The Master’s Tools Cannot be Used

When Audre Lorde agreed to participate in a feminist conference at NYU in 1984, she was dismayed to find an almost complete absence of black and lesbian participants other than herself. In Lorde’s now famous rebuke to her audience of white heterosexual feminists she demanded that feminism begin acknowledging the practical and experiential differences that exist between different groups of women. A failure to do so condemns feminism to reinscribe patterns of exclusion and domination. For in this failure to recognize, nurture, and benefit from the diversity of female experiences, she charged that white feminists were deploying the very racist and patriarchal ‘tools’ of exclusion they sought to challenge:

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.

In excluding the experiences of black and lesbian women, academic feminists were subverting their own goals of democratic inclusion. Lorde issued her now well-known caution, arguing that systems of oppression cannot be challenged by woman’s participation in those same systems:

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. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

The idea that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ had taken hold as a strong position within a host of marginalized groups seeking effective modes of resistance, decolonization, and liberation. These minorities argue that the practices and institutions that subaltern groups historically find themselves excluded from, the ‘tools’ intended for use only by the master, however neutral and adaptable they may appear, cannot yield any leverage against the dominant agenda.

It is for this reason that Lorde believes women should be highly suspicious of invitations to take up the master’s tools by providing arguments and accounts within dominant institutions. Her insights are more important than ever for marginalized groups.

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to 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.

The ‘master’s concerns’ here are that women understand themselves primarily in relation to the master, if possible “as their only source of support” and remain focussed on these dominant communities. For Lorde, feminist academics had become a salient example of the problem of re-presentation. “How do you deal with the fact,” she questioned her white colleagues, “that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color?” The ‘primary tool of all oppressors’ is in fact the tempting invitation to be included in those representational practices of power once reserved for men, practices that induce women, Lorde cautions, to divert their energies into hammering fruitlessly at the patriarchal edifice without first constituting themselves as an alternative – a diverse, interdependent, and mutually nurturing community of women.

For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection which is so feared by a patriarchal world.

To pose a genuine challenge to patriarchy, Lorde suggests, women of diverse identities and experiences must not render themselves absent by taking up the loaded invitation to direct arguments and performances at patriarchal and racist society. Again, a preoccupation with closing the gap through re-presentation, regardless of its critical content, is the primary tool of the oppressor. Genuine resistance happens when women and other minorities no longer feed patriarchy by representing themselves for it and choose instead to make themselves literally present for each other.

The consideration owed to a woman, or any marginalized group for that matter, cannot rest on their ability or inability to provide accounts in the public sphere; the woman in her presence stands as a reason in and of herself, the prime reason, in fact, upon which all re-presentations are generated. Lorde recommends abandoning the tools of the master and picking up the tools of community, nurturing, shared support, mutuality and interdependence. In effect, she urges feminists to leave the master’s house and construct a new house.