Audre Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Photo: Getty
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Nathifa Greene on Audre Lorde: Dismantling the master’s house

As a black lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde fought both white supremacy in the feminist movement, and misogyny among civil rights campaigners. 

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

Audre Lorde created space for plurality and differences among Second Wave feminists. The main aim of her work was to expose the false dilemma that forced a choice of one form of oppression over another, or solidarity with only one facet of identity at a time. Throughout her work, Lorde stressed that difference counts as a strength, not weakness, making way for later developments such as intersectionality in black feminism and multiculturalism.

Instead of making sexuality and domestic relationships a lower priority than struggles for civil rights and legal transformation, Lorde argued, there is a common ancestral root that generates racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia, and violence in relationships as well as in the public sphere. This common root is the belief that survival means domination over others, and a belief in superiority. The forms of knowledge that grow out of this common root all display one important feature in common, according to Lorde: “an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening.”[1]

The dominant white, middle class version of a feminist struggle that Freidan described, in The Feminine Mystique, was only one small sliver of women, which overlooked the specific kinds of experiences that women of other social classes and sexual orientations faced. That insensitivity ended up reinscribing oppression, Lorde argued.

Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Her critical assessments of feminism were radical, at a time when feminists would sometimes claim that racial solidarity betrayed feminist causes - and men of color would claim that expressions of gender solidarity by women of color betrayed the struggle for racial justice. So where was the place for women who were not white, or middle class, or heterosexual in anti-racist and feminist politics? Lorde pointed out that feminists could be racist and that men involved in antiracist struggle could be misogynist. That kind of zero-sum game thinking, where benefit for one cause only occurs at the expense of another, was perhaps the reason that Lorde claimed “the master’s tools can never dismantle the master’s house”, because aversion to difference is a form that various instances of oppression share in common.

For Lorde, coming of age in New York in the 1940s and 1950s, when apartheid was legal in America, class-conscious New York bohemians nevertheless found sexual difference suspect, “bourgeois and reactionary”[2]. The confines of gendered performance and self-presentation were narrow among gay women. Where could she find solidarity for all parts of herself, as a self-identified Black lesbian poet, in black and socialist circles uptown in Harlem, and gay bars downtown, in Greenwich Village? Choosing one kind of solidarity to the exclusion of another would require an amputation, to fit a procrustean bed.

Lorde's work took a stand against a narrow version of justice for women, and a false solidarity for that narrowly defined political agenda, which would involve a suppression of important parts of herself. However, she never stopped noticing the casual racism she experienced among her queer friends and fellow feminists, as well as sexism and homophobia among black people, within movements for racial justice.

One of her most significant contributions is her exposure of the ways that feminism could fail women of color. Lorde spoke out against patriarchy within movements for racial justice, and psychological as well as physical violence, shedding light on the ways that black women and queer women can be vulnerable to particular forms of violence, especially sexual violence. The divided loyalties of domestic workers, at work earning low wages in the very homes where other women wrestled with “the problem with no name” were not addressed in the feminism of Betty Friedan.

However, because women’s oppression and economic exploitation share a common cause, the argument for greater emphasis on other women’s experiences is a demand for honesty, and openness, rather than an indictment that stops at an accusation, offering nothing more. Lorde valued all forms of love and relationships among women, in deep bonds of love that led her to think of herself a woman-identified woman, pointing out that the tendency to value women as women, not only in relation to men, was the exception rather than the rule. The silence that stifled all kinds of love among women, both sexual and nonsexual, is a similar kind of silence that made it risky for black women to speak out against violence committed by black men. Women of color struggled against gendered oppression, as all women do, but only some women struggled against impunity for violence, as well as exploitative and unsafe working conditions.   

Lorde explored hidden and silenced areas in her essays and speeches. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power she broadened the sense of the term “erotic” to embrace its generative power and its whole creative spectrum, beyond preset gender roles. These texts encouraged women to express the full range of human emotion, including anger. In The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, Lorde described the tactics that dismissed, excluded, and silenced the voices of women of color, risking the reinforcement of white supremacy by diverting focus to anger between women, siphoning off the potentially revolutionary power of anger turned against racism, rather than each other. The psychological control of women by other women within feminist movements, because of the proscription against anger, left important issues unaddressed within feminist circles.

Because of her attention to the specific ways that women of color experience oppression, Lorde echoed the late 19th and early 20th century reflections of Anna Julia Cooper, who discussed the restriction of movements for women’s rights to white women. Lorde developed a position that came from a similar place as Sojourner Truth, whose 1851 question “ain’t I a woman?” was still relevant a century later, in an America that condoned and profited from racist exploitation. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote in 1937, the doubly excluded position of black women in America made them “de mule uh de world,” words that domestic workers knew all too well, confined as they were to low paying work deemed unfit for other women to perform.

Although she believed in the idea of a common cause, Lorde always stressed the importance of admitting difference within feminist circles. She also explored the affective space to disagree, carving out spaces where white middle class feminists did not belong at the center.

 

Nathifa Greene is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Stony Brook University (State University of New York) in the US.


[1] (1978/1984) “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving.” Reprinted in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press p.45

[2] (1982) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography. New York: Random House. p.149

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley