The writer Audre Lorde ((1934-1992)) who described herself as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”, states: “I am not free as long as there is another woman who is not free, even if her shackles are very different from mine. And I am not free as long as a person of colour remains chained.
Racism. A belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another, and therefore in its right to dominate, whether manifest or implied.
Audre Lorde, Uses of Anger: Women Respond to Racism (1981)
Women’s response to racism. My reaction to racism is anger. An anger that has been with me most of my life, whether I ignored it or fed on it or learned to use it before it spoiled my vision. Before, I lived my anger in silence, afraid of its consequences. My fear of anger brought me nothing. Your fear of anger will not bring you anything either.
Women’s response to racism is to make their anger explicit; anger caused by exclusion, by established privileges, by racial distortions, by silence, by abuse, by stereotyping, by defensive attitudes, by stigmatization, by betrayal and by impositions.
My anger is a response to racist attitudes and the acts and preconceptions that result from them. If your relationship with other women reflects these attitudes, my anger and your concomitant fears are sources of light that we can use to grow as I used the expression of my anger to grow. It is not a matter of awakening feelings of guilt but of performing surgery to correct the defects. Guilt and defensive attitudes are bricks in a wall that we all crash into; they are of no value to our future.
As I do not want this to become a theoretical debate, I will illustrate my words with several examples taken from relations between women. I will be brief because we have no time to spare. I want you to know that there are many other examples.
In an academic forum, I give direct expression to the anger caused by something concrete, and a white woman tells me: “Tell me how you feel, but don’t tell it so crudely because it prevents me from listening to you”. And I ask myself: Is it my manners that prevent you from listening to me or is it the threat of my words telling you that your life can change?
The Women’s Studies Program at a southern university invites a Black woman to teach after a week of discussions about Black and white women. “What good has this week done you?” I ask. The most articulate white woman in the audience replies, “I think this week has done me a lot of good. I feel that Black women now understand me much better; they have a better idea of my origins”. As if understanding her is the key to the problem of racism.
After fifteen years of a women’s movement committed to the vital issues of all women and their possible future, I keep hearing at one university after another, “How are we going to address the issue of racism if no women of colour ever attend?” And the other variant, “We don’t have any qualified people in our department to teach the work of women of colour”. In other words, racism is a Black woman’s issue, a Black woman’s issue, and only we can discuss it.
After reading some of the poems in the series, “Poems for Angry Women”, a white woman asked me, “Are you going to talk to us about how we can deal directly with our anger?” I think it’s very important. And I say, “How do you see your anger?” Then I avert my eyes from her absent gaze before she invites me to participate in the annihilation of herself. It’s not my job to feel her anger instead of her.
White women have begun to analyze their relationship to Black women, but I have found that many times they are only willing to remember the little coloured neighbours they knew in their childhood, the beloved nanny or the occasional high school classmate; to cultivate the tender memory of what once seemed mysterious, intriguing or simply neutral to them. What you don’t want to remind white women of are the ideas that you formed in your childhood when you heard Rastus and Alfalfa’s bland laughter, those white actors characterized as Blacks, or the pressing message that Mommy gave you when she spread a handkerchief on the bench from which I had just gotten up, or the indelible and dehumanizing portraits of Amos and Andy, or the humorous stories that Daddy told you to put you to sleep.
In 1967, in Eastchester, I walked through a supermarket with my two-year-old daughter who was sitting in the cart; a little white girl passed by sitting in a cart pushed by her mother and said very excitedly, “Look, Mommy, a baby maid!” Your mother makes you shut up, but she doesn’t correct you. That’s why, fifteen years later, at a conference on racism, you still find this story funny. But I hear terror and discomfort in your laughter.
A white scholar celebrates the publication of a collection of works by non-black women. “It allows me to deal with racism by avoiding the harshness of Black women,” she explains.
At an international cultural gathering of women, a famous white American poet interrupts the reading of the Coloured women’s work to read one of her poems and then rushes off to a “major meeting”.
If women in academia really want to engage in dialogue about racism, they will have to pay attention to the needs and life contexts of other women. When a woman in academia says, “I can’t afford that,” it probably means that she has decided to spend the money on something else. But when an unemployed woman says, “I can’t afford that,” it means that she is surviving on money that in 1972 was barely enough to live on and often not even enough to eat. And yet the National Association for Women’s Studies is now holding a congress in 1981, at which it pledges to respond to racism while refusing to waive tuition for poor women and women of colour who want to attend and run workshops. A decision that has prevented many women of colour from participating in this conference, for example, Wilmette Brown of the Black Women’s Association for Housing Compensation. Will this forum become just one more example of how academia looks at life within the academic closed circuit?
I am speaking now to the white women here who recognize that such attitudes are prevalent, but most of all I am speaking to my sisters of colour who live and survive thousands of such encounters, to my sisters of colour who like me still barely contain their anger, or who sometimes find the expression of anger useless or counterproductive (these are the two most common criticisms), to them I want to speak about anger, my anger, and what I have learned in my travels through their domains.
Everything can be used/ except for what is surplus/ (it will be good for you to remember this/ when you are accused of destruction).
Every woman possesses a rich arsenal of anger that is potentially useful in the fight against oppression, personal and institutional, that is at the root of that anger. If properly channelled, anger can become a powerful source of energy in the service of progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean simply a change of position or a temporary relaxation of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am referring to the deep and radical modification of the assumptions on which our lives are based.
I have witnessed situations where a white woman hears a racist comment that makes her feel bad and gets angry, but remains silent because she is afraid. That unexpressed anger is lodged inside her like an unexploded bomb, and she is likely to throw it at the first woman of colour who talks about racism.
But when anger is expressed and translated into action in service of our vision and our future, it becomes a liberating and empowering act of clarification, for the painful process of translation serves to identify those who are our allies, despite the great differences that may separate us from them, and those who are our real enemies.
Anger is charged with information and energy. When I speak of women of colour, I am not referring exclusively to Black women. The woman of colour who is not Black and who accuses me of making her invisible by assuming that her fight against racism is identical to mine has many things to say to me that I must listen to, otherwise we will both waste our energies fighting each other to impose our truth. If I participate, consciously or unconsciously, in my sister’s oppression and she criticizes me, responding to her anger with mine will only serve to turn our communication into an exchange of hostilities. It will be a waste of energy. Although, yes, it is very difficult to stand still while listening to another woman’s voice tracing an agony that is not my own, or that I have not helped to create.
Here together, we talk away from the most blatant reminders of our need to fortify. But this should not make us forget the proportions and complexity of the forces that are accumulating against us and against the most human aspects of our environment. We are not a group of women dedicated to analyzing racism in the midst of a political and social vacuum. We are in the jaws of a system for which racism and sexism are basic, established and necessary supports of profit. It is so dangerous for women to respond to racism that, in their attempt to discredit this congress, the local media have opted for a diversionary manoeuvre and have focused their attention on the fact that lesbians have been provided with accommodation; it is as if the Hartford Courant does not dare mention the subject of our debates, racism, for fear that it will be known that we women are trying to analyze and modify all the repressive conditions of our lives.
The mainstream media does not want women, and in particular white women, to react to racism. They want racism to be accepted as an immutable component of your existence, like bedtime or colds.
So we work in a context of opposition and threats, and certainly the reason is not the anger that we may carry within us, but the virulent hatred that is launched against all women, people of colour, lesbians and gays, poor people… against all those who seek to look deeply into our lives while resisting oppression and moving towards coalition and effective action.
Any discussion of racism among women must account for the existence of anger and its uses. And since this analysis is crucial, we must address it in a direct and creative way. We cannot allow our fear of anger to divert us from the hard goal of getting the truth out, or make us settle for lesser goals; we must take the issue we have chosen and all the anger that is woven into it very seriously because, make no mistake about it, our opponents take their hatred of us and what we intend to do here very seriously.
And as we search the often painful face of our anger, please do not forget that it is not our anger that leads me to warn you to shut your doors tightly tonight and not walk the streets of Hartford alone. The reason I warn you is because of the hatred that lurks on these streets, the desire to destroy if we truly work for change rather than be satisfied with academic rhetoric.
This hatred and this anger are very different. Hatred is the rage of those who do not share our goals, and its end is death and destruction. Anger is the pain motivated by the distortions that affect us all, and its goal is change. We have less and less time. We have been brought up to see all differences, except sexual ones, as a cause of destruction, and the fact that Black women, and white women, face their mutual anger without rejection, without immobility, without silence and without guilt, is in itself a heretical and generative idea. For it assumes that we come together as equals on a common basis to analyze the differences and to change the distortions that history has created around them. It is these distortions that separate us. And what we must ask ourselves is: Who benefits from all this?
America’s women of colour have grown up in a symphony of anger, the anger of those who are silenced, of those who are rejected, of those who know that when we survive, we do so despite a world that takes our lack of humanity for granted and hates our very existence when it does not serve them. And I say symphony instead of cacophony because we have had to learn to harmonize anger so that it would not destroy us. We have had to learn to move in it, to draw from it strength, endurance and understanding for our daily lives. Those of us who did not learn this lesson have not survived. And part of my anger is always an offering for my fallen sisters.
Anger is the appropriate reaction to racist attitudes, just as anger is when the facts derived from such attitudes do not change. To women who fear the anger of women of colour more than their own unexamined racist attitudes, I ask: Is the anger of women of colour more threatening than the hatred of women that colours every aspect of our lives?
It is not other women’s anger that will destroy us, but our refusal to stand still and listen to its rhythms, to learn from it, to go deeper into its appearance and get to its substance, to use anger as an important source of empowerment.
I cannot hide my anger from you in order to spare you the guilt, the hurt feelings, the anger that I trigger in you: to hide it would be to belittle and trivialize our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or inaction. To the extent that it leads to a change, it can be useful, since in that case it ceases to be guilt and becomes a starting point for knowledge. But many times guilt is only the name given to impotence, to the defensive attitude that destroys communication; then it becomes an instrument to preserve ignorance and continuity of the situation, a fundamental instrument to preserve immobility.
Most women have not developed weapons to deal with anger constructively. In other times there were discussion groups formed mainly by white women who worked on how to express anger, mainly before the world of men. These groups were made up of white women who shared the same oppression. Usually, there was little attempt to examine the real differences between women, such as race, colour, age, class and sexual identity. At that time, there was no need to examine the contradictions of being, of women in the role of oppressors. The expression of anger was worked on, but the anger of some women against others was almost completely forgotten. No weapons were developed to deal with the anger of other women except to avoid it, divert it or run away from it under a cloak of guilt.
I know of no creative use of guilt, whether yours or mine. Guilt is just another way of avoiding well-informed action, of postponing the urgent need to make clear decisions, of delaying the arrival of the impending storm that will not only bend the trees but will also feed the earth. If I speak to you in anger, at least I will have spoken to you; I will not have put a gun to your head to kill you in the middle of the street; I will not have said, looking at the bloody body of your sister, “What did she do to deserve this?” And this was precisely the reaction that two white women had when Mary Church Terrell told them that a pregnant Black woman had been lynched and then her child had been torn from her womb. This was in 1921, right after Alice Paul refused to publicly support the application of the Nineteenth Amendment to all women because she did not want Black women included in its scope, even though they too had fought for the enactment of the amendment.
The anger of some women against others will not kill us if we manage to express it accurately, if in trying to understand what it is about we take at least as much interest as we do in defending ourselves against the way it is expressed. When we turn our backs on anger, we also turn our backs on knowledge, because with that attitude we are saying that we are only going to accept ideas that are already known, ideas that are comfortable and deadly familiar. I have tried to learn what anger is for, and also what its limitations are.
For women educated in fear, anger often carries the threat of annihilation. In the male structure made up of brute force we were taught that our lives depended on the goodwill of patriarchal power. The anger of others had to be avoided at all costs because it could only bring us pain and the accusation that we had not been good girls, that we had failed, that we had not acted properly. And if we accept our helplessness, it is clear that anyone’s anger can destroy us.
Women’s strength lies in our ability to recognize that the differences between us are creative and to confront the distortions that we have unwittingly inherited and that we can now change because they are ours. Through understanding, women’s anger can be turned into power.
Because shared anger between equals engenders change, not destruction, and the discomfort and damage it often causes are not deadly but growth signals.
My response to racism is anger. And that anger has only cracked my life open when I didn’t express it and it was worthless to anyone. Anger has served me well in classrooms lacking light and all teaching, where the work and history of Black women was less than smoke. It has served me as a fire in the icy areas of the incomprehensible gaze of white women who see nothing but new reasons for fear and guilt in my experience and in the experience of my people. My anger is no excuse for you not to confront your blindness or to wash your hands of the results of your actions.
When we women of colour give voice to the anger that permeates many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are “creating an atmosphere of hopelessness”, “preventing white women from overcoming their feelings of guilt” or “standing in the way of communication and action based on trust”. All these phrases are textual quotations taken from letters sent to me in the last two years by members of this organization. One woman told me, “Because you are Black and Lesbian, you seem to speak with the moral authority that comes with suffering”. Yes, I am Black and Lesbian, and what you hear in my voice is anger, not suffering. Anger, not moral authority. It’s very different.
Turning your back on the anger of Black women under the guise or pretext of being intimidated is not a way of empowering anyone–it is simply another way of preserving race blindness, the power of privilege which, without being challenged or destroyed, remains intact. Guilt is just another way of objectifying those who inspire it. Oppressed peoples are always asked to do more to bridge the gap between blindness and humanity. Black women are expected to use our anger exclusively in the service of saving and learning others. But all this belongs to a bygone era. My anger has caused me pain but it has also helped me to survive, and before I give it up I want to make sure there is something, at least as powerful as it is, that can replace it on the path to clarity.
Which of the women here is so in love with her own oppression that she does not see the footprint of her stomping on another woman’s face? For which woman have the conditions of her oppression become precious and necessary insofar as they allow her to enter the fold of the just, far from the cold winds of self-analysis?
I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat every day because I work at the university. If the fact that my children have full stomachs prevents me from recognizing my affinity with a woman of colour whose children don’t eat because she can’t find a job, or who doesn’t have children because her insides have been destroyed by home abortions or sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains hidden in the closet because her homophobic community is her only support in life, the woman who chooses silence over another death, the woman who is terrified of the possibility that my anger will trigger hers; If I fail to recognize all of them as faces of myself, I will be contributing to their oppression and also to mine; thus, the anger that arises among us must be used for mutual clarity and empowerment and not to avoid blame and deepen separation. I am not free as long as there is another woman who is not free, even if her shackles are very different from mine. And I am not free as long as a person of colour remains chained. Nor are any of you.
We welcome with open arms all women who can join us, face to face, beyond reification and beyond guilt.
1 Opening address to the National Association for Women’s Studies Congress, Storrs, Connecticut, June 1981.
2 “Poems for Women in Rage”. A poem in this series has been collected in Chosen Poems: Old and New (W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1978), pp. 105-108.
3 This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, New York, 1984), first edition: 1981.
4 From Each of You, first published in A Land Where People Live(Broadside Press, Detroit, 1973), and collected in Chosen Poems: Old and New (W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1982), p. 42.
The text and notes come from: Audre Lorde, “Uses of anger: women respond to racism” (1981/1984/2003), The sister, the foreigner. Articles and lectures, translation by María Corniero, revision by Alba V. Lasheras and Miren Elordui Cadiz, Ed. Horas y horas, Madrid, 2003, pp. 137-150. (Original text: “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism”, in Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 1984)
Uses of anger: women respond to racism – Audre Lorde