“Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde – an activist’s guide to compassion

In the swiftly evolving landscape of the 21st century, Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde should be essential reading for everybody. It should be thrust into our hands in classrooms and recited in chapels and discussed among friends at house parties. To finish this book and not walk away a more compassionate, wise and open-minded person, with knowledge of our history of injustice and a thirst for informed action, would be near impossible.

Up until recently, Audre Lorde has reoccurred throughout my life as a poet alone, her work seasoning anthologies of black women writers and collections dedicated to Civil Rights poetry. However, it feels as if she has been contained and confined in places where only those with an already stout interest in queer, gender and racial activism can find her. In my experience, her work has rarely appeared in the mainstream collections of poetry I have read, which goes to highlight the glaring lack of recognition for women of colour in literature. So what about those people who aren’t studying feminist literature at university, or attending Black Lives Matter rallies to see her quotes pasted onto cardboard signs and slung by protestors? People of colour are so often only awarded literary acclaim and attention in spheres of social activism, rather than amongst the canon of literature often assigned as compulsory reading in academia. So where will those with less exposure to these concepts and issues find Audre Lorde, the self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who knew that we must all strive to educate ourselves on issues that do not directly affect us, for the good of humanity as a whole? Those who need Audre Lorde are often not the ones who find her.

Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean immigrants, her father from Barbados and her mother from Grenada. Darker than her mother and sisters, Lorde found herself internalising the racist attitudes of 1940s America, cultivating a mindset of self-hatred which would take her years to dismantle as a young woman. As a black, lesbian, socialist woman in an interracial relationship, Lorde simultaneously fell into several marginalised groups facing oppression in mid-20th century America. She lived her life ceaselessly aware that her very identity was a source of fear, offence, contempt and hatred for many people in her society. However despite her unjust mistreatment, she harnessed the experience that was so common among women of colour, into poetry that would speak of their suffering and strive to upend the systems in place that worked to keep them silent. Through her work in education and public activism, she advocated for the resurgence of compassion in a deeply divided society. 

Sister Outsider is ultimately Lorde’s manifesto for how to live a good life. Now this is not a good life according to the white Western individualistic ideal of green salads, weekend excursions and financial stability, but living a good life in terms of how you positively impact the lives of others who have previously been oppressed, isolated and marginalised. Through this collection of essays and speeches spanning her long career as an activist and educator, Lorde dissects racial aggression, female relationships, the power of the erotic and how we can respect each other’s differences. 

As a middle-class white woman, it would be easy to assert that I am not Sister Outsider’s target audience. Many of the essays in the collection are directly addressed to women of colour, drawing on experiences shared by members of their community alone. However, as Lorde herself states in her landmark essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, “we hear that it is the task of women of Colour 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.” In order to be active in the fight against racial injustice, white allies must seek to educate themselves on Black culture and history. The task of educating white people must not fall upon the very minority group who have suffered at the hands of our willful ignorance and centuries of institutionalised abuse. In view of this, Sister Outsider should not be interpreted as material only accessible to those people who have experienced the effects of anti-black racism. In order to nurture true empathy that naturally leads to changes in behaviour, white people must read the work of people of colour, support their art, and listen to their theoretical discussions. Read Sister Outsider, no matter how uncomfortable it may make you feel. 

In the same essay, Lorde identifies that a similar system of ignorance is applied between men and women, “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.” We must develop our ability to identify when it is right to stand up and educate others versus when we are breaking our own backs under the weight of another’s responsibility. 

Due to my status as a privileged member in society, I cannot deny my own occasional relapses into ‘white guilt’, an emotion felt by an individual or a collective resulting from racist treatment of ethnic minorities. The idea of ‘white guilt’ is an entirely unhelpful and self-centring mindset that consciously or unconsciously refocuses the narrative on the vanity of white people rather than spotlighting the voices of people of colour. This concept was made even clearer to me after reading Lorde’s essay The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism. In this essay, Lorde discusses how our anger towards social injustice can mobilize us into meaningful action. She later follows up this argument comparing anger’s creativity to hatred’s destruction, in the essay, Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred and Anger. Lorde responds to white people’s guilt as a reaction to black people’s anger and why it is counter-productive to our shared fight for equality. Instead of paraphrasing, here is the paragraph that completely changed my perception of the role of guilt in both activism and life:

“I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”

Instead of placing ourselves at the centre of societal change, despite our good intentions, we must use the privilege that gives our voice more weight institutionally, to elevate the voices of those who are continuously silenced. As Lorde states, “guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices.” Once we make the choice and commit to supporting and engaging with efforts towards racial equality, guilt is no longer necessary. When we hold ourselves accountable and learn of the implications of widespread racial aggression as well as the damage caused by individuals, we can move towards collective repair.

In the same essay, Lorde also highlights the many layers of oppression and privilege that act upon us as women. As a white woman, I am oppressed by patriarchal systems that operate in modern society. However, I must also recognise my white privilege that I profit from unlike black women, who are further oppressed by racist systems. To not recognise these systems is both ignorant and dangerous, “What woman here is so enamoured of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” Uses of Anger’s primary discussion point is unpacking the stereotypes of “angry black women” and tapping into the root of this centuries-old-anger. To be the ancestor of a blood-soaked history and present of dehumanisation, segregation, rape and murder brings a “well-stocked arsenal of anger”. But Lorde questions why it is that this anger has been demonized instead of its original cause. Lorde references an example of talking to a white academic who welcomes a poetry collection written by non-black people of Colour as “it allows me to deal with racism without dealing with the harshness of Black women.” Lorde concludes the essay by stating that “it is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid. It is not my anger that launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in cities, stockpiles nerve gas and chemical bombs, sodomizes our daughters and our earth. It is not the anger of black women which corrodes into blind, dehumanising power, bent upon the annihilation of us all…” Lorde forces us to revaluate our long-standing misconceptions and turn our energy towards the true enemy of capitalism that holds power over us all.

This leads me to another concept coined by Lorde – the idea of horizontal versus vertical anger. In times of revolt and revolution, our oppressors rely on the tactic of the oppressed directing their anger horizontally towards “those closest to us who mirror our own impotence” rather than vertically towards the corrupt systems and institutions of financial and political power. We turn on those who share our goals but approach them from different ways, instead of recognising that the one source of our shared pain is the same. For example, sub-divisions of the same group disagreeing over methods of protest, resulting in violence between factions instead of maintaining a unified front against those who wish to silence us. It happens time and time again and naturally weakens our argument against misuse of power. If we can’t even agree amongst ourselves then why should the public listen to our requests at all? Lorde saw the incremental effects of this human fault throughout her activism during the Civil Rights movement, which she discusses at length in her speech Learning from the 60s delivered at Harvard University in 1982, “When we disagreed with one another about the solution to a particular problem, we were often far more vicious to each other than to the originators of our common problem.” Lorde also witnessed the absurdity of likeminded groups fighting amongst each other to gain the freedom which should be shared equally among them all. In her essay, Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving, she identifies these civil wars as errors in our basic understanding of the very concept of freedom, “It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going as spoils to the victor or the stronger. So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.” Like other belief systems that claim superiority, such as white supremacy and the patriarchy, racism breeds through divisive tactics that work to alienate communities from each other despite sharing common values and beliefs, until they make enemies of each other rather than rising up against misuse of power by governments and institutions. Lorde concluded that in order to truly come together to enforce change, we must recognise our differences as individuals, both in our backgrounds and our opinions, “Unity implies the coming together of elements which are, to begin with, varied and diverse in their particular natures.”

This emphasis on acknowledging and respecting how we differ from each other reoccurs throughout Lorde’s work, especially in the essay Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. Lorde examines how when we gloss over the differences between people we are not engaging in an act of defiance but instead playing into the system that oppresses us, “institutionalised rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus.” This issue is still as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1980, and can be identified in the common claim made by white people that they “don’t see colour” or are “colour blind”. Despite their intentions of promoting inclusivity, they are both refusing to confront the reality of racism and dismissing the core cultural differences between the black and white experience.  It is these differences which are exploited and institutionalised via a process of radicalisation, providing a base for racism to thrive on many different levels, despite the minute biological and genetic differences between races. The first step in overcoming inequality is understanding how our natural differences have been distorted by systems of power to create baseless divisions between communities. As Lorde says, “it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognise those differences, and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behaviour.” This is why we so often struggle to empathise with those who practice a different religion, or perform their gender expression differently from us, or prioritise different things in their lives above job security and having children. The key here is the word different. Once we understand and respect that difference is not something to be challenged or feared, oppressors can no longer manipulate them. As Lorde states, “the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.”

Audre Lorde’s writing is not only powerful in its comments on corruption and oppression, but as an acclaimed poet, her prose is steeped in a lyrical texture that sets her apart from other political writers. As Lorde recognises in her essay Poetry Is Not A Luxury, poetry is an “illumination, as it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are – until the poem – nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.” To me, this attitude translates to the entire canon of her work; Lorde is able to give words to frustrations and thoughts felt by many but not yet expressed in a way that would do such weighted and significant ideas justice. Lorde herself has claimed that she “thinks in poetry” and this translates effortlessly in her description of oppression: “and true, unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the war against dehumanisation is ceaseless.” To read Lorde is to receive lesson after lesson on how the beauty of the written word can transfer revolutionary ideas from person to person. Lorde is an example of the power of feeling, as well as thought, in making substantial changes to the world. She embodies feminine and black power without watering down her identity or beliefs into something more palatable for the historically straight, white male spheres of academia and institutions of power.

“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.”

Originally written for the Girl Up Norwich Blog

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