On Audre Lorde and the master’s tools

A version of this piece was originally read at the launch of Wild Tongues Vol. 1. You can read the zine here.

This is going to come as a surprise, because here we are reading our favourite feminist literature and talking about how it has impacted us as feminists as well as the evolution of our feminism, but: I’m going to say that on the surface, I actually disagree with Lorde.

Controversial, I know.

I do think there are times when the master’s tools can be used to dismantle the master’s house. I’m sure the bourgeois landowner was quite surprised when the peasants attacked his estate with the very pitchforks he had given them.

I think there’s something to be said about this in the age we live in, where people are often accused of being hypocrites because they might oppose the exploitation of labour but use iPhones to mobilise other people, and there can be validity to that critique. However, I think it is important to use not just what is available, but what has been given to you, because I believe there is a poetic justice in dismantling something with the very tools that were meant to preserve it.

Capitalism is a totality, and if we refuse to use certain mechanisms because they are exploitative or representative of our exploitation, we are throwing away tools that are useful. I believe we simply cannot live like that. When people make these criticisms, what it does is mutate a revolutionary tool into a reactionary one that shuts down possibility and potentiality.

Lorde’s greater point though, especially when she says “They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” is that you cannot dismantle a system by using the very mechanisms that created it.

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (1979) was originally a speech given at an academic conference, where she pointed out the lack of women of colour in any panel except on race.

The idea that we have nothing to say about philosophy or culture or science or mathematics is ridiculous.

Feminist academia has for decades coalesced around a false consensus that has left out the voices of those whose difference is actually essential to the project of overturning patriarchy. For Lorde, sexism and racism are inseparable. So when she says “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” her ethical principle is thus: We cannot disrupt our oppression using the logic that created it, but more importantly, the very logic justifies our oppression.

White feminists claim that racial solidarity betrayed feminist causes and men of colour claim that gender solidarity by women of colour betrayed the struggle for racial justice. I think Lorde never stopped noticing the casual racism she experienced among her queer friends and fellow feminists, as well as the sexism and homophobia she experienced among black people.

To be an outsider among outsiders is I think is a particularly painful place to be, and a place she often writes from. This resonates with many of us, because for many of us, at least one of our marginalised identities stands outside of those established perimeters of what is celebrated within progressive spaces.

The idea most people get from Lorde is that she is exhorting us to discard these tools and find new ones, which is obviously a point she is making, and an important one.

At the same time, when I read this, I think about the tools we need to discard, and I think about who these tools originally even belonged to.

Because sometimes what were the master’s tools were ours first.

I think about feminism in India and Dalit women organising to stop their continual rape by upper-caste men, which is the first feminism South Asian women know, not this superficial absurdity peddled by upper-caste, North Indian, ‘Desi’ women.

When we think about feminism in Australia it does not begin with white women campaigning to vote; it really begins with the first Aboriginal woman who resisted colonialism. First Nations scholars have often argued that feminism is actually an indigenous concept that has been co-opted by white women.

So when I read Lorde’s speech, I think about what tools are ours; which tools have actually been stolen, repackaged, sold and consumed as not ours, after which we are invited, in this patronising manner, to partake in that which was always ours. We have to discard some of these tools, but I also see this as an opportunity to say: “Let’s reclaim some of our stolen tools.”

Because she’s right, the master’s tools cannot dismantle his house, but they weren’t always his, and they don’t always have to remain that way.

Let us begin to dismantle the major narrative of whom these tools belong to as an aspect of discarding them.

For Lorde, she always emphasized that differences count as strength and that requiring that everyone subsume their oppression under one large category is not just disrespectful, it’s also ineffective.

Erasure is real, and false solidarity will very quickly come crashing down.

So when Lorde says that “community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist”, what most remains with me is that self-erasure – to cut out parts of yourself in the hopes of being accepted into a group or movement that does not validate you as a whole – cannot be solidarity.

Audre Lorde’s work actually helped validate this for me, and I hope it does the same for you.

Cover image © K. Kendall, via Flickr

Sangeetha Thanapal
Sangeetha Thanapal is an ethnically South Asian artist, writer and activist born in Southeast Asia. Her work focuses on race issues in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates systemic and institutionalized racism amongst people of color in Singapore. She holds a Master of Arts in Social & Political Thought from the University of Sussex and currently resides in Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram and read her blog here.

About Author

Sangeetha Thanapal is an ethnically South Asian artist, writer and activist born in Southeast Asia. Her work focuses on race issues in Asia and Australia. She is the originator of the term ‘Chinese Privilege,’ which situates systemic and institutionalized racism amongst people of color in Singapore. She holds a Master of Arts in Social & Political Thought from the University of Sussex and currently resides in Melbourne. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram and read her blog here.

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