Starting today, every Sunday we’ll be doing a segment called Feminist-in-Training. This segment is for all the learning, growing feminists out there (actually, all feminists should be open to learning constantly and should never feel like they’ve hit their threshold of knowledge, but we’ll talk about that another time). During the segment, we’ll be visiting the writings of women and femmes of color who have contributed valuable ideas and perspectives to the ongoing discussion of what feminism is and how we can address experiences of oppression in a patriarchal society.
That being said, I don’t want anyone to think that if they don’t identify as a feminist they can’t read this segment. With the feminist movement, since its earliest roots, being dominated by cishet, white, able-bodied, middle- to upper-class women, it is clear why some people, specifically people of color, can find themselves not wanting to identify with a movement that oftentimes alienates them and invalidates the singularity of their oppression due to their race, age, sexuality, or class. Some people would rather align themselves with the womanist movement, which we will discuss another time, or identify as intersectional feminists.
Either way, the feminism we will be discussing here will be completely intersectional and, since we’re feminists-in-training, will not speak from a place of expertise but rather will attempt to articulate our own experiences while elevating the voices of the marginalized so that they can speak for themselves. While I (Ajahni, nice to meet you) will be running the segment, the comment section is open and I welcome everyone to give their feedback on what we discuss and to never hesitate to correct me when I make mistakes. You’re also allowed to submit for this segment, whether it be a question about something, a response to one of our posts, or your own article or analytical piece that you want to share.
Since it’s Pride Month, today I want to talk about Audre Lorde, a radical feminist writer who described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” I read a piece by her called “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in which she talks about the intersectionality of feminism and the differences between women.
(Note: Feminist-in-Training will kind of operate like a book club, but also with articles, poems and speeches, so I’ve linked the article by Audre Lorde. I urge you to read it; whether you do so before or after reading my interpretation of it is up to you.)
One quote that particularly strikes me from her piece is “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” This is important to acknowledge, because it is one thing to include poor women, black women, and women from low-income countries in conversations that are directly about them. There is nothing special about this, and white feminists often include is in discussions about us and think that doing so makes them intersectional feminists. However, we need to be included in all conversations concerning feminism, not just the ones directly related to us.
“To read this program is to assume that lesbian and Black women have nothing to say
about existentialism, the erotic, women's culture and silence, developing feminist theory,
or heterosexuality and power,” Audre wrote, referring to the NYU conference she was invited to speak at regarding the difference in the lives of American women with regards to race, sexuality, class and age.
That part made me think about how diverse white women are allowed to be. They’re always given permission to apply their intellect to any discussion, even ones that don’t concern them, and are always given opportunities to explore new mediums and new topics. On the other hand, when women of color are respected and acknowledged as intelligent, they are only invited to use that intelligence in dialogues that directly affect and address them. They are only allowed to talk about their race and their sexuality and their class, which makes them appear as if this is all they can talk about. This is part of what fuels the “angry black woman” narrative, because black women who people recognize as intelligent are only given platforms to talk about their blackness. But white women are just women, so they can talk about anything that affects women, or anything that affects people. They can explore. They can diversify their minds.
Here’s a really important passage: “As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.”
A famous Audre Lorde quote is “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” This completely applies here; our differences are forces of change. We do need to come together in community, as people and as feminists, but this does not mean that we have to look at the experience of womanhood in a monolithic manner. Sidenote: this is why it annoys me when people claim to be “color blind.” Saying you don’t see color is part of the problem, because what we need is not to pretend that our differences in background and culture don’t exist, but to learn to embrace those differences and not let them affect how we treat each other.
Audre later addresses the fact that the white women who attend the conference she spoke at have poor women and women of color at home cleaning their houses and tending to their children. For white feminists to not see this as a result of differences and oppression is undeniably due to the comfort they feel in their privilege.
Audre also asks “Why weren’t other women of Color found to participate in this conference?” and “Am I the only possible source of names of Black feminists?” She says that the usual answer is “We do not know who to ask.” We hear this answer often not only in academic feminist circles but also when we ask for representation in TV shows and movies, as if actors of color just don’t exist or just didn’t show up for auditions or just weren’t good enough. Audre calls this an evasion of responsibility and cites it as the cause for Black women’s art being kept out of exhibits and Black women’s texts being kept off reading lists. Yet when we create our own safe spaces, they call it segregation. They call it unfair.
Many feminists today and for the past few decades have learned so much about the differences between the experiences of men and women. They have analyzed and defined these differences, yet once the differences between women are brought up, like white and black or gay and straight or poor and rich, they become oblivious. The vast intelligence they used to scrutinize the patriarchy suddenly disappears.
This is when they start to tell us that to address these differences is pitting women against each other (remind you of someone?) and that, as women of color, it is our job to educate them. This is a classic tactic that the privileged use to reverse the guilt away from them; “educate me,” they cry. They claim to be helplessly ignorant, saying that their privilege cloaks them in a certain naivete that makes it impossible for them to do their own research or to see educating themselves as a possibility, much less a responsibility.
Audre Lorde’s essay is amazingly articulate and rings with truth. Please read it, and please comment with your thoughts.