Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Lorde - on race, class, and solidarity

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians...What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable. - Audre Lorde
An enormous volume of writing on intersectionality is centered on a basic call for thoroughness: it is argued that we should include multiple vectors of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, and so on) in our analysis of power instead of just relying on one. Thus, we get the "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit" genre of essay:
...if you cannot see how [feminism] is so deeply interconnected with...racism, with violence on WoC, with rape culture, with colonialism, with our disdain for people from the Global South...with institutionalized violence, with wars waged by our Nations on the countries where these people come from...then maybe I should not call myself a feminist.
Superficially, Flavia Dzodan seems to be making here the same point as Lorde: an intersectional analysis should account for things like racism instead of neglecting them. But this, as the former continues, is "some pretty basic homework." The simple demand for thoroughness is just the starting point of intersectional theory, not the whole of it. Once we recognize this, it should become clear that Lorde, in the passage above, is actually getting at a more sophisticated point - and one that popular intersectional analysis routinely neglects.

Erasure is oppression

An analysis of power that fails to account for particular kinds of oppression is certainly inadequate, Lorde argues: "The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal and the political," and it "leaves a gap within this conference and within the papers presented here."

But insufficiently intersectional analyses aren't just inadequate, she continues - they're actively oppressive. Here, they are "the tools of racist patriarchy", because when such simplistic analyses "are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy...only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable." When our understanding of oppression omits certain kinds of oppression, or gives them insufficient consideration, it erases them from political struggle and thus facilitates their persistence and domination. Thus, she famously continues, this sort of bullshit analysis can never succeed,
For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.
Again: one must appreciate that when Lorde talks about "the master's tools" she is specifically referring to things like conferences, papers, and panel discussions that advance an inadequate theory of oppression. It is this inadequacy that the masters use to maintain their domination, and only people who benefit from their domination will feel threatened by calls for an adequately intersectional analysis.

Accounting for race and class

Today, I would argue, this point should be our compass as we navigate internecine left-liberal debates over race and class. Far from feeling threatened by the inclusion of multiple vectors of oppression in our analysis, we should rather feel threatened by their exclusion. This principle may seem obvious, but it is directly at odds with a recurring subtext of liberal-left criticism which suggests that to focus on or even address one vector of oppression is necessarily to neglect or downplay the other.

And it's specifically at odds with the argument of Lorde, who went out of her way to account for race and class in her critique. When she refers to those "who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women," she explicitly names "those of us who are poor" and those "who are Black," returning time and time again to "poor women and women of Color" in the same breath.

Consider, in that light, Connor Kilpatrick's recent article in Jacobin, Burying the White Working Class - which has come under fire from critics for allegedly dismissing the problem of race. Slate's Jamelle Bouie, for example, reads the article as a demand for "sympathy for white racism...or at least silence"; he continues "How do you read these passages?" Here's the specific passage in question:
Liberals...have two options: blame the individual moral failing of white workers or call into question the very nature of capitalism itself...Guess which one they choose. More and more, liberals just point and scream: "racist."
Kilpatrick's argument strikes me as pretty straightforward. He is not applauding people who see oppression as an either-racism-or-capitalism question; he is condemning liberals for framing it that way. And correctly, he observes that if you reject intersectionality, insist that either racism or capitalism is responsible for oppression, and acknowledge the obvious existence of racism, then you are logically cornered into denying that capitalism is a problem. Kilpatrick is not condemning liberals who talk about racism - he is condemning liberals who "just" talk about racism, and specifically because of the way that liberalism uses this exclusion to erase problems of class.

This is a standard and fairly uncontroversial point of intersectional analysis: if you maintain a one-dimensional politics that just points out certain vectors of oppression, you will erase and enable the others. That's precisely the argument Lorde makes in her critique of bourgeois feminism, and it holds here as well. Bouie sees a critique of liberals who "just" attack racism, and he reads this as "sympathy for white racism". As it stands, his line of reasoning only makes sense if we must indeed only critique one form of oppression - to the exclusion of every other oppression you can name. This is directly and openly at odds with the foundational premise of intersectionality, and with the tradition of solidarity between black Americans and the poor that Lorde worked to build - one that we must continue to build today.