Tarana Burke: Black Community Needs to Have Uncomfortable Conversations About Sexual Violence

Tarana Burke attends the Time 100 Gala in New York City on April 24, 2018.
Tarana Burke attends the Time 100 Gala in New York City on April 24, 2018.
Photo: Evan Agostini (Invision/AP Images)

I caught up with Tarana Burke at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault annual awards on Monday in New York City, where she picked up yet another award for her years of activism, most notably #MeToo.


Over the past year alone, Hollywood and media luminaries like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose have been forced to reckon with allegations of abuse. The Root published an open letter challenging the entertainment world to #MuteRKelly that has resulted in at least 10 canceled events.

#MeToo is cited as the catalyst.

This success has also generated conspiracy theories among some black men, who are accusing the campaign of painting them in a negative light. Of course, #MeToo isn’t about taking down black men, but I asked Burke why it is that so many brothers in our community are so resistant to the idea that Cosby, Kelly and others are the sexual predators their victims allege they are.

“It’s really about our ability to hold two truths at the same time: the truth of our history of racial injustice in this country and the historical truth that black men have historically been falsely accused of rape and sexual violence against white women from Emmett Till to the Central Park Five,” Burke told me as we stood outside on East 58th Street in Manhattan, away from the crowded space of the awards event.

“We know that’s true,” she continued. “But that can’t be conflated with the truth that in every community—with the exception of the Native American community, which has still a disproportionate amount of people from outside of that community coming in to commit sexual violence—the people who commit violent acts in that community are from that community.”

Indeed, The Root has spent a great deal of time writing about the men (and some women) who refuse to let R. Kelly and Bill Cosby go. Tariq Nasheed insists that it’s white organizations painting black men as abusers of black women, Akon says he’s not sure if Cosby did it, and Damon Wayans said in 2015 that some of Cosby’s victims are “unrapeable.”

How do we push back against such thinking, though? For example, black men do not face the same skepticism from black women when police officers abuse black men. It is assumed that the act of police brutality took place, and no tests are administered to determine the man’s truthfulness. But many black men seemed not to give black women the same benefit of the doubt, which is troubling.


All communities deal with sexual assault, Burke said, but the dynamics of how it plays manifest differently. For the black community, shame is a major mitigating factor in how we respond to black girls’ and women’s accusations of sexual assault.

“For girls, if you’re sexually assaulted, there’s a stigma that you did something to bring it onto yourself: ‘How were you dressed? What did you do? What rule did you break?’ We start off with the premise that there was a rule that was broken that made the space for this, usually a man, to come and perpetrate this crime against you. So that’s something that we have to unlearn,” Burke said. “We have to remove this stigma that we have in our community that allows for shame, to be led by shame, and for us to find complicity in our own children.”


I’ve written about Cosby in the past and why many black men are so dismissive of the stories of sexual assault. Some of my detractors responded derisively, saying I am a “bitch-ass nigga looking for pussy.” Others have called me a “simp.” When I wrote about #YouOKSis, a national conversation started by Feminista Jones over women’s experiences with street harassment, I noticed that many of the women sharing their stories were called “hos” and “Negro bed wenches” from the same black men who claim to love them.

And, of course, there are the black men who claim that (white) feminism is inspiring black women to hate black men. Sometimes you have to wonder if these men can, in fact, be reached. I think many of us get it, though: #MeToo is the best thing to happen to America in a long time. We need to hear from more women who are experiencing sexual assault. And in the black community, we, black men, have to deal with our own stuff when it comes to why so many of us deny women the space to express their experiences with sexual assault.


Burke told me that black folks are well-positioned to have those difficult dialogues, and that she is optimistic that younger generations are starting to understand the importance of discussing sexual assault.

“We are uniquely positioned to have community conversations. I think we have a legacy of familial community collectiveness,” she said. “And ... this is a time where we need to really go back to that. We have to be comfortable with struggling. Brothers have to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable, as well as sisters. We gotta hear some things that are gonna be hard. We gotta unpack some things, and we have to be committed to keep coming back to the conversation and keep coming back and keep coming back because no resolution is not an answer.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.



We won’t have these conversations because Black men will not confront other Black men on their behavior. Black women can tell their stories all damn day, but when men encourage each other when pushing up on some woman who CLEARLY doesn’t want it...

Sorry, but as a Black female person- I don’t trust a Black man to have my back in the presence of any other Black man he wants approval from or camaraderie with.