Lessons We Can Learn from Tarana Burke

Consent can be conceptualized in a variety of ways, though in our modern discourse, "consent" implies the agreement to engage in sexual behavior. Many of us are familiar with the viral “consent is like tea” video, or at least have heard the “no means no” axiom promoted by organizations like SpeakUP Bucknell. Tarana Burke, founder and vocal proponent of the #MeToo movement, has dedicated her life to creating a culture where consent is universally understood, sought out, and respected. As a survivor of sexual assault, Tarana was the first to use the simple assertion of “me too” to create a space where fellow survivors could come together and feel understood.

Earlier this year, actress Alyssa Milano elevated Tarana’s two simple words to the pinnacle of a global conversation about sexual assault awareness with a simple Tweet.  It read: “Me too. Suggested by a friend: if all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Her tweet, inspired by Tarana, went viral, touching survivors and allies across the world.

This past Sunday, Tarana spoke at Bucknell, sharing her experiences and the ways she hopes that #MeToo can continue to aid in the catharsis of survivors. Below are some lessons we can all glean from Tarana’s words.

Healing through empathy, not sympathy.

When a friend is grieving, we have the choice of offering them sympathy or empathy. Often used interchangeably, these terms differ in the way they position the survivor and the confidante. Sympathy is hearing about your friend’s struggles, and saying “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” The specificity of “to you” creates a distance between the friend seeking comfort and the one who can (no longer) provide it. Distinguishing another’s suffering as independent from your own experience only reinforces the isolation they already feel. By opening up to you about their experience, your friend is asking you to incorporate her experience into your own. Empathy, therefore, is finding a common thread between your own experience and that of your friend, and tracing the length of this thread to explore the ways you might be able to relate to, unite with, and support her.

Be attentive and interrogate

Tarana shared on Sunday that men often ask her what they can do to be allies to survivors, or just to women in general. She responded that the key to being an ally to anyone - women, trans folk, people of color, or any other group that experiences oppression - is to be attentive. Look for ways to attack patriarchy and rape culture in your own world. Set higher standards for yourself and your peers. One striking comment that Tarana made was that the aphorism “boys will be boys” is actually quite insulting to men - we understand this statement to mean that boys and men “can’t help” committing offenses of rape and sexist behavior, as if they are mindless animals. Instead of hearing things like this and feeling acquitted of their inappropriate behavior, men should feel insulted and strive to be better and encourage their fellow men to do the same.

Privilege itself is not a bad thing; it’s how you use it that matters

Without a doubt, men, especially cisgender white men, are born into a position of social privilege. Our world is structured to give men the upper hand in the personal, political, and professional spheres. But, as Tarana explains, we cannot scorn these men (or anyone else with privilege) for the life they were born into. We can, however, insist that they use their position of privilege to contribute to the social good, demand social justice, and support equitable rights for all. Women in Hollywood, though oppressed by patriarchy just as much as non-famous women, are privileged in that they are hyper-visible. Thus, their adoption of the #metoo movement is a productive and admirable choice, as it has helped create a global conversation about consent.

Find your tribe

When asked what her advice was for individuals interested in career paths based on supporting survivors of abuse, Tarana’s first suggestion was: “find your tribe.” Though the choice of her word “tribe” seems odd at first, it actually makes perfect sense. Her message was that in a community of people who unwaveringly support you, you can achieve anything you desire; finding this group is critical to overcoming the inevitable bumps you will face along the way. Her use of the word “tribe” reinforces not only this notion of unconditional encouragement, but also that of the common thread linking all members therein. Whereas in a “community,” individuals may pick and choose whose lives to concern themselves with, in a tribe, every individual is deeply invested in the well-being of everyone around them.  

Tarana Burke is certainly a role model for the way she has not only overcome adversity, but turned it into a positive thing: #metoo has offered solace to countless survivors of sexual harassment and assault. The conversation her words have created is powerful and long overdue. It is exciting to see how this conversation will grow in the years to come.