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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. 

Audre Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Photo: Getty
Audre Lorde directed her critical attention within movements for justice. Photo: Getty

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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