Friday, January 21, 2011

The inadequacy of the master's tools

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.

- Audre Lorde, 1984


Many of us have heard these wise words of Audre Lord before. But I wonder how often we really dig deep to think about what they mean.

She expounded a bit on that in her book Sister Outsider with this:

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 oppressor's tactics, the oppressor's relationships.


Alice Walker picked up that theme in talking about her characters in The Color Purple. She was criticized by many in the African American community for writing the character she simply called "Mr." who abused his wife Celie. But she explained in her book of essays Living by the Word that she carefully portrayed Mr.'s father as "light skinned" in both the book and the movie. Her point was that Mr.'s father was the son of a slave and a slave owner - a son of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

We are the African and the trader. We are the Indian and the settler. We are the slaver and the enslaved. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We are the women and we are the men. We are the children. The ancestors, black and white, who suffered during slavery - and I've come to believe they all did; you need only check your own soul to imagine how - grieve, I believe, when a black man oppresses women, and when a black woman or man mistreats a child. They've paid those dues. Surely they bought our gentleness toward each other with their pain.


What these two women are saying is that we have to examine ourselves...both the oppressed and the oppressor within. Because, as Lorde so powerfully said, using the tools of the oppressor within us will never allow us to clearly see, much less work towards, the kind of genuine change we seek.

As we all know, someone like Martin Luther King was able to inspire radical change because he rejected the master's tools of violence and intimidation. And now Obama is asking us to reject the master's tools of the dehumanization of our "enemies" - to reject the certainty that only we have the answers and to embrace a radical kind of empathy.

I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.

- Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope


There are those who want to see this kind of call as weak or naive. I happen to think that it would be applauded by people like Audre Lorde and Martin Luther King. They knew that rather than naive, to reject the master's tools is a very radical act. And that it takes extraordinary strength to maintain your own identity while doing your best to see the world through someone else's eyes. Here's what Lorde said about that.

Change means growth and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those we define as different from ourselves...

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