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Audre Lourde and sacred cows

Riki Wilchins and Patricia Ireland came to Rochester last night to give a lecture at RIT as part of their women's week. Riki did her usual riff on gender and postmodernism and how Labels Are Bad, and banged the drum to try to recruit people for GenderPAC. (bcholmes, you'll be interested to know that she also brought up the inevitable anecdote about being asked which way she had transitioned....) Patricia followed up by quoting Audre Lourde about how "the master's tools can never dismantle the master's house."

Everywhere I go in my activism, someone invariably trots out that quote, and I've never understood why it is quoted and accepted so uncritically. Why can't the master's tools dismantle the house? Couldn't they possibly be the most effective ones? And can't the master's gun shoot the master dead?

No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain the passage to me, even people who use it to cut off debate. I asked Patricia about it afterwards, and she admitted that it's a "challenging" passage... and that in her current work, she found tools such as voting and legal action to be quite effective.

So... what am I missing here? And why has this become an unquestioned article of faith among progressive activists?

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slinkr
Oct. 18th, 2002 07:16 pm (UTC)
I think that the bit about the master's tools not dismantling the master's house is often quoted out of context. I went and re-read the speech from which it's taken (it's in This Bridge Called My Back) just to check.

The quotation makes more sense if you read it with an implied "alone", as in "the master's tools [alone] will never dismantle the master's house." Lorde is not saying that it's always bad to work within the system. She's saying that the tools of the system aren't sufficient for bringing about "genuine change".

In particular, she's talking about feminists being divided along lines of race or class--situations where women participate in the oppression of other women. Her argument is really threatening to women who aren't prepared to deal with their own privilege and with the fact that it comes from the same place as sexism.
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