Where Privilege Intersects with Oppression: On the Need for White Women to be Accountable
Too often, Black intellectual property will be stolen, taken out of context, refurbished into T-shirt apparel, or as decoration for, oh, say, I don’t know, a speaking engagement at an Outdoor Retailer tradeshow.
About a month ago, I got an email confirming that my application to be at a speaking engagement at Outdoor Retailer was accepted. The speaking engagement was titled, “Our Home: A New Vision for the Future of the Outdoors.” You can see the Facebook event here.
The description of the event reads: “Inspired by Audre Lorde’s quote, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,’ this speaking experience will feature women in the outdoor industry who are harnessing new tools, approaches, and perspectives that we need to build our own home and our own sense of place in the outdoor industry. Join Jennifer Gurecki of Coalition Snow and Amanda Goad of BoldBrew in listening and learning from female leaders in the industry who will describe how their tool—their assets and their strengths—are part and parcel of building a new future for the industry.”
In a later email, Jen Gurecki, the event organizer, sent us her introduction for the event (you can find this at the bottom of this essay) in which she acknowledges the identities of Audre Lorde and the context in which she spoke the line, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But then she fast forwards through time and starts talking about sexist ad campaigns in the outdoor industry. The narrative was ahistorical and the epitome of White Feminism.
White feminism is dangerous. Thought Catalog, defines white feminism as the phenomenon “when white women take advantage to further their own interest and career, usually without extending solidarity or tackling relevant social issues such as trans women’s rights, Hollywood’s whitewashing, the issues that alter-abled bodies experience, police brutality, cultural appropriation, or institutional racism.”
The quote, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," is the title of a speech found in Sister, Outsider, a book that comprises speeches and essays by Audre Lorde.
This type of Kendall Jennerism is not the first instance where Audre Lorde’s words have been taken out of context and it certainly won’t be the last. Audre Lorde, was a self-proclaimed “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde was born in Harlem, New York on February 18, 1934 and died on November 17, 1992. The injustices that Lorde wrote about were not to be used as sprinkles for a flouncy, white-washed performance at a tradeshow that is only accessible to a dominant group in America – the upper middle class white people who work in the outdoor industry. Audre Lorde’s words are constantly being used to serve the white woman’s appetite to be “edgy” and “intersectional.” You may find her words written on signs at the Women’s march by women in trans-misogynistic pink pussy hats.
In an incredibly insightful essay titled, "Appropriating Audre: On the Need to Locate the Oppressor Within Us," Aqdas Aftab writes:
"It is important for everyone to celebrate and honor all of Lorde, not simply her quotes and one-liners; to read her works in their full detail; and to draw connections between her historically positioned critiques and today’s anti-intersectional feminist platforms. Lorde is more than just relevant to today’s movements—she is absolutely necessary. However, we must also remember that her work clearly shows that she spoke to different audiences at different times, not just a unifying category of women. She invited Black women to join her in expressing anger at racism, to practice self-care as warfare; but she wanted white women (and perhaps we can extend this at times to include privileged non-Black people of color) to identify how their lack of recognition of anti-Blackness in their own feminist circles was actually upholding white supremacist heteropatriarchy, rather than dismantling it."
This urge for white women to use Audre Lorde’s quotes devoid of their circumstance, combined with a total lack of consideration for the intersecting identities that Lorde was grappling with, is something only born out of white entitlement. I have been guilty of acting out of white entitlement too. As white women, we need to check ourselves constantly. It is the most necessary work, and possibly the most difficult for us. It means setting aside our egos and feelings. When we make a mistake, because we will, we must practice the difficult art of humility. We must take a step back. We can feel guilt, be upset, or cry to our friends, our mothers, our therapist. But we must not burden Black women, Indigenous woman, or any woman of color. It is not their responsibility to do that emotional labor for us. Let us avoid being Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and dear God, at all costs, Taylor Swift.
For those who are actively doing the work of racial and social justice, and unlearning your own internalized misogyny and racism, it is more than likely that this essay will explain nothing new to you. But for those who are left wondering what is wrong with the way this event was structured, I will clarify what has happened here: A white woman, who runs a for-profit company that co-opts feminism to sell products, has now co-opted Audre Lorde’s words to fit the white feminist agenda of addressing sexism in the outdoor industry. In the gloss and gleam that is throwing “intersectionality” on a marketing campaign, white women often fail to acknowledge how we systematically harm women of color. You can’t just throw “intersectional” on your Instagram bio – it just doesn’t work like that.
While the intentions of the organizers were pure and good, whiteness does not mean innocence. Intentions, ultimately, do not matter. It is the impact that matters. If I step on someone’s foot it does not matter if I intended to or not. If the impact was that I hurt them, then they are hurt and I must be accountable and take responsibility. This is a moral obligation. I am responsible for the impact of hurting someone’s foot, in the same way that white women must be accountable for the impact of their harmful racist behavior, whether it was intentional or not. Using Audre Lorde’s work out of context to serve the purpose of talking about sexism completely ignores the fact that Audre Lorde was calling for white women to address racism and the myriad ways that their behavior, language, and actions oppress marginalized communities.
This exclusive event took place literally in the master’s house, and was constructed with the master’s tools. Many people will argue, “But there were a few women of color on the stage! But we saw the largest number of people of color attending Outdoor Retailer! But there was an Indigenous panel!” But are we actually tackling capitalism, colonialism, and anti-blackness by hiring some people of color behind the scenes? Angela Davis confirms in a speech about Audre Lorde at Medger Evers College in 2014 that this insertion of non-white people into these traditionally white spaces is a façade of true justice and equity. Davis said, “It is often assumed that diversity is equivalent to the end of racism. Somehow or another, we sought to name the process of moving toward justice and it seems that once the word ‘diversity’ entered into the frame it kind of colonized everything else. And all we talk about now is ‘diversity.’ And sometimes it means integrating different looking people into a process that remains the same.”
If all we are doing is talking about “diversity” without talking about systemic and institutionalized racism, then we are only performing. Nothing about what we are talking about is actually coming to life if we are not working out, unraveling, and combing through the issues that are actually plaguing society. Furthermore, sticking within the boundaries and frameworks of the oppressive hierarchy that is capitalism means that women and people of color are ultimately tokens in any market that relies on profit. In our society where cishetero whiteness is the norm, true equity and justice cannot come unless we are working towards dismantling the oppressors in ourselves, as well as the oppressive systems.
The only panel that got to the heart of these issues was the Indigenous panel at Outdoor Retailer, which hosted Len Necefer of Natives Outdoors, Jaylynn Gough of Native Women’s Wilderness, Jolie Varela of Indigenous Women Hike, Aaron Mike of Pangaea Mountain Guides, and Ernest House who is the Executive Director of Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) in Colorado. Upon being asked about the relationship between the outdoor industry and tribes, Varela responded, “This is a billion-dollar industry that benefits from the oppression of native people…I think that the outdoor industry has an obligation to do a better job in working with tribal communities and being engaged with those who have been displaced from these lands.”
The grassroots organizations like Indigenous Women Hike, Unlikely Hikers, OUT There, Natives Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, Melanin Basecamp, Brown Girls Climb, Brown Gal Trekker, Brothers of Climbing, and so many others, absolutely deserve all the support, representation, and money that comes their way. These are the groups who are on the ground actually doing the work and helping their communities. The real benefactors, however, of the trend that is “diversity” are the brands like Patagonia and REI who reel in loyal customers from being “environmentally friendly,” “politically active,” or “inclusive” in their ad campaigns. The outcome: white complacency and therefore, complicity. This means that you’ll hear a lot of white people saying, “it’s a sprint, not a marathon,” which is the most white privileged thing someone could say. When it’s not your life on the line, you can afford to treat activism like a leisurely stroll through the park, engage with people of color on a panel for 45 minutes, and call it a productive, social-justice day.
While money and panels are helpful to some degree in terms of spreading awareness, what we really need is a complete uprooting of the systems that currently exist. We have to look critically at the systems that are in place – the systems that continue to keep the wealth and platforms out of reach of marginalized organizations in the first place.
Racism and gender advocacy, is a distorted performance in the outdoor industry. Physically being in that space, in the middle of thousands of people milling around the giant Denver Convention Center this last weekend, revealed a clear picture: that the obsession with faster and lighter gear, and sun hats made out of recycled plastic bottles priced at $50 (but, shhh, let’s not talk about the process of recycling and what that does to the environment), intentionally obscures the ability of the players to see what is at the core: Western logic that demands homogeneity, that uses underpaid or slave labor, and that is concerned only with profit and capital. It may not be the intention of those who are playing the game that their complicity in whiteness and patriarchy is begetting wealth, security, and representation for only a few, but it is indeed what is happening. That is the bottom line. When the focus is on temporary band-aids like recycling and diversity, we get served impermanent solutions. Without addressing the root causes, it's all a masquerade.
The appropriated event, (in which I had to lie in order to be on the stage, which I will talk about in another essay), was designed to address misogyny to “build a new future for the outdoor industry.” But if we are not acknowledging and accounting for the many intersecting identities of race, class, gender, sex, age, and more, than we are only serving the needs of upper middle class cishet, able-bodied, thin, white women. The future of the outdoor industry is a future that looks no different than the current status quo. Any event, and on a larger scale, any industry, that is structured in such a way where white women play charades of diversity and inclusivity, simply doesn’t shift or change a thing. Ultimately, unearned privileges are left firmly in place. White women get to applaud themselves for their “allyship” and remain comfortable in their close proximity to cishet white males, which means social capital for them. They are the suffragettes of 2018 – those who do not want to talk about their inherent racism and uphold white supremacy through their complicity and unwillingness to submit to vulnerable dialogue about their unique position of power. You’ll probably hear “not all men” from these women.
If our conversations are relegated to the effects of misogyny on white women then we will get absolutely nowhere. The event that I interrupted was not supposed to be open, free form, difficult, and vulnerable dialogue, which Audre Lorde called for in her essay, “The Master’s Tools, Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” This event was timed, edited, and scripted. We were all told to submit scripts so that the organizer could make adjustments and give us feedback. Censorship, anyone?
To top it all off, the women who participated had to figure out our own way to get into the tradeshow, our own funds for travel, accommodations, and food to be able to participate. Not to mention we were not paid for our time on stage or the emotional labor that we expended.
Pointing out White Feminism is not pitting women against each other. It necessarily keeps us in check, and pushes forward a movement in which white women are not faultless and innocent, but very much accountable for systemic and institutional racism. We must take action against our complicity. Appropriation is dangerous because it can be veiled by the pallid coating of white fragility and ignorance.
Below you can read the email that describes the event and the agenda of the organizer:
“In 1978, the feminist scholar and poet Audre Lorde sat on a panel with her colleagues to analyze the intersections of race, sex, class, and age at a conference at NYU. She was one of two black women, and the only black lesbian speaker, invited to participate in the entire conference. She was a mere token of diversity. It was from this experience that she mic dropped the now famous one-liner “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.”
So what exactly does this mean, and why are we talking about it today? Lorde was essentially calling for reform within a system that perpetuated conformity and oppression under the guise of progress. White feminists believed they were actively building a movement, but they were doing so with incomplete knowledge, based on the perspectives of a select few.
Fast forward 40 years and drop yourself in the middle of the outdoor industry, one could argue that things haven’t changed much. Just in the past few months, we’ve seen this come out our industry:
- A truthful and brave account of one of the largest skiing magazines, Powder, only featuring one photo of a woman in their Photo Annual
- Unofficial Networks tone deaf Facebook post calling a Lange boot advert of a woman on all fours one of the greatest ads of all times
- An influx of women-power marketing campaigns that leave you scratching your head, wondering if we are experiencing true change or is the industry cashing in on feminism?
- MORE BULLSHIT
- MORE BULLSHIT
Interesting enough, one of the solutions that has been offered up is that women must come together and unify our vision and voice around feminism, sexism, etc. Lorde calls bullshit on this, and I’d agree. She says:
“As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.
It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. 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. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.”
We cannot use the same patriarchal tactics that this industry, and society in general, has used to maintain their power over women. Today we will celebrate the differences of women and honor their diverse perspectives, acknowledging that there is not one clear path to equality in this industry.
Today XX women will articulate their vision for the future of this industry. You may not agree with it, nor do you have to. What we are striving for is diversity, inclusion, and discourse. We’re not going to wrap misogyny up into a pretty little package and put a bow on it. This shit is messy, and real, just as it should be. And it is part of building a community, a community that all of you are part of.”