Intersectionality and Lorde

Audre Lorde, in the article “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981), discusses interior tensions amongst women, especially the tendency of white women to ignore or actively harm women of color. But it is not just about gender. Lorde identifies her experience in specific terms: she is a woman, Black, and Lesbian. I think that this urge, to specify your own experience, is critical in the project Lorde lays out (which is ultimately to use anger fruitfully to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other marginalizing tactic). For this project to work, women need to be able to communicate with one another, to be willing to listen to the experiences of other women. In other words, the idea of intersectionality seems to be a prominent, underlying topic of this article. 

I will now explore how intersectionality connects up with Audre Lorde and her project by discussing what intersectionality really means. The term was first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and it refers to the various social identities that combine in the individual to create a particular kind of oppression. Black womanhood, for example is an example of an intersectional identity. It is not just the additive result of combining “blackness” and “womanhood” together, but rather a different entity altogether. In a paper by Sara Bernstein called “The Metaphysics of Intersectionality” she proposes a unique, metaphysical way to view intersectionality. According to her argument, intersectional identities are actually more critical building blocks of identity than more general categories. In other words, “…intersectional categories are explanatorily prior to their constituents. Rather than the conjuncts explaining the conjunction, the conjunction explains the conjuncts” (331). This means that “Black womanhood” is prior to “blackness” and “womanhood.” Ideas about blackness are derived from the specific instantiations of blackness found in individuals, not the other way around. This idea is powerful because it suggests that to know about “women” you must know about black women, queer women, Native American women, disabled women and more. 

Audre Lorde deeply criticizes white women for refusing to listen to women of color, whether that be walking out of conferences or cutting them off from telling their stories. Another way to describe this criticism is that women who refuse to listen to other women (who are different from them) are not actually interested in learning about what it means to be a woman and ending the oppression of women. Lorde summarizes this well when she writes, “What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” (“The Uses of Anger…”). To care only about the oppression directly at hand in your own life is to be ignorant of the ways in which you yourself participate in the oppression of other women. Lorde, and the theory of intersectionality that I laid out above, both suggest that perspectives of the most marginalized in society are often the most critical to the betterment of society. The tapestry of difference amongst people must be expressed, not feared, in order for the larger project of equality to occur.

One thought on “Intersectionality and Lorde”

  1. This is so beautifully written and expressed!

    Left me wondering about the responsibility of intersectionality: of how we must be aware of our various intersectionalities in order to honestly specify our lived human experience. And of how certain intersections may be seen as more deserving of a voice or platform to communicate this experience, especially for what you mention as the “betterment of society”. Could this argument be translated to: the more intersections you carry, the more likely you’ve lived the worst of society, and thus the heightened possibility of insight you hold? But I think it’s important to guard against forming a hierarchy of intersectionalities – gender, race, sexual identity, etc – or a desire for multiple intersectionalities as this may be insensitive to the suffering experienced by those who hold them, such as Baldwin and Lorde.

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