Re: Open Letter to the Puget Sound Community

This Tuesday (Dec. 6th), an email was sent to the campus community containing an open letter signed by some members of faculty. The letter addressed the anonymous flyers that were put up around campus and promptly removed few weeks ago. This post was written in response to that letter.

By Catherine Huber

Dear author and faculty members on behalf of whom they speak,

You write:

Let history be our guide here: secrecy and suspicion are the tools of oppressive structures and regimes. Rather than serve justice, such tools serve the holders of power by undermining community cohesion and instilling mistrust among family, friends, and neighbors, and ultimately serve as a means to reinforce ideological conformity through fear. Those who resist systems of oppression must also reject the tools of the oppressors, as Audre Lorde tells us. They must rely on different tools instead: they must build environments of openness and relationships of solidarity. (“Open Letter to the Puget Sound Community”)

But when Audre Lorde said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” she was not writing about how we can’t fight fire with fire (112). She was not referencing instances of marginalized people somehow silencing others or using techniques you may consider on-par with oppressive institutions.

She was specifically speaking about the exclusion of women of color in academia and how academia is in many ways incapable of accurately representing women of color or their needs (especially when they are gay, as she was, or working class). She was discussing how white heteronormative practices were used by feminists to construct feminist spaces. She does reference community and solidarity as a significant aspect of activism and a force for social change. But it was as a plea for community and recognizing differences aimed at dominant communities who conveniently ignored the lives and experiences of those less represented: women of color who were lesbians, working class, and older. It was directed at “white American feminist theory” (Lorde 112).

 When she writes that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, she is referencing how we cannot use white heteronormative patriarchal methods of making meaning or spaces to deal with the very oppressions against which we are fighting. She is saying this to exclusionary white feminists. She is insisting that they recognize the experiences and voices of women of color:

…those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. (Lorde 112)

In fact, within the same exact essay is proof that Audre Lorde would probably disagree with some of the contents of your letter.

This is clear when she writes:

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educated men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women—in the face of tremendous resistance—as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought. (Lorde 113)

I do not necessarily disagree with all of the contents of your letter. But the misreading and misuse of one of the most important American feminists, taking one of her most famous quotes out of context to serve the authors’ and supporters’ own means that are antithetical to Lorde’s own, and the fact that it was then signed by faculty who know Lorde’s work very well is…disappointing to say the least.

Perhaps we should take Lorde’s lesson to heart and recognize that a truly free and open space cannot be one which ignores and shuts down the voices of those who are most threatened by oppressive institutions. There are clearly voices that need to be heard and are perhaps not finding the space to accurately represent their experiences on-campus (just as Audre Lorde found the voices of people like her lost in the midst of white heteronormative academic feminism). Ignoring these voices and telling them that it is because they must be more open to politely educating those who oppress and threaten them (or that they need to instead work within an institution that they feel does not accurately represent them and from which they may not be able to receive proper support, because it uses the “master’s tools” itself) is likely what Lorde herself would find troubling.

You seem to recognize these issues, writing,

We understand that for some, the system doesn’t seem to be working. We will listen more, especially to voices in our community seeking to draw our attention to such failings. We are also cognizant of the charge that respectability politics and its supporting practices of civility and decorum in institutions like ours have served as masks for the preservation of injustice while condemning those outside of the status quo to a stance of voicelessness. (“Open Letter”)

And yet you still misuse Lorde’s quote and reinforce the very things you recognize as a problem. You recycle the notion that “free speech” is opposite of expressions of oppressed people’s anger. You compare the flyers to institutional attempts at silencing. You reference perceived lack of “meaningful engagement” as a pressing issue in the current political climate and in the same breath reference the “intensified threat” to marginalized people, constructing them as if they are somehow parallel. You call the flyers “dehumanizing” (“Open Letter”).

It is not necessarily the specific sort of discursive openness you and people like you call for that will solve our issues and make the campus or our country safer for marginalized communities. We do not need to embolden the voices of all parties equally, but instead follow Lorde’s lead. She calls for the radical inclusion of the voices of those who are most hurt. These are the people who are too busy surviving and attempting to fill out and change the democratic space that excludes them to participate respectably in liberal notions of open dialogue and education. True learning is about listening when marginalized people speak. Let us not perpetuate “racist patriarchal thought” by continuing to silence those who are upset, but realize that incidents like these affirm what Lorde was saying.

Discounting marginalized people’s experiences, identities, voices, and anger is not helpful.  Assuming that everybody is on an equal discursive playing field that is not affected by their oppressions is harmful. And the fact that people clearly did not think they could make their voices adequately heard with regards to violent speech or actions—that they could not bring charges under the university’s policy, or simply speak about these issues in an open forum—means that we need to work better as a community to understand the hurt of marginalized people and empower their voices. Perhaps it is because they feel they cannot speak about these issues in spaces provided by the university that they fell back on a method that is less than satisfactory.

In 1981, Audre Lorde gave a keynote speech about anger at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. She later wrote the speech down in the very book that contains the essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Sister Outsider (1984).

In the speech, she says:

My response to racism is anger. That anger has eaten clefts into my living only when it remained unspoken, useless to anyone…It has served me as fire in the ice zone of uncomprehending eyes of white women who see in my experience and the experience of my people only new reasons for fear or guilt. And my anger is no excuse for not dealing with your blindness, no reason to withdraw from the results of your own actions. (Lorde 131)

She speaks about how anger from women of color is responded to with notions that they are “‘creating a mood of hopelessness'” or “‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action'” (Lorde 131). According to Lorde, these statements and ideas are “merely another way of preserving racial blindness, the power of unaddressed privilege, unbreached, intact” (132).

She discusses the harmful expectations when it comes to the rhetoric and discourse of angry oppressed people:

Oppressed peoples are always being asked to stretch a little more, to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity. Black women are expected to use our anger only in the service of other people’s salvation or learning…My anger has meant pain to me but it has also meant survival, and before I give it up I’m going to be sure that there is something at least as powerful to replace it on the road to clarity. (Lorde 132)

What is present in the flyers might be the same anger Lorde speaks about. And discounting it or deciding that it is too intimidating or that it is impeding on openness of dialogue is merely maintaining a blindness towards the issues at hand.

Lorde concludes by saying that it is “not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid…It is not the anger of Black women which corrodes into blind, dehumanizing power, bent upon the annihilation of us all unless we meet it with what we have” (133).

It is not the anger of those threatened by social inequalities (and the ideologies embodied and empowered by the new president-elect and his office) that dehumanizes or annihilates. It is this anger which can serve to spark change and growth. But if we continue to discount anger and characterize it as indecorous or somehow working against democracy as a whole—as you do throughout the letter—then how can we expect to effectively meet the needs of those who feel this anger?

If all those who signed and penned this letter promise to “walk alongside, support, and defend” oppressed students, then I urge them to consider the effect of their words and the use of others’ (“Open Letter”). I urge them to not discount the anger of those who are upset with the workings of this campus and this country.

I truly believe that we can’t build “dignity” or “respect” within the community with rhetoric like this (“Open Letter”).

Lorde, Audre.  Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.

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