Audre Lorde reading at the International Feminist Book Fair in London, 1984. Photo by Dagmar Schultz.
Aqdas Aftab is the 2017 Global Feminism Writing Fellow at Bitch Media
Last year, while working as a graduate student instructor for a composition course themed around gender justice, I asked my students to read Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.”
The last few lines of this poem—“So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive”—were of special interest to my students, most of whom were white cis women. One of them understood these lines to allude to the experience of all women who are silenced by a patriarchal system that makes women’s survival difficult. Another talked about how she was moved by Lorde’s poetics because she identified personally with the pain of the narrator because “she knew how terrible it was to be boxed by patriarchal expectations.” This discussion about Lorde—and her poetics about seemingly “universal” womanhood—took place much later in the semester, after I had already discussed a brief history of Black feminist critiques of second-wave feminism with my students; among their readings was The Combahee River Collective Statement, which outlines the history, exigency, and goals of Black feminist organizing. So why were they so keen to find something in Lorde’s poem that spoke to their personal experiences? These students were not averse to discussing race in general; in fact,they demonstrated an admirable honesty as they worked through their own white privilege. Yet they had this urge to identify with Audre Lorde’s narratives, making Lorde’s personal voice their own.
Their responses speak to a larger problem in the appropriation of Audre Lorde by white feminists (and also non-Black and non-indigenous feminists of color), who find resonance in Lorde’s feminist framework, but fail (or refuse) to recognize that Lorde’s politics revolve around the importance of staying cognizant of racial difference in feminist movements. A lot of Lorde’s writing is about her personal experience as a Black, lesbian, feminist, and hence captures the lived reality of a specific community who is racialized, sexualized, and gendered in a certain way. But in many of her speeches and essays such as “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Lorde is speaking to white women, asking them to explore how they contribute to the erasure, tokenization, and dehumanization of Black women.
Lorde’s conception of Black feminism, or intersectionality, is certainly not missing from feminist platforms today. Political platforms and creative groups celebrated her birthday last Saturday with amazing feminist fervor. But as I witnessed many folks honor Lorde’s work, I couldn’t help but notice that many non-Black/ non-indigenous feminists de-contextualized her quotes to fit their own narratives about their non-normative identities without acknowledging their racial privilege.
The worst kind of appropriation of Audre Lorde is taking place these days by folks who use her quotes (out of context) to serve their own anti-intersectional projects. As self-care has become a trending topic in social-justice circles, different venues have taken up Lorde’s famous saying on self-care without critically reflecting on how Lorde’s need for self-care stemmed from living and surviving under racist heteropatriarchy. For example, The Self-Care Project, an initiative to promote well-being and resilience for social-change-oriented folks that defines its team as a “group of folks not too different from you,”, uses Lorde’s quote on the front page of its website. But where Lorde emphasized embracing and celebrating difference, The Self-Care Project focuses on unity, on lack of difference. The group’s philosophy on self-care adopts Lorde’s framework of self-care as political warfare, but does not mention racial violence even once. Nor does it acknowledge the specific social location of the marginalized communities who need to practice self-care more than others because they undergo more trauma than others. The project praises the Lorde, but refuses to actually listen to her.
Such appropriations of Lorde not only rob her work of nuance, sensuality, and creativity, but also fail to do what she asked most of feminist movements: to center a racial analysis in feminist and queer work; to do the difficult work of naming power differences between us; and to acknowledge multiple systems of violence, and the presence of our personal selves in such systems.
Other appropriations take place in marginalized communities that are excluded from dominant cis white feminist frameworks. Writing on Lorde for The Feminist Wire, Andrew J. Young points out that many white trans men are drawn to Black feminism because it allows trans folks to understand how their transness and queerness intersect with other forms of gender oppressions without advocating for gender separatism. However, Young fears that even though white trans men are so drawn to Lorde, they can misuse her ideas on intersectionality to forget white and male privilege. According to Young, “Our tendency is to read Lorde and other feminists of color and say, ‘Look at me! I’m oppressed too, even though I’m white!’ Or to feel as though our oppressed trans-identities have somehow absolved us of needing to check ourselves on racist, sexist, or ableist comments and actions.”
As a non-Black person of color, I have also been guilty of appropriating Lorde to fit a framework that speaks to me personally. When I first encountered Lorde’s poetry, I was moved on a deeply personal and emotional level. And even though my response stemmed from joy and comfort at finding such a trenchant critique of the limitations of white cis-het feminism (which I needed so badly), Lorde’s personal voice was not meant for me to use for myself so uncritically. Rereading her works with patience has allowed me to move from making Lorde all about me to examining how I (or other brown Pakistani feminists with a similar ethnic and class background) can contribute to anti-Black racism by promoting certain erasures, by failing to recognize Lorde’s specific history and context, and by refusing to acknowledge our relatively privileged position in the racial hierarchy. It has shown me that Lorde’s Black feminism requires me not only to resist white supremacy’s impact on QTPOC, but also to call out the complicity of the South Asian diaspora in anti-Blackness, to learn the invisibilized histories of Afro-Pakistani communities, and to critically examine the erasure of Black Muslims from many visible anti-islamophobia movements. And the more I read Audre Lorde, the more I learn that there is so much self-critique that I need to practice.
It is important for everyone to celebrate and honor all of Lorde, not simply her quotes and one-liners; to read her works in their full detail; and to draw connections between her historically positioned critiques and today’s anti-intersectional feminist platforms. Lorde is more than just relevant to today’s movements—she is absolutely necessary. However, we must also remember that her work clearly shows that she spoke to different audiences at different times, not just a unifying category of women. She invited Black women to join her in expressing anger at racism, to practice self-care as warfare; but she wanted white women (and perhaps we can extend this at times to include privileged non-Black people of color) to identify how their lack of recognition of anti-Blackness in their own feminist circles was actually upholding white supremacist heteropatriarchy, rather than dismantling it.
In her 1980 essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex,” Lorde draws on philosopher Paolo Freire to insist that “the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.” As we celebrate Lorde this year, as we look to her for inspiration, guidance, and healing during this fascist era, it is important to dig deep into ourselves for the piece of the oppressor living within us. It is important to shift our focus from identifying with her oppressions to examining our own oppressive tactics. As Lorde famously insisted, we need to let go of the master’s tools as we try to dismantle the master’s house. We need to resist not only the white supremacist heteropatriarchal structures that harm us, but also keep ourselves from upholding those structures. And most of all, we need to practice not only self-care, but also radical self-critique.