Feb 2, 2012

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches is a 1984 collection of fifteen pieces by activist, feminist and poet Audre Lorde, mostly about feminism, racism, and the intersection of the two. Sister Outsider was last December’s choice for the Year of Feminist Classics project; as usual I’m late to the party, but I’m very glad to have read it at last.

The first thing about Sister Outsider to captivate me was the fact that Audre Lorde’s voice is so personal. Her writing seamlessly combines feminist theory with everyday experiences. As someone who’s at the intersection of various forms of oppression, Lorde has in-depth knowledge of how these things actually affect people’s lives; but at the same time, she has the ability to use personal experiences as the point of departure for wider sociological analyses and appeals to change.

Some of the essays that resonated the most with me were “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”, in which she frankly addresses a fellow academic and feminist about the racism she found in her work; “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response”, about her experience of bringing up a son; and “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”, in which she challenges the idea that difference is divisive, rather than a source of union that can encourage positive change. People can acknowledge the ways in which their experiences differ and the fact that they have common goals. This is the case with black women and white women, straight women and lesbians, and so on.

In this last essay, Lorde begins by addressing the fact that the onus of education is always put on members of the less powerful group, in a way that takes responsibility away from those in a position of privilege:
Whenever the need for some pretence of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressor their mistakes. I am responsible for educating teachers who dismiss my children’s culture in school. Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
She then goes on explain the importance of intersectionality in what I thought was a simple, brief, and very powerful manner:
Somewhere, on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a mythical norm, which each one of us within our hearts knows “that is not me.” In america, this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure. It is with this mythical norm that the trappings of power reside in this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing. By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretence to homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.
Passages such as these were the main reason why I so enjoyed Sister Outsider. Another piece that really stood out to me was “The Uses of Anger”, in which Lorde discusses the fact that anger is often framed as disruptive and unproductive, particularly in conversations about race. She begins by offering a powerful list of bullet points exemplifying everyday racism. For example:
I wheel my two-year-old daughter in a shopping cart in Easterchester in 1967, 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 disease.
And later she says:
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivialises 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.
I liked this essay because she begins by acknowledging the legitimacy of people’s emotional reactions, but then warns against being limited by them. It’s understandable that a white person would experience guilt in a discussion about racism, especially if they know (as most of us do) that there were moments in their lives in which they could have done better. Feeling guilty and taking a moment to move beyond that does not make anyone a bad person. The problem only begins when the conversation then becomes about the white person’s guilt, rather than about the problem at hand; about them proving they’re not horrible human beings, rather than about racism; or when experiencing guilt becomes a reason to legitimatise complete avoidance of these conversations.

There were, however, a few pieces in Sister Outsider where Lorde lost me: much like Emily Jane, who hosted the discussion at the Feminist Classics blog, I really struggled with Lorde’s approach to the ideas of intuition and rationality. For example, in a long interview with Adrienne Rich, Lorde talks about how being asked by a white academic to reference her work on female-positive deities and religious rituals in Africa seemed to her a form of dismissal. I completely understand that Lorde has very good reasons to say what she did: there is a history of marginalisation of writing by women like her that I absolutely don’t want to make light of. But this story still gave me pause: I don’t think the way we acquire, develop and organise knowledge is necessarily flawed, even though historically it has been used to privilege certain groups and exclude others. It’s also not intrinsically masculine or white, and it’s dangerous to buy into the idea that it is. Methodological concerns can and surely have been used to cover up prejudice, but we can address racism and sexism in scholarship without necessarily having to embrace an “intuitive” approach to research. As you can imagine, I also have big issues with the essentialist idea that there’s a link between such “intuitive” forms of knowledge and femininity.

I fully admit I might not have understood everything that Lorde was trying to say about intuition and rationality, though, especially in the essay “Uses of the Erotic”. I found mdbary’s comment about this very helpful:
She is not against reason, only against being limited by it. For those of us who seek clear logical answers, that is a difficulty. In some of the essay/speeches, Lorde is also resisting a twentieth-century pattern of educated, middle-class black women who responded to the stereotype that they were over-sexed by being overly respectable and restrained, hiding their sexuality and passions behind masks meant to protect them. Lorde would have none of that. She sought to live life fully and passionately; like a lover, loving and experiencing life even when it hurt. (Although the dynamics differed, she resonated here with some of us were white and had been raised to be “ladies”.
And this is why I love the Feminist Classics project. You can join us this month for bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, by the way. I’m determined to actually read it on schedule this time.

They read it too: One Read Leaf, Care’s Online Book Club, The Eleventh Stack


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Oh I love Audre Lorde! "Your silence will not protect you" is one of her well-known quotes that I remind myself of regularly. Have you read her poetry? Not always easy but well worth the effort. I've not read many of her essays. There is a bio of her that came out a number of years ago that I keep intending to read but haven't gotten around to yet. She died in the early 90s of breast cancer.

  2. I really need to join in for the Feminist Classic project...

  3. Overall,it sounds like a thought provoking collection even if you didn't understand all of it. I think the cover is fabulous.

  4. This is definitely one to be read and discussed with others. I read a lot of Adrienne Rich in college. I need to get back to reading some of this feminist literature!

  5. Wow, I have to say you introduce me to the most amazing books ;) Thank you!

  6. We share a favourite ("Open Letter"); one of my other favourites is "The Master's Tools", because it really made me think at the time, and is a phrase that I find myself re-using a couple of decades later. And...now I need to go and re-read at least some of these essays. I'm sorry that I missed the discussion in December...I agree that reading this kind of book "in company" is the best way to read it (even if it's just in the company of one other reader).

  7. I have to say that I found some of your quotes to be very powerful and interesting. This might not have been a book I picked up for myself without any prompting, but you have made me see that it's a very interesting look at several different issues, and that it's written expertly. Great review today, Ana!

  8. I'm trying to catch up with last year's books and perhaps even read this year's books on time. This sounds intiguing on so many levels, but also very difficult. I am sure it would have been much easier to discuss alongside the other people in the group, but at least we can go back and read their comments, right?


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.