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Why We Need to Acknowledge the True Founder of the #MeToo Movement, Tarana Burke

For most Americans, the #MeToo movement started in the fall of 2017, with the bombshell New York Times story that Harvey Weinstein had been sexually harassing and assaulting employees and actresses for decades. On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “if you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” With that, the #MeToo movement took off, with Milano and actress Rose McGowan typically receiving the credit for it.

Yet in reality, it was not these wealthy, well-known actresses who started #MeToo. It was Tarana Burke, the senior director of Brooklyn-based Girls for Gender Equality. She first started the Me Too group in 2006, 11 years before the combination of the disclosures about Harvey Weinstein and the attention it got from famous actresses catapulted it into the national spotlight. Ms. Burke has worked with survivors of sexual violence, mainly young women of color, throughout her career. Until recently, after activists called attention to the fact that Ms. Burke was overlooked as the true founder of the #MeToo movement, her work received little publicity.

One of the most important aspects of intersectionality is that we consider issues beyond gender — such as race and class. In this situation, giving credit to famous white actresses rather than the black woman who has worked tirelessly in the field for decades undermines the goals of intersectional feminism. It also can be viewed as an appropriation of black labor — where a black woman creates an important concept, works on it for over a decade, and then it is taken and used by white women. Ms. Burke was even left off of the Time Magazine cover naming the “Silence Breakers” as its “Person of the Year.” — despite actually being the person who started the movement that led to many of the explosive revelations of late 2017.

Tarana Burke’s expertise in the anti-sexual violence world is evident in the interviews and speeches that she has given. For example, one of her primary concerns about this new iteration of the #MeToo movement is that victims of sexual violence may be poorly served by publicly sharing their stories of sexual violence. That is why, at her early Me Too workshops, she would give all of the girls a worksheet to fill out, and asked them to write “Me, too” on the paper if they needed help. In that way, she was not asking them to identify themselves publicly if they were victims; she offered them the opportunity to reach out privately. Respecting privacy and victims’ rights to protect their health-safety and well-being should always be the primary concern of any movement against gender-based violence.

While the end goal of the #MeToo Movement — ending sexual violence — is worthy, the erasure of Tarana Burke is unacceptable. Instead, we should be acknowledging her as the true founder of this historic movement and celebrating her decades of work in providing services and working to end rape culture. You can see Tarana Burke speak about her work TONIGHT in Pittsburgh; more information and tickets are available at the link. This Black History Month and throughout the year, we encourage you to lift up people who may not receive the credit for the work that they have done — particularly people of color — and strive towards equality for all.

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