Thursday, August 7, 2008

Learning from Audre Lorde: ways to address white supremacy

My last post concerning ways of discussing racist or white supremacist actions came full-circle for me recently. I have been reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays I should have read in college but never finished, and came upon her open letter to Mary Daly. I actually read this about four years ago in This Bridge Called My Back, but I hadn’t understood it through the lenses that I now posses.

An Open Letter to Mary Daly is the perfect model for addressing racism among ones peers. Reading it in line at the grocery store I had a revelation that I should copy the pages and post them all over my workspace so that I am constantly reminded of how to approach colleagues on these issues. Mary Daly is a very prominent feminist of the second-wave set who identified as a Radical Feminist, and brought a significant amount of light to the oppression of women in the US, especially through her writings on pornography, religion, and medicine. However, she also excluded a lot of women from her writings and tended to generalize on the collective experiences of women. Audre Lorde’s essay is in response to the lack of women of color represented in Mary Daly’s prominent book Gyn/Ecology. Lorde also addressed the restrictive view through which the few women of color are seen, in a chapter on genital cutting.

Lorde’s essay (in my mind I call her Audre, but part of me feels unequal to that) is written friend-to-friend, indeed she calls upon Daly’s language, using “hag” ‘Radical/Feminist” and other words more in Daly’s vocabulary to establish a connection. She writes that her open letter is due to the amount of work Daly has done to advance women and she closes her letter saying, “This letter is in repayment”. The entire nature of the correspondence is one of a true sisterhood, where identities are being pushed and questioned out of a profound sense of love and friendship. This letter is a template for the way that one must approach individuals on their racist behavior: drawing upon similarities such as a respect and reverence for women and feminism, while laying out exactly how hurtful and unforgivable such language can be:
" order to come together we must recognize each other. Yet I feel that since you have so completely un-recognized me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognize you"
Although many people engaged in work against racism and white supremacy maintain that Lorde’s approach (and by no means is this letter her only approach) is only one piece of the puzzle, I do feel that it is the most successful when you are discussing issues of oppression with a person who you will be continuing contact with over a long period of time. Her method of confrontation, which is strong and fierce while still maintaining a bond of love, strikes me as the most effective method.

Her ending line “this letter is in repayment” touched me deeply. There are so many people who have taught me extensively about specific subjects, and I owe it to them and their legacy of speaking truth to power to speak up when I see them engaged in racist, or any other oppressive, behavior. I shouldn’t underestimate my friends’ individual commitment to eradicating white supremacy and other oppressive modes of thought. When I address them it is only proper to mention how much they have and are contributing to causes concerning feminism, queer rights etc. as it is possible to speak out well on a specific issue without fully understanding all issues (I strongly include myself here). To clarify, it is better for Mary Daly to have written Gyn/Ecology, received Audre Lorde’s letter, and fixed the writing to reflect a new understanding of race then for Mary Daly to have never written Gyn/Ecology. Now, I know that Daly never did publicly respond to Lorde's letter or incorporate Lorde's critique into any of her other work. All the same her book is still important, and this exchange between them is even more important. Whenever I speak out against a person or organization for a lack of inclusion or understanding of oppressions, I want to always make sure I thank them for the work they have done. It’s not OK, and it’s not right for a person discussing transgender folks, for instance, to speak about us as if we’re all white and middle class. But the act of a transgender person speaking about transgender folks still takes a tremendous amount of courage, and that should never go ignored. Borrowing from Lorde, I don’t want to force people (including myself, here) into silence because we don’t know how to address every individual identity and complex relationship. I want, instead, to encourage growth and a more varied understanding by holding people accountable for their actions while remembering all that they have previously contributed.


nixwilliams said...

great post (as your posts always are!)

To clarify, it is better for Mary Daly to have written Gyn/Ecology, received Audre Lorde’s letter, and fixed the writing to reflect a new understanding of race then for Mary Daly to have never written Gyn/Ecology.

yes, this. it's a conversation - somebody says something, somebody else builds on it, and so it goes. people get so scared/worried/defensive about being called out, i think because they don't see what they say as part of a learning process - they think of it as static ("this is my position! here! mine! i figured it out all my myself and it's great!") instead of evolving ("this is what i think, what do you think? oh, i see what you mean. yes, i need to reexamine that bit!")

Mik Danger said...

Thank you! I meant to respond to your comment earlier but kept forgetting or being in a place where I couldn't. I'm so glad you were able to articulate what I was attempting to say. There isn't understanding for changing opinions in a lot of the spaces I live in, and that severely limits our ability to grow.


Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.