Once again, the founder of the Me, Too movement takes a teachable moment and offers an entire semester's worth of wisdom. Tarana Burke joined Tiffany Cross to discuss the broad issue of sexual harassment and abuse, citing examples from R. Kelly to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, before they turned their focus to the ways in which victims are received when they come forward with their revelations.
Cross brought up the "Believe All Women" slogan, and wondered if it was productive or destructive on the whole. She was concerned that the mantra "does come up against some legality issues there." Then she said, "[A]nybody can make an accusation and it's immediately perceived as truth. You and I as black women know there are some racial issues that come along with that that give us pause. Should we believe all women? Or should we listen to all women?"
Burke took her distinction, and identified the issue with reducing something so complex to a slogan.
"No. I think people need to be clear about these slogans and mantras," she began, before clarifying the original phrase. "People started saying, 'Believe women,' not, 'Believe all women.'" Nowhere near the same thing.
Then, though, Burke explained why believing all women was never a viable option, especially for Black people.
"But the idea of 'Believe all women,' as a Black woman, I could never stand behind that, right? Because I've seen how sexual violence has been weaponized against Black men in this country." A phenomenon, by the way, that is still at play, having morphed into something so dangerously ridiculous that a Black man can't even birdwatch in Central Park.
"So, no, this is not about believing all women or believing all people just because they make an accusation. But it is about taking it seriously. Right?" Burke continued. "The idea behind believe women is just that we need to start from the premise that people are telling the truth when they come forward and said this person has harmed me."
"[T]hat came about because in this country and really around the world, I'm sure, we've gone through decades and decades of people being shut down at the point of disclosure. So, people disclose that something's happened and they're either hit with, 'What were you wearing?' 'Were you drunk?' 'That person wouldn't do that!' 'Why would they need to rape you?' All these different things that shut you down right at the point of disclosure," Burke explained.
She concluded with the simple premise behind the slogan.
"So believe women. 'Believe survivors' is really saying, not take a blanket statement and think that people always telling the truth. But take it seriously enough to investigate. Right? Don't shut people down at the point of disclosure. Give them the opportunity to be heard and then take it seriously enough to investigate and take it further."
It's my considered and unpopular opinion that the issue with slogans is not the slogans themselves, but the people in power who don't take time to understand them. The ones who use the hair-splitting, pedantic, and frankly irrelevant devil's-advocate argument against them as an excuse refuse to look deeper at what inspired them.
Like most liberal slogans, this "Believe Women" can be and has been attacked by the right wing. They've even been attacked by people on the left, and the very people who are the target of the purported help, because of these slogans' ability to be weaponized by the fascistic conservatives to stoke fear in white people. They aren't wrong. They know how it's playing.
We should always remember, though. It's on the people who hold the power (white people, men, police, depending on the slogan...) to do the little bit of work it takes to get to the root of the slogan and find out what it really is about before dismissing it. They don't pop up out of nowhere.