Appropriating Audre: On The Need to Locate the Oppressor Within Us

Aqdas Aftab in bitchmedia:

Audre_color_3_DagmarLast 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.

More here.