Episode 44

Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde

Published on: 10th August, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I bought the book Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde, several months ago in preparation for this episode, and every time I passed it on my bookshelf, those two words would drop into my consciousness and stay there for awhile.  Two words that are so laden with meaning and emotion, and are complete opposites. A sister is one of the most intimate relationships a person can have - your very own family, sharing your DNA and your home. And outsider - a stranger, an intruder, someone who is not brought into fellowship. I thought of the great human family, which really is how I was taught to see the world, with all people as siblings, and I thought of what Audre Lorde was trying to tell me with that two-word title - that some of my sisters feel like outsiders in their own family. And so before I even started the book I was deeply moved. And as I read it I felt so grateful that she shared her powerful mind and her poetry with the world, and I felt humbled to be able to read it and learn. This is a book I would recommend for all listeners to purchase and read slowly and carefully. So we’ll get into this book in a minute, but first I want to introduce you to my reading partner today, Suzette Duncan. Welcome Suzette!

Suzette: (Response) 

Amy: Suzette and I met in Palo Alto in 2015, when my two youngest kids were attending a school where Suzette was a teacher, and she became one of the all-time favorite teachers of both of my kids. And one memorable moment was in the summer of 2016 when our family was walking along the Highline in New York City in an absolute crush of people - huge crowd - and there was Suzette!! Literally about to bump into each other! I think my kids will always remember that - like seeing “home” in a sea of strangers. We adore you and miss you and still think about you all the time. 


We like to start each episode with an introduction of our reading partner. So Suzette, could you tell us about where you’re from, your family, what you love, some things that make you you?


Suzette: 

My family is from the West Indies, like Audre Lorde’s. We are from Guyana, which is on the mainland of South America. It was a British colony and so is the only English speaking country in South America. We have family in Venezuela and Brazil as well. And, because Guyana was a British colony our family includes people of native, East Indian, and African descent. My family’s origin is very important to me and has colored how I see the world. For instance, I would say two seminal events in my childhood involve the West Indies, even though I only visited Guyana once as a toddler. They are the Jonestown Massacre and the invasion of Grenada by the United States. Those events caused me so much distress and fear as a kid, and also highlighted my feeling of being different, since they were not worries shared by black or white american peers.

Can I interject here? I’m so embarrassed to admit that I’m one of those white Americans who doesn’t know about the Jonestown Massacre or the invasion of Grenada. Can you tell me quickly what those events were? 


  • My twin sister and I were the first people in our family to be born in the US. My mom came to the US first, followed by my dad (they’d known each other since they were kids), and then my grandparents and their two youngest kids, my aunt Allison and Uncle Steve. I actually learned at my grandmother’s funeral that she left Guyana the day of one of my uncle’s weddings to arrive in the US to start a new life and in time for the birth of my sister and I.
  • I grew up in NYC, in a big extended family. The last of my cousins arrived in the US in 1981 or 1982. Until I was about 9, our house was home to grandparents, aunts, uncles, god parents, cousins, etc. I loved the way I grew up. It was a big change for me when started living more apart, though I lived within walking distance of my grandparents and some cousins until I left NYC.
  • Interesting education because in 80s private schools were opening doors to “less privileged kids.” I went to a private school on the museum mile in Manhattan, but lived in a modest house on the edge of Queens. My classmates included children of some of the wealthiest folks in America, meanwhile, crack was decimating my previously safe and happy neighborhood in the 80’s. The dissonance of that experience was something I had to figure out as an adult. Grateful for the education I got, and it wasn’t without costs.
  • Started studying japanese in high school. Kept going with it, and lived in Japan for about 3 years. Finally I found myself in a PHD program for Japanese literature. I left without finishing, because I figured out I really loved the teaching part of my academic career so I got a teaching credential to work with K-8. I wanted to a) bring a different experience to kids like me in private schools and then 2) use what I’d learned in them to improve the experiences of kids in public schools.
  • I had my dream job working with teachers in public schools after leaving teaching in private schools, but I’ve been dealing with a disabling illness that has put a pause on that work. I hope to get back to supporting education in some way some day.


I'm so very sorry, Suzette. Actually as I've been doing the podcast, occasionally I think back on things that some authors have written that I’ve said on episodes that are kind of "pull ourselves up by our bootstraps", and I realize how insensitive that can be when people are dealing with all kinds of factors that can make life more complicated than just “go to grad school! Get a job! Be empowered!” My own mom has suffered with chronic pain for decades and I know she yearns to do more, but has been very limited by physical struggles. So I’m glad you brought it up - I need to be more aware of the huge variety of people’s abilities and circumstances.


But back to you...


  • I’m married to a woman. She is white. We have a daughter who is white and Mexican/Cuban and just turned 18. We have raised her with her dad and although we don’t look like a family we all love each other a lot.
  • I’ve had the benefit of living a life that has put me in touch with a lot of different people from a lot of different places. I really appreciate that about my life.



Amy: And then what does “breaking down patriarchy” mean to you?


Suzette: right now, with the world the way it is, I find that I can't think about patriarchy without thinking about the history of European dominance and colonization over the world. Audre Lorde writes about the mythical norm (Mythical Norm) that allows for the dehumanization of so many. that norm is white and male, because of that history of European colonization. so I think decolonizing, by examining and being honest about that history, and then finding out how other humans can lead us away from that mythical Norm is really essential to breaking down the patriarchy. we can't think about breaking  down patriarchy without thinking also breaking apart the hegemonic systems that support it.


Amy: Last step before discussing the text is to get to know the author. Could you tell us about Audre Lorde?


Suzette


Audrey Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1934. Her father was from Barbados,  and her mother was Grenadian from the island of Carriacou.  Lorde's mother was of mixed ancestry but could "pass" for Spanish, which was a source of pride for her family. Her father, on the other hand, was darker than the Belmar family liked, and they only allowed the couple to marry because of his charm, ambition, and persistence. Audre was the youngest of three daughters, who were praised for their lighter skin - Audre’s mother had picked up her family’s deep aversion to dark skin, and Audrey always felt that disdain from her mother. Additionally, Audre was nearsighted to the point of being legally blind, and in her book Sister Outsider she talks about these early memories - being shamed for her dark skin and being visually impaired - creating a deep sense that there was something wrong with her. At the age of four, she learned to talk while she learned to read, and her mother taught her to write at around the same time. If asked how she was feeling, Audre would reply by reciting a poem; she said that she even thought in poetry. Around the age of twelve, she began writing her own poetry and connecting with others at her school who were considered "outcasts", as she felt she was.

 

And a note about the spelling of her name: When Audre was a kid she decided that she was more interested in the artistic symmetry of the "e"-endings in the two side-by-side names "Audre Lorde" than in spelling her name the way her parents had intended, so she dropped the “Y” at the end of Audrey. :)

 

She attended Hunter College High School, a secondary school for intellectually gifted students, and graduated in 1951. While attending Hunter, Lorde published her first poem in Seventeen magazine after her school's literary journal rejected it for being inappropriate. She also participated in poetry workshops sponsored by the Harlem Writers Guild, but noted that she always felt like somewhat of an outcast from the Guild because she "was both crazy and queer... but [they thought] I would grow out of it all."

 

In 1954 Lorde spent a year as a student at the National University of Mexico, and upon her return to New York, she attended Hunter College, and graduated in the class of 1959. She furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master's degree in library science in 1961, and working as a public librarian in nearby Mount Vernon, New York.

 

In 1962 Lorde married attorney Edwin Rollins, who was a white, gay man. She and Rollins had two children together, but then divorced in 1970. In 1966, Lorde became head librarian at Town School Library in New York City, where she remained until 1968.

 

In 1968 Lorde was writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, leading workshops with her young, black undergraduate students, many of whom were eager to discuss the civil rights issues of that time, and through her interactions with her students, she reaffirmed her desire not only to live out her "crazy and queer" identity, but also to devote attention to the formal aspects of her craft as a poet. Her book of poems, Cables to Rage, came out of her time and experiences at Tougaloo. 

Lorde founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, which published the anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color [which this podcast covered just a couple of weeks ago!].

 

She was active as a writer, teacher and public intellectual throughout the 70’s and 80’s, founding coalitions all over the world to help women recover from abuse and injustice, notably helping women in apartheid South Africa. She also did particularly groundbreaking work in Germany, inspiring Afro-German women and helping increase awareness of intersectionality across racial and ethnic lines. Her legacy in Germany was captured in an award-winning film, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984–1992.

Lorde published many, many works of poetry and prose, growing more well-known in her own lifetime, and the essay she is most famous for is called The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. This essay is contained in the anthology of essays and speeches that we’re going to discuss today: Sister Outsider,  which was published in 1984.

Lorde was known to describe herself as black, lesbian, feminist, poet, and mother. In her novel Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, she  focuses on how her many different identities shape her life and the different experiences she has because of them. She shows us that personal identity is found within the connections between seemingly different parts of one's life, based in lived experience, and that one's authority to speak comes from this lived experience. She also spoke frequently about the need for feminism to address how all forms of oppression were interrelated.

 

During her time in Mississippi in 1968, she met Frances Clayton, a white lesbian and professor of psychology who was to be her romantic partner until 1989. Their relationship continued for the remainder of Lorde's life.

From 1991 until her death, she was the New York State Poet laureate.

Lorde died of breast cancer at the age of 58 on November 17, 1992, in St. Croix, where she had been living with black feminist activist Gloria I. Joseph. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means "Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known".

 

----

Amy: Thanks so much, Suzette! Ok, now we are each going to share some parts that struck us the most from the book. Suzette, do you want to start?


Suzette: 

Chapter 22 

Growing up, metabolizing hatred like daily bread, because I am black, because I am woman, because I am not black enough, because I am not some particular fantasy of a woman, because I am.

  • I used to have a joke that my default emotion was anger. It’s hard to communicate the amount of stress and anger, digesting daily hate creates.
  • Anecdotes about my anger - talking with my sister about the state of the world - I get actually screaming angry. 
  • I understand the meaning of the phrase, depression is anger turned inward. That was my experience - the anger before deep depression in my late 20s.
  • It takes so much energy to feed anger, and it robs you of the energy for your own liberation.


One thing that this quote and your response reminds me of is a part of Isabel Wilkerson’s book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, where she says that white people love - and praise - Black forgiveness. She says that many, many white people don’t have tolerance for Black anger, and we want Black people to just say “it’s ok,” and absolve us of our collective guilt. And that of course places the burden back onto African-American shoulders. In fact Lorde says this:


“Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people's salvation or learning. But that time is over. My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity.” (132) 


Does that resonate for you, Suzette?

  • Holding it in toxic and releasing it is damaging.
  • Anecdote - destructive anger during our recent move. Willingly endangering my health to demonstrate my anger - this story also let’s me talk about disability.
  • Work of adulthood has been figuring this out


Suzette

I was not meant to be alone and without you who understand

  • Toughest part of the book for me, reflecting on invisibility and loneliness of black womanhood
  • I spent a lot of time feeling angry about feeling rejected by other black folk because I didn’t conform. What she describes is not so past tense.
  • The connection she makes between the ambivalence between black women and the impact of patriarchy, oppression, racism - so important.
  • HAIR is big part of this - I got a lot of grief for my hair
  • In recent years I’ve noticed that there’s a greater acceptance of diversity of self expression and lifestyle among black folks, but it’s not a uniform community and I think not lifting up the diversity with the community of black folks harms us.



Amy

I was thinking about that phrase “I was not meant to be alone and without you who understands” and for me it connected to an idea that she develops about understanding each other. She says:


  • “Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening.” (110)


I love this encouragement of being who we are honestly and truly, and not hiding ourselves, and rather than fearing differences in other people, saying “bring it on!! What a wonderful opportunity to learn from our differences!”  With that attitude, we can really learn from each other. It’s inspiring to think that creativity can spark between opposite opinions, different ways of being… but that does require us to have really good communication skills so we end up really listening to each other and trying to deeply understand what the other person is experiencing and trying to share with us. In fact, I want to share another part on the same topic - she says:


“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.”


We’ve talked on other episodes about the trend in the 80’s and 90’s of saying “I’m color blind” or “Race doesn’t matter” and how that is a well-meaning response to racism… but it can end up erasing people’s identities and it makes it so white people are ignorant that people of color are having a very different lived experience than they are, day-to-day. Again, Lorde wrote: “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” So we should acknowledge our differences, and welcome opportunities to talk about them openly and honestly, and rejoice in the chance to know our siblings more honestly. 



Chapter 21 

We are not responsible for our own oppression, but we are responsible for our own liberation.

  • Connects also to what she says about not allowing the truth about yourself to be used as a cudgel against oneself and that one has to be trying to be liberated from their internal oppressor while fighting the external ones. The older I get, the more I understand this idea about the personal and the political.
  • It seems important to also distinguish  between personal liberation and individualism. I think they would be easy to conflate, but I think what the personal liberation Audre Lorde describes is completely different from individualism because once you get liberated, you are responsible for using that knowledge to support the liberation of others. Individualism doesn’t require that your insights benefit anyone. In fact, I think it requires you keep them to yourself.



Amy

I was also really struck by “we are not responsible for our own oppression, but we are responsible for our own liberation”.   I am a person who is descended from white Europeans, and as I grew up I realized the horrors that white Europeans have inflicted on basically every other group of people, but especially on African people via the slave trade, Jim Crow, etc. My brain is highly empathic  -  human cruelty is excruciating for me, and I feel a particular anguish as I’ve learned about my people’s role in causing suffering, and that I still benefit from unjust systems that have their roots in the most morally deplorable systems ever created. This is a long way of saying that I have a lot of white guilt. So I thought that for me as a white (and for that matter, a straight person), a useful phrase would be “I am not responsible for the systems I inherited, but I am responsible for what I do with them.” And she offers this wisdom about white guilt:


My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. (124)


(Many examples of white women not getting it: pp. 124-125)


-The Woman’s Studies Program of a southern university invites a Black woman to read following a week-long forum on Black and white women. “What has this week given to you?” I ask. The most vocal white woman says, “I think I’ve gotten a lot. I feel Black women really understand me a lot better now; they have a better idea of where I’m coming from.” 


-White women are beginning to examine their relationships to Black women, yet often I hear them wanting only to deal with little colored children across the roads of childhood, the beloved nursemaid, the occasional second-grade classmate - those tender memories of what was once mysterious and intriguing or neutral. You avoid the childhood assumptions formed by the raucous laughter at Rastus and Alfalfa [racist depictions in the media], the acute message of your mommy’s handkerchief spread upon the park bench because I had just been sitting there….


-I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart through the supermarket in Eastchester,... and a little white girl riding past in her mother’s cart calls out excitedly, “Oh look, Mommy, a baby maid!” and your mother shushes you, but she does not correct you. And so fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you can still find that story humorous. But I hear your laughter is full of terror and dis-ease.


What did you think about this section, Suzette?


  • When I feel silenced by “yeah we agree”

Chapter 9

The white fathers told us, “I think therefore I am.” The black mother within each of us, the poet, whispers in our dreams, “I feel therefore I can be free.”

  • Been thinking about this idea a lot of late, with Howard University deciding to close its classics department. To me this is not so much about rejecting rationality as recognizing that one’s humanness encompasses more than that. I worry that we are entering a moment when rejecting the master’s tools will become more important than using them to dismantle the master’s house.
  • To me it’s actually quite amazing that this countercultural idea survives a dominant worldwide culture that demeans feelings, art, poetry, etc. It makes me both hopeful and also makes me lament all that has been lost because of the focus on thinking.
  • Even before reading this, lately I’ve been thinking humanity took a wrong turn when it lifted up thinking above everything else that makes us human. It allows so many people to be pushed outside the boundaries of humanity. It’s what allows humanity to be so alienated from the planet that gives us life.


(this is the quote that makes me think about coming out)

Chapter 10

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me beyond any other effect. I am standing here as a black, lesbian poet, and the meaning of all that weighs upon the fact that I am still alive, and might not have been.


  • this makes me think of the quote from the Gospel of Thomas - If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you 
  • reminds me of why I decided to come out to my family - I wanted to make sure I was known. and honestly it's possible I was reading Sister, Outsider or Zami at that time. this was around the time I first read this book
  • our truths about ourselves are what connect us to our human family.


Chapter 

Frequently, when speaking to  men and white women, I am reminded how difficult and time consuming it is to have to reinvent the pencil every time you want to send a message.

  • This is really the perfect image. It’s so hard to find yourself and your own voice when you have to craft the tools, language, connection, etc every time to communicate what’s inside of you.
  • I think this is also part of why black folk make the decision to stop talking to white folk about race. It cost sooooo much, and it’s necessary to figure out how to survive without daily life being so taxing.
  • This makes me think of Iverson’s practice speech and that simple moments can have unrealized depth.


That makes so much sense. (Walk through train of thought)


Roxane Gay: I see a lot of “look to your black friends” type posts. Your black friends already have jobs. They probably don’t want to also educate you on racism  yet again. Books, however, are an excellent resource. Read! Audre Lorde. James Baldwin. Toni Morrison. Isabel Wilkerson. Etc.


Amy (If there’s time and it fits I’ll share this thought):


  • “I am thankful that one of my children is male, since that helps to keep me honest. Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions.” (78)




Amy: As we wrap up, is there an idea that stands out most to you from this book?


Suzette: Takeaway(s)

  1. I did not realize just how much this book has influenced my life since I first read it in the 90s until picking it up again for this!
  2. 3 themes really remain with me after reading this again: a. self liberation needs to occur in order for broader political liberation to happen. b. racism, sexism, homophobia are harmful to all of us, even those whom it outwardly benefits, because these are really names for dehumanization. Dehumanizing one group of people will always result in harm to all humans. c. it is worthwhile to do the work to communicate your internal world to others.



Amy


What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself - a Black woman warrior poet doing my work - come to ask you, are you doing yours? (42)



Thank you so much for being here!!! etc.




Next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, published in 1990. This is a topic that has come up over and over again on this podcast, from Mary Wollstonecraft talking about women being taught that beauty is their scepter (scepter being a symbol of power - so beauty is the only power they’re allowed to have in a world run by men) all the way to today’s episode, with our discussion of hair, and how white beauty standards continue to harm people of color. Beauty is something we all think about, all the time, and Naomi Wolf made some groundbreaking observations in this book. So if you can, read The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. But even if you can’t read it, listen to the conversation, next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.





Amy’s list of possible quotes


The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action


In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and Iwhat I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have mant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else's words. And I began to recognize a source of power within myself that comes from the knowledge that while it is most desirable not to be afraid, learning to put fear into a perspective gave me great strength. 


I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living. (41)

I think many people fear ostracism even more than death, and that’s why they stay silent.


What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself - a Black woman warrior poet doing my work - come to ask you, are you doing yours? (42)


My daughter, when I told her of our topic and my difficulty with it, said, “Tell them about how you’re never really a whole person if you remain silent, because there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.” (42)


There are seven principles of Kwanzaa, one for each day. The first principle is Umoja, which means unity, the decision to strive for and maintain unity in self and community. The principle for yesterday, the second day, was Kujichagulia - self-determination - the decision to define ourselves, name ourselves, and speak for ourselves, instead of being defined and spoken for by others. Today is the third day of Kwanza, and the principle for today is Ujima - collective work and responsibility - the decision to build and maintain ourselves and our communities together and to recognize and solve our problems together. (43)


Where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, “I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing - their experience is so different from mine.” Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust? Or another, “She’s a white woman and what could she possibly have to say to me?” Or, “She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?” Or again, “This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.” And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” (44)


Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving

Racism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance


Sexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one sex and thereby the right to dominance


Heterosexism: The belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance


Homophobia: The fear of feelings of love for members of one’s own sex and therefore the hatred of those feelings in others


For Black women as well as Black men, it is axiomatic that if we do not define ourselves for ourselves, we will be defined by others - for their use and to our detriment. (46)


Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface

Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. Black women have particular and legitimate issues which affect our lives as Black women, and addressing those issues does not make us any less black. To attempt to open dialogue between Black women and Black men by attacking Black feminists seems shortsighted and self-defeating. (60)


Black men’s feelings of cancellation, their grievances, and their fear of vulnerability must be talked about, but not by Black women when it is at the expense of our own “curious rage.”

If this society ascribes roles to Black men which they are not allowed to fulfill, is it Black women who must bend and alter our lives to compensate, or is it society that needs changing? (61)


Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.

For me, this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.

Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity to feel deeply. But in this way also, men deny themselves their own essential humanity, becoming trapped in dependency and fear. (74)


The strongest lesson I can teach my son is the same lesson I teach my daughter: how to be who he wishes to be for himself. And the best way I can do this is to be who I am and hope that he will learn from this not how to be me, which is not possible, but how to be himself. (77)


I am thankful that one of my children is male, since that helps to keep me honest. Every line I write shrieks there are no easy solutions. (78)


The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

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. And yet, I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist, having been invited to comment within the only panel at this conference where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented. What this says about the vision of this conference is sad, in a country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable. To read this program is to assume that lesbian and Black woman have nothing to say about existentialism, the erotic, women’s culture and silence, developing feminist theroy, or heterosexuality and power. And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable. (111)



Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters. (110)

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.(112)


Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference - those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older - know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.  They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. (112)


Poor women and women of Color know there is a difference betwetn the daily manisfestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white american feminist theroy need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting differnce is our oppressions then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your housess and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theroy are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism? (112) 


Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women - in the face of tremendous resistance - as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought. (113)



Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinining Difference


In a patriarchal power system where whiteskin privilege is a major prop, the entrapments used to neutralize Black women and white women are not the same. For example, it is easy for Black women to be used by the power structure against Black men, not because they are men, but because they are Black. Therefore, for Black women, it is necessary at all times to separate the needs of the oppressor from our own legitimate conflicts within our communities. This same problem does not exist for white women, Black women and men have shared racist oppression and still share it, although in different ways. WOut of that shared oppression we have developed joint defense and joint vulnerabilities to each other that are not duplicated in the white community, with the exception of the relationship between Jewish women and Jewish men. (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 118)


On the other hand, white women face the pitfall of being seduced into joining the oppressor under the pretense of sharing power. This possibility does not exist in the same way for women of Color. The tokenism that is sometimes extended to us is not an invitation to join power; our racial “otherness” is a visible reality that makes that quite clear. For white women there is a wider range of pretended choices and rewards for identifying with patriarchal power and its tools. 

Today, with the defeat of the ERA, the tightening economy, and increased conservatism, it is easier once again for white women who believe the dangerous fantasy that if you are good enough, pretty enough, sweet enough, quiet enough, teach the children to behave, hate the right people, and marry the right men, then you will be allowed to co-exist with patriarchy in relative peace, at least until a man needs your job or the neighborhood rapist happens along. And true, unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the war against dehumanization is ceaseless.

But Black women and our children know the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest. We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living - in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.


Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you, we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs upon the reasons they are dying. (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 118-119)


Differences between ourselves as Black women are also being misnamed and used to separate us from one another. As a Black lesbian feminist comfortable with the many different ingredietns of my identity, and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect f myself and present this as the meaningufl whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live. My fullest concentration of energy is available to me only when I integrate all the parts of who I am, openly, allowing power from particular sources of my living to flow back and forth freely through all my different selves, without the restrictions of externally imposed definition. (Lorde, 121)


Although elements of these [homophobic] attitudes exist for all women, there are particular resonances of heterosexism and homophobia among Black women. ...Black women tend to ignore or discount the existence and work of Black lesbians.Part of this attitude has come from an understandable terror of Black male attack within the close confines of Black soceity, where the punishment for any female self-sassertion is still to be accused of being a lesbian adn therefore unworthy of the attention or support of the scarce Black male. 


Black women who once insisted that lesbianism was a white woman’s problem now insist that Black lesbians are a threat to Black nationhood, are consorting with the eney, are basically un-Black. These accusations, coming from the very women to whom we look for deep and real understanding, have served to keep many Black lesbians in hiding, caught between the racism of white women and the homophobia of their sisters. (122) 


The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism

My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. (124)


Many examples of white women not getting it: pp. 124-125


Anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth. (131) Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people's salvation or learning. But that time is over. My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity. (132)


What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny?


I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any one of you. (132-133)


Learning from the 60’s

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. My poetry, my life, my work, my energies for struggle were not acceptable unless I pretended to match somebody else's norm. I learned that not only couldn’t I succeed at that game, but the energy needed for that masquerade would be lost to my work. And there were babies to raise, students to teach. (137)

Eye to Eye

Story of being on the subway with her mother when she was little and the white lady recoiled away from her (147) and many other stories :(





Next Episode All Episodes Previous Episode

Listen for free

Show artwork for Breaking Down Patriarchy

About the Podcast

Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

About your host

Profile picture for Amy Allebest

Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.