By Anya Shukla
A social-justice-theory-loving friend of mine recommended “Sister Outsider” to me, and I was instantly on my guard. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s entering a super-dense theoretical rabbit hole of a book and never coming out again. (See: “Between the World and Me” by Ta Nehisi-Coates. Or actually don’t, because it was so difficult for me to get through.) I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared to read something.
Luckily, “Sister Outsider” wasn’t dense at all, but SO accessible. So BRILLIANT. I honestly feel different after reading it—enlightened, almost? What a great book.
Review: In her canonical collection of speeches and essays, “Sister Outsider,” Audre Lorde addresses feminism, racism, capitalism, and so much more.
Some sections of “Sister Outsider” feel almost spiritual in nature, promoting self-love and self-acceptance. Others are more theory-based. Yet Lorde bases every eye-opening idea on her personal experience as a Black lesbian woman, her real-world connections allowing one to grasp her points with relative ease. Most prominently, she highlights the need to support all marginalized peoples, regardless of identity, when fighting oppressive systems. My Rating: 5/5.
What I Loved: Lorde emphasizes how intersectionality affects the feminist movement. “The oppression of women knows no ethnic or racial boundaries, true, but that does not mean it is identical within those differences” (pg. 134). As a queer Black woman, her perspectives and experiences are inherently different than that of a straight and/or white woman. She argues that feminists should be cognizant of these differences. Several of her essays address infighting within feminists—white women who don’t acknowledge the work of Black women, Black women who don’t acknowledge the existence of Black lesbians. Lorde argues that when the oppressed battle amongst themselves for power and status, they often neglect the fight against their real oppressors: in this case, straight white men. We waste our time and energy on internal politics while maintaining the overall status quo.
While one may argue that staying silent is a survival technique, Lorde also sees silence as a form of submission “because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak” (pg. 82). She believes that those who cannot “pass” as people in power—such as people of color—will continue facing systemic oppression because of their skin tone. Whether or not you speak up, the specter of racism will haunt you: “we can sit in our corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid (pg. 82). As someone who has a habit of staying quiet, this idea REALLY touched me.
The best part about Lorde? Even when she’s talking about abstract topics, she always grounds her musings in economic reality. Many people, she notes, still struggle to get food on the table. The battle against racism, sexism, homophobia etc. cannot be fully overcome without making sure our basic human needs are met. Once “you conquer the bread problem, that gives you at least a chance to look around at the others” (pg. 68).
What I Didn’t Love: Because the essays in “Sister Outsider” were first published in other journals, several pieces repeat ideas or content. These sections can get a little boring, but they’re few and far between.
Food for Thought: Lorde often states that she doesn’t want to waste her time and energy on educating oppressors about their privilege. I agree with that perspective—there is nothing I hate more than trying to explain feminism to someone when they can just Google it themselves. (Or worse: if they start to gaslight my own experiences. Sigh.) At the same time, I wonder what would happen if we completely stopped educating people in power. Would they actually bother to learn more about topics that impact minorities? Or would they be content in their superiority?
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up… Each of us must find our work and do it” (pg. 267-268).
Up next: “Call Me Zebra” by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi.