Audre Lorde is one of those people whom we white people find so quotable yet seldom do we stop to listen to her words (we have done this to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well). Every time I see a quotation from Lorde or another prominent Black activist on a T-shirt, I cringe. One of the insidious aspects of whiteness is how it appropriates the radical language of oppressed people (just look at the evolution of the word woke) and distorts it. So after thirty-two years of existence on this plane, I decided I should probably get around to reading something by Audre Lorde, you know? Then I can put a quote of hers on a T-shirt (just kidding).
To be fair, I see why she is so quotable—though I’m not sure the quotations I will share in this review are the ones a white girl would wear on a T-shirt. Sister Outsider lives up very much to its title. In these essays from the late seventies and early eighties, Lorde recounts the tension of being a Black lesbian feminist mother academic—how belonging to these various communities put her at odds with people who insist on reducing her down to a single identity. At times for me as a female reader, she feels like my sister, as we talk about shared struggles of womanhood. At other times for me as a white reader, I feel like the outsider, as Lorde teaches me about experiences I don’t have because I’m not Black. But Lorde’s message is emphatically not “you can’t understand my struggle because you’re not Black”—she repeatedly says she is tired of non-Black people using this as an excuse to beg off, for example, from teaching Black writers and artists in English classes. Rather, Lorde wants us to stop being reductive—this is a call for intersectionality before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined that term, a call for us to understand that multiple axes of oppression affect people’s lives in different ways, yet we are stronger when we come together in our diversity to fight for our liberation.
Lorde’s words here give me a valuable glimpse into the state of feminism and queer activism just prior to my birth in 1989. At one point, Lorde laments the generational amnesia that seems to affect activists—and certainly I’ve observed that happen in feminism during my lifetime. I really don’t have much of a conception of what the struggle was like in the eighties, and while this book provides only one, narrow window on it, I appreciate everything she has to say nonetheless. Indeed, for some reason, Sister Outsider made me think about Samuel R. Delany, whose novels often have appendices that variously reflect, in or out of character, on the struggles of gay men during the AIDS epidemic. I wonder if Delany and Lorde ever crossed paths in an activist setting.
Lorde provides me with valuable perspectives on the intersections of her Blackness, femaleness, and queerness. She discusses the homophobia within Black communities, the way lesbian is used as a slur even by Black feminists, as well as how, in her youth in particular, her feminist activism earned her opprobrium because she should “stand behind her men”—the implication being that Black women should be Black first and women second. (This is a very understandable situation once you learn how mainstream feminism has been heavily white supremacist since day one.) As a teacher, I appreciated when she talked about her own experiences teaching at colleges and universities in New York, her struggles both within the classroom and with her colleagues. This is part of the “outsider” of the collection’s title—Lorde’s skin colour marks her as different no matter how many qualifications, publications, conferences, etc., she has to her name.
Now, yes, there were many moments where I could relate to some of what she was saying on a personal level as a trans woman. Although trans people don’t come up directly in these essays, Lorde’s politics are aggressively inclusive and make me feel seen. She is not here to advocate for strict definitions of anything, whether it’s womanhood, lesbianism, Blackness, motherhood, etc.
That being said, I am still white, and I recently wrote a blog post about how my whiteness makes me less marginalized even though I’m trans. These are fundamentally different identities, and much as Lorde cannot be reduced to any one of her identities, I cannot be reduced simply to woman, to trans woman, to white woman. I am all of those things at once.
In several of these essays, Lorde directly takes on the white woman feminist. In “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” Lorde says:
So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the work of Black women? Did you ever read my words, or did you merely finger through them for quotations which you thought might valuably support an already conceived idea concerning some old and distorted connection between us? This is not a rhetorical question.
Oooohhhhh burn, Mary. Lorde is calling you out on exactly the kind of bullshit I mentioned in my introduction. And this is precisely why I don’t want to draw too many connections between Lorde’s experiences of oppression and my own, because we don’t really have much overlap at all, and I don’t want to appropriate and distort her work for my benefit.
In the same essay, Lorde goes on to explain why white women’s insistence that their feminism is feminism for everyone is problematic:
… the assumption that the herstory and myth of white women is the legitimate and sole herstory and myth of all women to call upon for power and background, and that nonwhite women and our herstories are noteworthy only as decorations, or examples of female victimization. I ask that you be aware of the effect that this dismissal has upon the community of Black women and other women of Color, and how it devalues your own words.… When patriarchy dismisses us, it encourages our murderers. When radical lesbian feminist theory dismisses us, it encourages its own demise.
Now this I can relate to as a trans women, because cis feminists do this to us too—that is, make assumptions that the white, cis experience of womanhood is somehow the normative one. This doesn’t account for race, for queerness, for being trans or non-binary, or for being disabled (something that Lorde does mention a couple of times as well).
There’s also a great conversation between Lorde and Adrienne Rich (with whom I am unfamiliar), a white woman, and Rich basically acknowledges the fragility of many white women feminists like herself and says, “I know we need to do better.”
All of this leads me to one realization: the overbearing and supercilious erasure of Black feminists is nothing new. White feminism has long known about this problem, longer than I’ve been alive, and here we are in the year 2021 and it’s still a problem. Sadly I think that if Lorde were still alive she would be writing very similar things, maybe as a Twitter thread.
So yes, Sister Outsider can feel dated in certain ways but remains screamingly relevant to this era of feminism and queer activism. It is a reminder that we are stronger in our diversity and difference, but that we must also recognize the privileges we have and when those might mean we are failing to listen, tone policing, or outright erasing other voices just because they are criticizing our actions in the struggle.