You Are What You Read: Sister Outsider


“It is not difference that immobilises us. It’s silence.” Ellie Parnham takes a closer look at this week’s Black Lives Matter Book Club text.

Article Image

Image by Ten Speed Press, 2007

By Ellie Parnham

"so it is better to speak


we were never meant to survive.”

- Audre Lorde in her poem “A Litany for Survival.”

Audre Lorde self-defines as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” As far as vocally gritty, powerful and liberating examples of intersectional activism go, I would advise you look no further. In fact, the great Angela Davis said that the feminism we see today would have been “unimaginable” without Lorde’s work.

Lorde’s 1984 book Sister Outsider is a ground-breaking assembly of her most influential essays and speeches. Topics explored include war, police brutality, motherhood, queer identity, Black feminism, love, self-love, politics and I could go on. Listening to the audio version, I had to pause again and again to jot down ideas and gasp-out-loud moments. The ideas Lorde presents are complex. If you don’t like the idea of putting your brain through theoretical non-degree related writing, I would recommend listening rather than reading, as it allows the revelations to flow undisturbed.  Sister Outsider is also available to rent from the library as an electronic resource.

Lorde’s experiences - and indeed her identity - born out of the racism, sexism, homophobia and classism she experienced in the States, drive her writing. In the book she unpicks and critiques each -ism, each oppression in order to find the root of their malice. She concludes each system of hate stems from the same root; that is, the defilement of the idea of “difference” and how the “other” is automatically associated with the perverse.

This idea of “different from myself and what I know” is what causes the excessive violence often seen directed towards oppressed minorities. As a Black, queer woman, Lorde comments on how it feels to revolt against the system that prioritises the antithesis of every element of your being. What you look like, where you work, what you wear, who you love. In short, how to live in a system which constantly seeks to destroy you.

Lorde’s “theory of difference,” is mapped out in two of her most famous essays: The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House and Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. In these essays she advocates that in order to bring about creative social change, our differences as individuals need to be not only recognised but celebrated and used as a strength. They should be a source of power, not of division and weakness. Community is a vital tool in the fight against systemic oppression.

Master’s Tools in particular talks about the failings of second-wave non-intersectional feminism and how it supports the patriarchal attempt to divide women and keep them divided. That the feminism of the 1970s which supported only maternal, white, straight, cis, middle-class women cannot be classed as feminism at all. That real change cannot be sought after and put into motion by people who willingly conform to the very system that oppresses them and that change.

Lorde says that “It is not difference that immobilises us.  It’s silence.”

Along with Master’s Tools, another essay that struck a chord with me was Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. Unlike its opposite, pornography, Lorde says that the Erotic does not suppress but vitalises true feeling and strength. According to Lorde, the Erotic has been kept around in order to serve the pleasures of men; however, when used to allow a woman to experience her full potential, it is only then considered inflammatory, guilty of provocative and vile undertones. This distorted view, she says, denies the fact that the Erotic allows a woman to experience her highest level of empowerment. It flies infinitely higher than simple sexual satisfaction; born from the Greek eros, it is the deepest revelation of the connection of self and love that when liberated, results in the greatest feeling of joy.

Sister Outsider shows us how difference should not divide, but unite us, how community can dismantle systems of oppression and how everyone deserves to love and be loved for who they are, not for who the world has decided they are supposed to be.