About That Time Tarana Burke Took on Tony Robbins ... and Won

Tarana Burke, honoree and activist, founder of the #MeToo movement, accepts an award at the National CARES Mentoring Movement’s For the Love of Our Children Gala on Jan. 29, 2018, in New York City.
Tarana Burke, honoree and activist, founder of the #MeToo movement, accepts an award at the National CARES Mentoring Movement’s For the Love of Our Children Gala on Jan. 29, 2018, in New York City.
Photo: Bennett Raglin (Getty Images for National Cares Mentoring Movement)

By now, it’s no secret that we’re serious admirers of Tarana Burke. Aside from birthing the #MeToo movement to help the young black and brown girls that she encountered as an activist, she has consistently shown unparalleled grace, generosity and commitment, no matter how high her profile continues to rise. As she recently told Elle magazine:

[L]ooking every day in the faces of these black and brown girls that we were working with—seeing visibly the trauma that they were holding, and recognizing that trauma because of something that I had held, and feeling like I don’t have a way to help, I don’t have resources. What I know is that, in our communities and historically in the way that I’ve worked, when there’s a deficit, when there’s a problem, we find a solution.


Burke is also a straight talker, never mincing words when it comes to advocating for victims of sexual trauma, and calling things as she sees them. That’s exactly what happened this past weekend, when a now-viral clip of self-empowerment guru Tony Robbins was brought to her attention.

In the clip, which was taped at a March 15 seminar in San Jose, Calif., Robbins gave his (likely unasked for and certainly unhelpful) opinion on the #MeToo movement. In the process, he suggested that those who identify with it were engaged in “victimhood” while trying to gain “significance,” and that even righteous “anger is not empowerment.”

When eloquently and bravely opposed by attendee Nanine McCool—who happens to be a sexual abuse survivor—Robbins not only interrupted her to double (and triple) down on his stance, but then turned mansplaining into borderline manhandling when he engaged her in a very awkward and intimidating interaction. Hulking over McCool by nearly a foot, he literally pushed her back through the crowd as a demonstration of her “resistance.”

Robbins even went so far as to share an anecdote about a powerful male executive—and friend—who’d confided that he’d passed over a female job applicant over two less-qualified men because the woman also happened to be highly attractive. This, as a recent survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that among other findings, “roughly half of all adults say the increased focus on sexual harassment will have little impact on women’s career opportunities.”

Ever the advocate and educator, Burke responded with a torrent of tweets that broke down like a fraction exactly why Robbins’ interpretation of #MeToo—and Robbins himself—are so problematic:


And she wasn’t alone. Several of our faves—at least one of whom has also been open about her own experience as a survivor of sexual trauma—added their voices to the chorus of clapbacks to Robbins’ idiocy:


In the full 11-minute interaction (posted by McCool herself—you can watch it here), Robbins cavalierly stated: “I’m not going to be inauthentic and say I’m sorry about something I’m not sorry about. ... This is what so many people are doing: They’re saying they’re sorry when they’re not, just to comply. I’m not here to comply. I’m here to free people from pain.”



By Sunday, Robbins—or someone on his team—clearly had better sense, releasing the following statement on Facebook:

At a recent Unleash the Power Within (UPW) event in San Jose, my comments failed to reflect the respect I have for everything Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement has achieved. I apologize for suggesting anything other than my profound admiration for the #MeToo movement. Let me clearly say, I agree with the goals of the #MeToo movement and its founding message of “empowerment through empathy,” which makes it a beautiful force for good.

For 40 years I’ve encouraged people to grow into the men and women they dream to be. I watch in awe as more and more women all over the world find their voice and stand up and speak out. All of our growth begins with learning. My own started with a childhood marked by abuse. I am humbled that others have looked to the path I have taken in the decades since as lessons in their own journey. But sometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn.

I teach that “life happens for you, not to you” and what I’ve realized is that while I’ve dedicated my life to working with victims of abuse all over the world, I need to get connected to the brave women of #MeToo.

I am committed to being part of the solution.

I am committed to helping to educate others so that we all stay true to the ideals of the #MeToo movement. I will never stop examining my own words and actions to make sure I am staying true to those ideals. That begins with this brief statement but will not end until our goals are reached.


Does this mean that one of the world’s most famous life coaches finally “gets it”? Doubtful, but we’ll consider it a win for the home team.

One thing’s for certain: If Robbins really is committed to being part of the solution, perhaps he should start by doing more listening and less pontificating. Who knows? Maybe he’ll learn what empowerment really means.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



Fuck that whole “anger is not empowerment bullshit.” I work with women survivors who have had to deal with a life time of being told, as women, to aquiece and be quiet. To not rock the boat with their pesky emotions. I repeatedly tell them, “YOU HAVE EVERY FUCKING RIGHT TO BE ANGRY!”

Anger is a beautiful and wonderful fire that can lay shit you don’t need to waste and promote beautiful growth.