'I Am Numb': Tarana Burke Gets Real About the Cost of Leading—and Living—#MeToo

Illustration for article titled 'I Am Numb': Tarana Burke Gets Real About the Cost of Leading—and Living—#MeToo
Screenshot: TED (YouTube)

“This movement is constantly being called a ‘watershed moment’ or even a reckoning,” Tarana Burke told the audience at TED Women 2018. “But I wake up some days feeling like all evidence points to the contrary. ... It’s hard not to feel numb.”


It was an unexpected admission from the founder of the Me Too movement, who has been seemingly tireless in her efforts to create a safer, more empathetic world for those most vulnerable to sexual violence.

“But let me tell you what else I know,” she continued. “Sometimes, when you hear the word ‘numb,’ you think of a void; an absence of feelings. Or even the inability to feel. But that’s not always true.”

Burke argued that for survivors, numbness can be the result of trauma—or, in her case, the lack of bandwidth when confronted with the seemingly endless wave of collective trauma that has surfaced since the #MeToo movement went viral last fall.

“For survivors, we often have to hold the truth of our experience,” she told the audience. “But now we are all holding something, whether we want to or not.”

What Burke is holding is space and focus for the movement she founded in 2006, despite trolls, opponents, and those who would try to politicize, or worse, weaponize a movement intended to foster healing and empathy. As she told the TED audience:

We have moved so far away from the origins of this movement that started a decade ago—or even the intention of the hashtag that started just a year ago—that sometimes, the Me Too movement that I hear people talk about is unrecognizable to me. But be clear: This is a movement about the 1 in 4 girls and the 1 in 6 boys who are sexually assaulted every year, and carry those wounds into adulthood. It’s about the 84% of trans women who will be assaulted this year. And the indigenous women, who are three-and-a-half times more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. Or people with disabilities, who are seven times more likely to be sexually abused. It’s about the 60% of black girls like me who will be experiencing sexual violence before they turn 18. And the thousands and thousands of low-wage workers who are being sexually harassed right now on jobs that they can’t afford to quit. This is a movement about the far-reaching power of empathy and the millions of people who raised their hands a year ago to say “me too” — and still have their hands raised.


What does empathy between survivors look like? It looks like a life where, in Burke’s words, survivors aren’t asked to “lean into their trauma,” or to “perform our pain over and over and again for the sake of your awareness.”

And despite the inevitable exhaustion—and numbness—that stems from grappling with collective trauma, Burke assures us that it is ultimately the way through to a better and safer world, free of sexual violence. “This is bigger than a moment,” she says. “We are in a movement. ... Trauma halts possibility. Movement activates it.”

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?