The Masters’ Tools

Contemporary discussions often make use of terms and concepts divorced from their origins. When I investigate, I’m sometimes delighted to find trenchant essays whose value far exceeds the buzz words or phrases they spawned.

For example, I highly recommend Audre Lorde’s 1984 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”: it is a short and intense read. Basically, Lorde was dismayed to be asked to speak at a conference with little representation from poor, black, Third World, and lesbian women. She advocated for solidarity and community among women of difference (especially across class, race, and sexuality) rather than reaching out to and educating ignorant men, as this is an “an old and primary tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” (Although I don’t discuss Lorde, I do have a piece that touches on questions of geek sexism and the “obligations to know.”) Here’s some excerpts from the essay:

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 perimeters of change are possible and allowable. (110-111)

It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily to 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. (112)

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and educate 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 and or joint survival. This is a diversion of energies in a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought. (113)

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