Response: Sister Outsider


Audre Lorde. Just writing those two words, the name of a woman whose vision inspired so many, makes the hands feel heavy. What words can you type that do justice to the gifts Lorde gave the world? Sister Outsider, a sampler of Lorde’s essays and speeches, makes a great point of entry to her feminist platform, and though she insisted throughout her life that she was a poet and not a theorist, her contributions to theory can’t be denied. In fact, that’s probably what makes them excellent theory: she wasn’t trying to “be a theorist,” but to outline and map the world in ways that made sense to her and to women like her: black lesbian feminists.

Image taken from Autostraddle - click through to see an interesting article on the evolution of book covers.

Image taken from Autostraddle – click through to see an interesting article on the evolution of book covers.

This mapping takes a variety of forms. “Notes From A Trip to Russia,” the first piece in the collection, is actually a series of travel journal entries, edited together. Lorde also uses epistolary format (“An Open Letter to Mary Daly”) and transcripts (“An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich”) as part of her toolkit for exploring difference and broadening understanding. While most of the pieces are straightforward essays/speeches, it’s important to notice that Lorde was comfortable expressing herself in whatever format she felt would be most appropriate for good communication.

The Mary Daly, letter, in particular, is a gracious example of how to tell somebody where you think they have fallen short, and ask for accountability, while still holding out the possibility for reconciliation and coalition-building. It’s also useful for white feminists who are fond of Daly’s work, and may never have considered the perspective Lorde brings to it. And while an essay may have served the same purpose, choosing to communicate with Daly via letter indicates that Lorde valued relationships more than being right, even when she was right (and she was). Rather than get into a dueling theory publications smackdown, she chose a path more likely to lead to dialogue (except that it didn’t, but we can hardly fault Lorde for trying).

My favorite piece in the collection is “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” speaks passionately about what a truly intersectional feminism might look like. Though the word is of more recent coinage, Lorde is clearly one of intersectionality’s forerunners, insisting that people need to be aware that their oppression is not the only one that exists, and that oppressions interact with each other to create different points of view. She goes on at length to explain how various oppressions create different lenses for seeing/living, but the passage that affects me the most comes early in the essay, when she’s talking about clarifying differences:

…in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as american as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection. Whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes…The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves… (pp 114-115).

This passage chills me, because it sounds like every blog comments argument about racism that’s ever been fought online. Those of us who benefit from white privilege, even if we are oppressed in other ways, have an obligation to educate OURSELVES, and not expect people of color to do it for us. Luckily, if we’re smart and paying attention, we can make a good start by picking up Audre Lorde and listening with an open heart and mind to what she tried to teach us so many years ago.

Sister Outsider is a classic, the kind of book that should have a home on the bookshelf of everyone who calls her/himself an intersectional feminist. It’s the ultimate blend of theory and humanity, home truths delivered with compassion, no-nonsense and blunt, but not cruel. Look, Lorde says: this is what it’s like to be me, and to be a woman like me. And only the most hard-hearted, stubborn person could not help but listen and learn.


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