"Sister Outsider": The Ideas of a Black Radical Lesbian Feminist
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
I saw a quote on Instagram that said 'if you rely solely on what you’re taught in school, you’ll never truly be educated.' This saying has proved true. The protests against police brutality in the US and the femicide in Nigeria have exposed the limited knowledge people possess about the origins of these injustices.
In the course of trying to educate myself, a book that was recommended many times over was Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. It’s a collection of essays, speeches, interviews, and other written works of hers. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I am glad I took the time to read it because Audre Lorde was a ridiculously smart person and her views on many issues are still relevant. That being said, I want to go through the things in her book that stood out to me most.
Why You Shouldn't Educate Your Oppressor
A view that I have heard being echoed recently is that people shouldn’t spend time educating their oppressors. This caused some confusion for me because if you’re not ready to educate them, how will they learn? This was a question Audre Lorde addressed in her book. She believed that you shouldn’t spend time educating your oppressor because it distracts from real-time activism to remedy the issue and it prevents oppressors from taking responsibility.
When I read this, I paused for a bit to reflect, and I realized her reasoning can be proven just by looking at what’s going on today. Since George Floyd’s death, there have been growing steps taken by governments to curtail the power of the police. To bring this home, since the untimely death of Uwa and many other females at the hands of rapists, state governments are beginning to double-down on their rape and harassment laws. These changes happened because those groups fully devoted themselves to advocating for change. If they had decided to organize forums to discuss rape or police brutality, I doubt anything would have changed.
This brings me to her second reason. When you explain injustice to your oppressor, they can mentally (and verbally) invalidate your experiences because they are isolated from them. However, when they take the time to find these things out for themselves, the knowledge is bound to stick, especially since they’re most likely to find this information in the same institutions that have been miseducating them for a long time. While these views would not be considered radical today, it stood out to me because it wasn’t a line of reasoning that I had previously considered, and it was the best explanation I have come across to understand why the oppressed should not focus on educating their oppressors.
Unity in Diversity
In addition to clarifying why the burden of education lies with the oppressor, Lorde goes on to give her point of view on unity in diversity. When Lorde talks about differences, she portrays them as an essential component of our being, without which it is impossible to inspire change. She believes that using our differences to inspire change first starts from acknowledging that we are all different even when seemingly presented as the same.
For example, within her sociopolitical context, all women were oppressed by the patriarchy, but white women faced a different form of oppression than black women or women of color. However, she believed that to move forward, the experiences of all women should be addressed even if that meant having tough, awkward conversations. Her reasoning was that the coalescence of their shared anger over injustices, when directed with precision, would bring about change. However, precision can only be achieved from an informed position, and an informed position can only be achieved through open dialogue. Thus, she takes the stance that unity is not about homogeneity but rather about recognizing the things that set us apart and synergizing our different experiences to create something that benefits everyone.
In modern-times, her ideas show how failure or refusal to recognize diversity leads to the invalidation of experiences as well as progress that only caters to a group of people. Proof of this has been expressed through the flaws of a 'color-blind' US and tribalism in my home, Nigeria. Ultimately, it shows the importance of moving away from societies based on systems of superiority and inferiority and toward societies based on equality.
The Importance of Sexual Liberation
After highlighting the importance of acknowledging and embracing our differences, Lorde illuminates the importance of being able to explore one’s sexuality. My sexuality isn’t something I’ve ever consciously thought about, largely due to the fact I’ve mostly lived in societies that deal with sexuality by policing girls and demonizing those who decide to explore it. The fact that I’ve never actively thought about it makes me unable to fully appreciate the role it plays in my life.
In Sister Outsider, Lorde put forth the idea that when you’re able to fully explore your sexuality, you’re able to prioritise better because you learn to focus your energies on activities that bring you closest to the feelings you get when you embrace your sexuality. This caused a moment of introspection because I’ve heard my male friends compare the joy derived from engaging in activities to sex, and oftentimes, these are habitual activities that form the foundation of their character and identity. I feel like this means we have a subconscious understanding of Lorde’s idea, but we haven’t realized it because we aren’t conditioned to think about their sexuality.
This idea was significant because Lorde’s explanation of the importance of sexual liberation helped me understand how withholding that experience from a person isolates them from parts of their personality and constitutes a form of oppression. Consequently, I am able to appreciate how purity culture, in whatever form it takes, is a tool of the patriarchy
These are just summaries of a few of the ideas that Audre Lorde championed and feelings that I got from reading about them. It should not substitute for taking time to actually read her book to understand what she’s about. That being said, I don’t believe that I am propelling her from any sort of literary obscurity, but as someone who knows that you won’t find knowledge unless you go looking for it, I’m hoping that just giving a limited idea of what she had to say would compel people to investigate a world of knowledge they might have been unaware of.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Abdulghaffah Abiru