Tarana Burke and Amanda Seales are talking about black womanhood. They are laughing, nodding and even finishing each other’s sentences. Eventually, they are hugging.
“Friends foreverrrrr,” Seales sings as she and Burke unlock from this embrace. “It happened here first.”
Before this moment, and though they were aware of each other’s work, the two had exchanged no more than passing hellos. Seales plays Tiffany alongside Issa Rae on HBO’s “Insecure.” Burke founded the Me Too movement a decade before anyone in Hollywood was calling it that. In their comedy and activism, both women have confronted how white privilege alters the lens through which people see women and their experiences.
But they’d never talked about it together — until Saturday at the United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles. Seales and Burke were invited to speak at the gathering, which brings together activists, entrepreneurs, artists and actresses who are working to improve the lives of women. The Lily was there, too, so at the end of the day, we asked the Burke and Seales to sit down for a free-flowing conversation about race, accountability, the hip-hop industry and #MeToo.
Even though Burke founded the #MeToo movement years ago, she didn’t get widespread recognition until last year.
“Where’d you go?” Seales asks Burke. “It just feels like the Me Too movement became white women in Hollywood. ... It feels like it became about Hollywood issues and, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s about survivors.”
That is true, Burke tells Seales, but she emphasized an important distinction.
There is plenty that white women co-opt from black women, she tells Seales, but this wasn’t necessarily one of them. Alyssa Milano, the actress who popularized #MeToo on Twitter, quickly gave Burke her due when she learned of the activist’s decades of work. And nobody tried to “diminish” her, Burke says.
“The media didn’t know what to do with me at first,” she says. “It was kind of like, ‘Where’d this 40-year-old black woman come from?’ … But in actuality, it was the white women in Hollywood that brought me in.”
During her conversation with Burke, Seales recounts her conversation with Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympian, at a dinner party hosted by Katy Perry last year. In part to promote her new album, Perry invited high-profile people to discuss tough topics. She called it “Friends and Family: Dinner With Discourse” and live-streamed the sit-down meal on YouTube.
Privilege became a topic of conversation, and Seales took issue with Jenner’s sunny disposition on the United States. Jenner has been criticized by some transgender activists for not being aware of how her privilege may have affected her transition.
“I believe in this country,” Jenner says at the dinner.
“You can say that in a way that I cannot because you’ve had a different experience, because this country is here for you,” Seales responds. “This country ain’t here for me in the same way, sis.”
Seales elaborates on her point to Burke at the summit: “Caitlyn’s like, ‘Well, you know, I mean, I’m offended that you would compare our president to Hitler or that you would suggest that America doesn’t treat people equally.’ And I’m like, what?”
“I’m like, first of all, you are trans,” Seales continues. “America ain’t even cared about you until like 2 o’clock today. What are you talking about?”
Seales tells Burke she almost wore a dashiki to the dinner, but changed her mind because she knew that as a black woman, she had to carry herself a certain way.
“That’s the negotiation that people of privilege don’t have to do,” Seales says.
The hip-hop industry is hypermasculine, Seales notes. When, exactly, is it appropriate to call black men out? R. Kelly, for example, has been accused of sexual assault for years, yet artists continue to work with him.
“Your taught as a black woman to protect black men,” she tells Burke. “It feels like I can’t call [them] out because I’m now a party to the oppressor.”
Burke wants to write “an open letter to black people,” she tells Seales. “Somebody has to say to our community that we have to have the ability to hold two truths at the same time.”
Seales jumps in: “We can hold people accountable while acknowledging that there is a lack of equality in how justice is served in the mainstream.”
Black women, in particular, have to hold more people accountable than anyone else.
“We’re over here like, okay, we gotta hold white people accountable, we gotta hold black people accountable, we gotta hold brothers accountable,” Seales says. “At the same time, we gotta hold white people accountable for not holding white people accountable. It’s tiring.”
This, Burke says, is the “burden of black womanhood” — kicking off the exchange that spurred the hug, the declaration of friendship and a selfie.
“You have white women who are like, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s start with us,’ ” Burke said. “And then you have black men who are like, ’You gotta hold it down for the brothers.’ And I’m always looking around like...”
Seales knows where her new friend is going.
“...who’s holding it down for us?” they ask together.