A global pandemic. Police violence. Protests. An economic crisis. Our democracy at risk—and with it, many of the freedoms we enjoy, tenuous though they may already be. We are facing intersecting challenges at this moment in America, and it’s often difficult to know where to focus our attention and energy, let alone hold space for them all.
“Intersectionality” has become a buzzword in recent years, one increasingly misapplied as the newly woke attempt to fit myriad issues under the social justice umbrella. The term for the crossroads formed by multiple identities and truths was coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, but as Tarana Burke reminds us in an intensive conversation for the Root Institute, intersectionality is also at the core of her work with the Me Too movement, as well as the center of her identity as a Black woman.
“It’s all these false choices—that I have to choose between being Black and a being a woman is a false choice,” she tells me during our conversation on movement-building. “I am all of those things...I am who I am, and you have to figure out what to do with that.”
With waves of protests taking place across America—and the world—and the spread of COVID-19 nowhere near slowing as a crucial presidential election nears, there are some who might say there is no room in our collective consciousness to also focus on the ongoing threat of sexual violence. But Burke has a bigger faith in our capacity, and it’s work she’s been doing herself; her fiancé was in the first wave of COVID-19 infections this spring, and as the June rape and killing of student-activist Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau made painfully clear, our fiercest advocacy for others offers no protection against sexual violence.
“We do have to be able to hold multiple truths at the same time,” says Burke in response to those who argue we cannot fight for justice for our communities while simultaneously holding transgressors within them accountable. “These reactions and responses to calling for accountability within our own community really come from a pain that we don’t want to confront.
“There’s so much that we have to deal with,” she continues, specifically referencing folks who’ve questioned her racial solidarity for her refusal to ignore the predators among us. “I want to protect Black men as much as I want to protect Black women and children. I want to protect Black people—and I love Black people, and I love Black men—but because I love them, and because I love us, I know that we have to be accountable, and we have to look each other in the face and deal with the reality of this issue.”
Constant, often unjustified criticism is just one of many aspects of movement-building Burke has dealt with in the three years since #MeToo hit the mainstream and she transcended the role of activist into a public figure—a role she’d never expected to assume. As longtime friends, she spoke freely with me about what she’s learned at the forefront of a now-global movement, and the process of bringing that movement full-circle to where it began—for all survivors, yes—but with a focus on Black women, girls and femmes.
“We are explicitly—explicitly—centering Black women and girls and femmes. We are explicitly centering queer and trans folks and folks from the LGBTQ community. We are explicitly focusing on the most marginalized in our community. And there’s no apology for that; it’s who we are, and where we started.”
“I feel like that’s sort of a pivot for me,” she later added, “away from feeling like I have to always explain: ‘I know I said Black, but I mean everybody.’ No, I mean Black—and everybody—but I mean Black first. And it just is what it is.”
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