy and Bad Boys reunion tour a couple of years ago, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.
BB: Favorite meal.
TB: Oh. Okay, quickly, quickly. Favorite meal. Cereal. Frosted Flakes. [laughter] That’s the truth.
BB: Frosted Flakes in cold milk?
TB: In cold milk is my favorite.
BB: Okay, what’s on your nightstand right now?
TB: Gosh, junk. My iPad, my earrings, the box for my ring, because I’m kind of obsessed [laughter] in not losing it, not with the ring. Crystals, all kind of junk.
BB: Okay, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you great joy, just a one fleeting moment.
TB: Laying on the couch, cuddled up under this big fluffy blanket with my love, binge watching TV.
BB: And last. What’s one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now?
TB: For you, I’m so grateful for you. I really am. I’m not just saying that, but I just can’t even express. And I think people who knew me before I knew you could tell you I’m so grateful for you and this work, that feels like it validated…Sometimes you have things in your head and they feel like they make sense, and then when I found you, you made the things in my head make sense and made me feel not like just this crazy person who was like, “But shame and fear,” and you had science and you had data, and you made it so clear and plain for everyday people. So I’m forever always grateful for you.
BB: I’m forever, always grateful for you, Tarana. Thank you for spending this time with us.
TB: Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
BB: Alright, next time I see you in person, I’m giving you the biggest kiss you’ve ever had…
TB: I can’t wait, I can’t wait.
BB: So just be ready. [laughter]
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