What Would Audre Lorde Do?
I’ve seen some arguments on my dash tonight over the wearethe99percent/Occupy Wall Street movement— mostly over racism (or perceived white-centrism) in the movement. I’ve mostly been watching from the sidelines until a response from supermattachine linked to this article, an excerpt from the work of Audre Lorde.
I want to invite everyone to read this with me, because I think it says something very important.
THERE IS NO HIERARCHY OF OPPRESSIONS
By Audre Lorde
I was born Black and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a livable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong”.
From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that oppression and the intolerance of difference come in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression. I have learned that sexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one sex over all others and thereby its right to dominance) and heterosexism (a belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving over all others and thereby its right to dominance) both arise from the same source as racism - a belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby its right to dominance.
“Oh,” says a voice from the Black community, “but being Black is NORMAL!” Well, I and many Black people of my age can remember grimly the days when it didn’t used to be!
I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from the oppression of my other part of my identity. I know that my people cannot possibly profit from the oppression of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. Rather, we diminish ourselves by denying to others what we have shed blood to obtain for our children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in order to work together for a future they will all share.
The increasing attacks upon lesbians and gay men are only an introduction to the increasing attacks upon all Black people, for wherever oppression manifests itself in this country, Black people are potential victims. And it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to encourage members of oppressed groups to act against each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action.
Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any attack against Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.
It is not accidental that the Family Protection Act, which is virulently anti-woman and anti-Black, is also anti-gay. As a Black person, I know who my enemies are, and when the Ku Klux Klan goes to court in Detroit to try and force the Board of Education to remove books the Klan believes “hint at homosexuality,” then I know I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.
Let that stew for a moment.
Now, let’s start with the things that we can, without a doubt, agree upon:
- Are people suffering because of this economic downturn? Yes.
- Were people suffering before this? Yes.
- Are certain groups more affected than others? Yes.
This is where things get complicated. So let me bring in Audre Lorde again, because I am sure she can say it better than I would:
The tactic of encouraging horizontal hostility to becloud more pressing issues of oppression is by no means new, nor limited to relations between women. The same tactic is used to encourage separation between Black women and Black men. In discussions around the hiring and firing of Black faculty at universities, the charge is frequently heard that Black women are more easily hired than are Black men. For this reason, Black women’s problems of promotion and tenure are not to be considered important since they are only “taking jobs away from Black men.” Here again, energy is being wasted on fighting each other over the pitifully few crumbs allowed us rather than being used, in a joining of forces to fight for a more realistic ratio of Black faculty. The latter would be a vertical battle against racist policies of the academic structure itself, one which could result in real power and change. It is the structure at the top which desires changelessness and which profits from these apparently endless kitchen wars.
Do you see what’s going on here? Everyone is losing out, but instead of sticking together under a common cause and fighting for more for the sake of everyone, we are at each others’ throats, saying, “you have more than i do!” or “i have less than you!” This is not to say that this is either entirely the fault of People of Color “whining”, or the fault of white people for not acknowledging this reality. I think it’s a little bit of both.
Consider this: You’re a Person of Color and you’ve dealt with systemic poverty, discrimination, and racism for your entire life, and no one has bothered to help you out. For decades and even centuries, you and people like you have struggled through spirit crushing poverty, and all you had to rely on was yourself. But then one day, when it turns out that the system isn’t working so well for white people either, someone comes along and asks you to join their movement for equality. Can you see how this might be even a little bit offensive? It’s just a little too much of a coincidence.
This is the problem that we have right now. We have a long, racist history of classism, mostly perpetrated by white people, and now we have a movement that is majority white trying to tell us what is right or wrong for us to do. (Think this isn’t happening? See here). We also have a movement that claims to represent us, when we never consented to be represented by it. It’s like when lesbians have people tell them that they’re actually straight, they just need one good experience with a man to turn them around. Or like when black people are followed around at stores by security, because they look like “criminals”. This is not to say that the movement is actually doing this, but that it feels like that.
Or maybe the movement actually is doing this. When a Person of Color goes to an organizing meeting and the brown people have to fight tooth and nail for inclusion, or when a disabled person submits to a website that claims to represent them, but then the site refuses to provide accommodations for disabilities, or when a Person of Color sees a white girl getting prime attention over dead black children, there is only one possible conclusion— that their presence has been politically tokenized, and that no one actually gives a shit about what they need.
You might be asking, “how does he know that the movement is being non-inclusive?” And my answer is, Where are the Black church congregations? Where are the people in wheelchairs? Where are the trans people? Where are the old and the dying? Where are the single parents living paycheck to paycheck? Where are the non-citizens? If you didn’t even think to ask just one or all of these groups first— well, there’s proof enough of your lack of inclusion. If you don’t think that the people in these groups can even participate, then you are not being creative or resourceful enough, because past movements have managed this (although not always completely).
So before we can talk about “hierarchies of oppression” or even argue over who has it worse/better than others, we need to examine the way marginalized groups have actually been represented here. Is there a big problem? Yes there is. So I am calling you out, every white, hetero, cis-gender, able-bodied person out there who is not actually being as representative of the “99 percent” as they’d like to think.
I don’t want to argue for a hierarchy of oppression, because all oppressions are bad. But are there legitimate, measurable ways in which POC and other marginalized groups have had it worse? Yes, without a doubt. Does this mean that the suffering of others is meaningless? Of course not. I would say that no one is trying to say that, but people have been, and that is unacceptable. At the same time, however, given the history of racism, these feelings are completely understandable.
In times like these, I like to ask: What Would Audre Lorde Do? Because if anyone would know, it would be her. Is there a hierarchy of oppression? Maybe. But is believing in that hierarchy going to help us? No. Arguments over who has it worse are not going to help. Arguments for more inclusion and better understanding might.
To everyone who can: you need to demand inclusiveness, right now, or your movement is going to quickly turn into a lame duck with shallow ideas that go nowhere. Why is this? Because people of color, trans people, disabled people, survivors of sexual abuse and rape— we have been living in these systems for ages, sometimes generations. We understand and have studied these systems more than anyone else, because they have always influenced our lives in substantially negative ways.
From the Combahee River Collective:
If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
We have the ideas, but no one is asking us (that is, people of color, trans people, disabled people, and other marginalized groups) what to do. If you want to figure out how to dismantle the system, you need to ask those of us who understand it the most— and that is not going to be a white, able-bodied hetero male college student who has never had to experience this oppression until now. It’s going to be a Person of Color who never even had the chance for a college career path, much less loans. It’s going to be a trans person who has been sexually assaulted. It’s going to be a working-class single mother of three. It’s going to be disabled people who are swimming alone because of budget cuts. Are there white people among these groups? Yes. But being white, no matter how much you are oppressed in other ways, still means having privilege. This is not to say your suffering is not bad. This is not to say that you are “guilty”. Calling out privilege is not about making you feel bad— it’s about bringing to attention very real systems of power that you are unaware of. And unless you look at all of these systems, it is going to be very, very hard to make much change— they are all interconnected.
Let me stress to you that this inclusion is not going come just from the mere presence of POC, LGBT people, or disabled people. Simply having people around who look or live differently than you is not going to help. If you truly believe in your movement, you are going to have to let us, the people who experience multiple oppressions on many levels, the people who have always been oppressed, take the reins and lead. It’s the only reasonable step, because why would you not want those with the most knowledge to lead?
Does this mean we want an elite group of leaders at the top? No. Does this mean we want to be acknowledged, to not have to fight and claw our way into acceptance? Yes. Because right now, there is a hierarchy of oppression being re-enacted within the movement, and that is definitely not okay.
We are not asking for a comparison of battle scars. We are asking for the simple acknowledgement that our problems even exist— that we exist. Then, and only then, do we ask that you recognize our real, lived experiences— experiences which have given us the wisdom to be able to deconstruct these systems. Because comparing oppressions by worth is unproductive, but we can certainly agree that those of us who have dealt with this our entire lives will probably know more. You cannot start deconstructing the system and completely ignore the intellectual work that must be done underneath.
Most of all, you cannot claim to represent us all if you refuse to even educate yourself on how these issues have affected us more than they have you. You cannot claim to represent us all until you understand the ways in which these systems have hurt us. It may seem like an obvious statement, but it is clear that many people are not doing this.
All we are asking for is real, true solidarity and understanding. We want you to admit that, for many groups, this kind of movement is decades late. Then we want an equal share in guiding said movement— together, not apart.
It really is that simple.
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