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Book Review: Sister Outsider

TW: racism, rape, homophobia

Sister Outsider is a collection of Audre Lorde’s most influential works, in the form of essays, interviews and letters. Lorde was a groundbreaking Black lesbian feminist writer who dedicated her life to confronting oppressive systems such as racism, sexism, homophobia and classism in the US. The book draws on her work between 1976 and 1984, where she explores topics such as violence against women, Black feminism and equality.

I hadn’t read any of Lorde's work previously, and I was inspired by the unapologetic writing style, which commands the reader to take action and not hide in the refuge of silence. Lorde wrote these essays more than 30 years ago, and yet her contemporary and engaging style is something I would not be surprised to find in a book published in 2021, particularly as systemic racism, misogyny and homophobia continues to be a daily threat. Her work is compelling from the outset –- she writes in a deeply personal way, considers all aspects and consequences of the issues she discusses, and forms her perspective conclusions accordingly.

I will briefly discuss some of my favourite chapters, starting with ‘Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface’. This essay was written as a response to a paper named ‘The Black Scholar’ by sociologist Robert Staples, which Lorde critiqued for relying too heavily on a white-mediated success model entirely based on male superiority and female subservience. Lorde argues against Staples, explaining that Black feminism, separate from non-intersectional white feminism, was in no way threatening to Black men and was vital in improving conditions for Black women. She details the devastating effects of embracing Staples’ mentality of ‘showing compassion for misguided black men,’ when the consequences led to the murder and rape of Black women when the same ‘misguided’ Black men use them as an outlet for their anger.

Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response’ is fascinating in the way that it discusses the issue of toxic masculinity and the difficulties of raising a son in a misogynistic society. She references a frequent idea, currently discussed on feminism-focused social media accounts, that challenges the perception that women are seen as an emotional crux for male partners who can’t process or handle their emotions well. It’s a result of toxic masculinity, which is the expectation that men shouldn’t express their feelings. Lorde asserts that she’s not there to feel for her son, and encourages him to experience his emotions fully.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading her most famous essay, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, particularly because of Lorde’s critique at the time of white, heterosexual bias in feminist academia, and its neglect of certain marginalised voices. The predominant message of the piece reflects its title – we can’t solve the problems of oppression by working with the tools of a system of oppression.

Lastly, the chapter that particularly had an impact on me was ‘The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’. Lorde speaks frankly and poignantly about how Black women are constantly asked, and even expected, to ‘tone down’ their anger and emotions in feminist spaces. White people created the narrative of the intertwined relationship between anger and Black women to undermine the reactions of Black women towards oppressive practices they suffered, making them seem unnecessarily ‘hysterical’. Lorde advocates for Black women being able to openly express their anger and argues against the racist motivation behind continually questioning Black women’s anger. Flawlessly, Lorde writes about the constant microaggressions that people of colour face, explaining it to white people in a non-accusatory way, rather encouraging us to open up to the experience of Black men and women.

Throughout the book, Lorde touches on the concept of race; a topic that continues to be incredibly relevant today, particularly given the energisation of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the discussions about racism. The author argues that the responsibility to teach the oppressors their mistakes should not fall on the oppressed. Lorde argues that this leads to the oppressors maintaining their positions and evading responsibility for their own actions, and emphasises how draining this is for the oppressed-turned-educators.

I remember seeing a tweet last year from a Black woman talking about how tired she was of having to explain racism, and its effects, to white people. I thought for the first time about how damaging and exhausting it must be to consistently see social media posts illustrating the daily inequalities and injustices that people of colour face. Oppressive practices that white people, like me, are only just starting to understand the extent of. Sister Outsider perfectly highlights the struggles faced by both Black men and women while simultaneously holding Black men (alongside white men) accountable for their treatment of Black women. Lorde speaks of the men in Black communities failing to see the strength of the women as a resource but instead as a challenge to their own power and dominance. The use of graphic imagery was particularly effective when she talks about the issues in Black men’s treatment of Black women, referencing ‘our scarred, broken, battered and dead daughters and sisters’. She argues that Black women bear the main brunt of sexism and that Black men must help them fight it, as it’s also in their best interests.

Similarly, Lorde talks of the divisions between Black women when it comes to sexuality. Heterosexual and LGBTQ+ individuals are often pitted against each other by men so they view the other as competition, rather than allies. Lorde spoke from her own position and experience of a divorced, Black, lesbian, feminist socialist in a relationship with a white woman. In her writing, Lorde reiterates that inclusion and acceptance of differences is the way forward. Simultaneously, she gently reminds the reader to check their privilege, and explore whether beliefs reflect their actions.

I wholeheartedly recommend reading Sister Outside as it’s an essential collection in understanding oppression as a system, the importance of intersectional feminism, and the hatred that binds racism, misogyny and homophobia together. Lorde stresses the importance of activism and speaking out, saying, ‘I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood’. It’s vital that her work still be read today.

Book Information:

Title: Sister Outsider

Author: Audre Lorde

Year: 1984

Publisher: Crossing Press

Language: English

Genre: Essays and Speeches

Harriet Norris is a member of Our Books Now (OSN's Book Club). She is currently on a gap year volunteering as a teaching assistant at her local primary school. She wishes to study English Literature at university, and her other interests include History, Feminism and Politics (and Billy Joel).

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1 Comment

I appreciate you sharing the key points from some of the chapters, such as "Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface" and "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House." Also, I would recommend using a time card calculator to manage your time efficiently, especially when engaging with thought-provoking literature like this.

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