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.
That is an awesome quote by Audre Lorde. It was published in the 1984 Sister Outsider, but originally was written as comments to a 1979 feminist conference. It has stood the test of time. If anything, it is more relevant than ever.
In discussing Ursula K. Le Guin’s take on it, I wrote a long piece a few years ago exploring what it means. It is a deceptively simple metaphor, the master’s house and the master’s tools, but the implications are hard-hitting. As Le Guin considered,
“Are there indeed tools that have not been invented, which we must invent in order to build the house we want our children to live in? Can we go on from what we know now, or does what we know now keep us from learning what we need to know? To learn what people of color, the women, the poor, have to teach, to learn the knowledge we need, must we unlearn all the knowledge of the whites, the men, the powerful? Along with the priesthood and phallocracy, must we throw away science and democracy? Will we be left trying to build without any tools but our bare hands?”
All around us are the master’s tools for this is the master’s house. Everything here is the master’s, unless someone has smuggled something in from elsewhere. Otherwise, we’ll have to get out of the master’s house in order to find new tools. But how do we escape without using the tools we have at hand, even if they belong to the master?
Lorde was writing as a black lesbian and radical feminist. I’m a straight white guy who, in my heart of hearts, would love to be in a world where sane moderate liberalism ruled — a rather utopian vision, I know. I’m a reluctant radical, at best. I’ll join the revolution when it starts, but I don’t see myself trying to start a revolution, even as I increasingly see it as inevitable. White male privilege aside, I’m no more happy dwelling in the master’s house than anyone else. If all that white male privilege gets me is a working class job along with severe depression and growing hopelessness, I’d like to get a refund.
That is the problem. In reading Lorde’s essay, she obviously wasn’t speaking to people like me. I wasn’t the intended audience. As a white guy, I guess I’m supposed to feel identified with the masters, but what does my skin color matter when the powerful don’t see me and what does my masculinity matter when I feel politically impotent. It’s not like I’m going to find comfort and inspiration from a new white patriarch elected to rule over the land.
Whites right now are the only demographic with worsening mortality rates. Plus, suicide and homicide always get worse under Republican administrations, as the data shows. Drug addiction, specifically opioid addiction, for whatever reason hits whites more than minorites and right now Americans are dropping like flies from opioid overdose. These are probably not accidental deaths, considering that whites have disproportionate rates of both drug addiction and suicide. Some of the data indicates that the worsening mortality rates among whites is at least partly caused by drug addiction.
Yet Lorde writes in the same essay that,
“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.”
I get the point she is making. It is true, if limited.
Most poor people are white. Most welfare recipients are white. Most police brutality victims are white. And most prisoners are white. This was even more true several decades ago when Lorde wrote the above words. Yet no where in her collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, does she talk about poor whites and their plight. Why is it the responsibility of poor whites to stretch across the gap of the ignorance of middle class black feminists?
The problem is that even radicals like Lorde don’t take their radicalism far enough. Being a poor white single mother, a mentally ill homeless white veteran, or a politically disenfranchised white ex-con is also about intersectionality. Someone like Lorde had more in common with the middle class white feminists she complained about than she had in common with the majority of whites on the bottom of society. These poor whites apparently were invisible to her. Or worse, she simply dismissed them out of hand. It didn’t mean she was a bad person. It just shows she was a human like the rest of us, with cognitive biases and blindspots. What she didn’t fully appreciate is that identity politics is yet another of the master’s tools.
That was something Martin Luther King, jr very much understood. Right before his assassination, he reached out to poor whites in the hope of creating a movement that cut across racial divides. Even early Black Panthers somehow were able to realize that their fate was tied with the fate of poor whites. In expressing his gratitude, William Fesperman said in 1969,
“Our struggle is beyond comprehension to me sometimes and I felt for a long time [that poor whites] was forgotten … that nobody saw us. Until we met the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and they met us and we said let’s put that theory into practice.”
Identity politics is one of the master’s most useful tools. The political right will always be better at wielding such a tool. Consider Clinton’s clumsy attempt to use racial and feminist identity politics, as compared to Trump’s ease with identity rhetoric. Identity politics is a blunt tool that leads to blunt results. It smashes everything down, inevitably being turned against those who are different.
The oppression we face is not demographic. It’s systemic. Angela Davis, long known for her early association with the Black Panthers, wrote that,
“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”
To be fair, Lorde touched upon this insight by way of a related observation about the human condition. Another piece from the collection is “Age, Race, Class and Sex”. In it, she wrote:
“The old definitions have not served us, nor the earth that supports us. The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.
“For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
“As Paulo Freire shows so well in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors’ tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.”
From one of the last pieces in Lorde’s book (“Learning from the 60s”), she furthers this thought. She states that,
“As Black people, if there is one thing we can learn from the 60s, it is how infinitely complex any move for liberation must be. For we must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves. Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures, and focus our rage for change upon our enemies rather than upon each other. In the 1960s, the awakened anger of the Black community was often expressed, not vertically against the corruption of power and true sources of control over our lives, but horizontally toward those closest to us who mirrored our own impotence.”
So, she realized the danger. The easiest target for the oppressed has always been other people who are oppressed. Those in power, no matter the political party, want nothing more than to keep the American public divided. The specific danger is that the master’s tools are those most familiar to us, the ones nearest at hand. We should never forget that, if we ever hope to find different tools to build a new society.