Considering the impact of different dimensions of one’s identity—for example, sexual orientation, gender identity, racial identity, and class background—on one’s experience is crucial for gaining a meaningful understanding of one’s experiences. The complex connections between these various dimensions of identity is often described using the term “intersectionality.”
Though it is not uncommon to encounter discussion of intersectionality in 2021, this was not always the case. One key figure who has left an indelible mark on intersectional thought and organizing is the Black lesbian scholar, feminist, mother, and poet Audre Lorde. Born in 1934, Lorde not only challenged her contemporaries to think about identity and politics intersectionally, but also challenged them to value the inner emotional landscape as a core resource in the work of liberation.
“Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches”
In her most famous collection of essays, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984), Lorde covers a significant amount of ground, including issuing many challenges to her white feminist contemporaries. She famously opined that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” in an essay by the same name where she addresses white feminist thinkers, asking them to come to terms with the reductive and harmful ways that they were conceiving of women as a group.
In particular, she decried the ways in which these scholars characterized women as a single social whole without actually accounting for the experiences of poor and Black women. Meanwhile, Lorde observed, these same white feminist scholars employed poor and Black women in their own homes as nannies and housekeepers.
For Lorde, this was a problem because it means that the white scholars’ ability to produce their scholarship actually depended upon poor and Black womens’ labor, but the details of those women’s experiences and the power dynamic between them were never elucidated. Their narrow and contradictory ways of conceiving of women, Lorde argued, could do nothing but undermine the project of women’s liberation and also undermined meaningful collaboration between groups of women.
“There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions”
Lorde extended this argument in her essay “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions” where she insisted that it is impossible to gain a meaningful picture of the life of a person by isolating a single dimension of their identity (e.g. only their gender) and then agitate for a wholesale transformation of their life and the world without regard for the other dimensions of identity that shape one’s social experience.
She also insisted, therefore, that it is not useful to gauge the relative impact of different forms of oppression like racism and sexism. She wrote: “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.”
Poetry as an Expression of Humanity
Though not often referenced in discussions of intersectionality, Lorde actually aimed to dissolve all kinds of mental models that flatten the complexity, richness, and agency of human beings. One such example is her emphasis on the value of our inner feeling sense. In her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she explored the connection between “poetry” and the expression of one’s full humanity, especially in the face of oppression and dehumanization.
“When we view living in the european mode only as a problem to be solved, we rely solely upon our ideas to make us free…[b]ut as we come more into touch with our own ancient, non-european consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes… I believe that women carry within ourselves the possibility for fusion of these two approaches so necessary for survival, and we come closest to this combination in our poetry. I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of our experience, not...sterile word play.”
In contrast to the prevailing “I think therefore I am” ethos advanced by Descartes, Lorde wrote, we must also incorporate an ethos of “I feel therefore I can be free.” In a world that often conceives of agency only in social and political terms, Lorde invited her readers to consider the sense of agency and resilience that can arise from simply knowing ourselves and giving voice to our own feelings as part of the fabric of our experience. Rather than a vision of social change driven only by intellectual analysis, she invited her readers to turn inward and find the deep well of power that lies there, too.
What Audre Lorde Can Teach Educators
This final point is especially important for educators. In a great many academic settings, educators are tasked with helping young people cultivate their intellectual abilities to the exclusion of emotional intelligence and more expansive modes of self-expression. Adopting heart-and-head approaches to classroom instruction can be challenging in a world that too often places these dimensions of our experience in opposing camps and devalues the former.
Lorde, whose legacy encompasses both intersectional thought and this invitation to deepening emotional intelligence, can be a guide for educators helping their students come to terms with the full texture of their, and others’, humanity.