I don’t like when people invoke quotes from bodies of text they’ve never read to defend a point. I admit I’ve had to step back and investigate the source of popular quotes myself. This was what brought me to reread Audre Lorde’s essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Many people quote the phrase but don’t acknowledge it for the criticism of white feminism. Now that I’m more aware of the erasure of Black women’s labor in academia, I realize now that I and other Black feminists need to give due diligence to rectifying this erasure. Here’s the full quote in which Lorde makes the now famous statement:
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.1 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.
Frequently I hear people invoke the phrase in reference to oppression in general. It’s important to note that these words were spoken by a Black lesbian feminist in 1979 on a panel titled “The Personal and the Political” at the Second Sex Conference, an event sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities. Lorde’s words served as a critique of white feminism, which she charged failed to dismantle White supremacy. In the next paragraph she states:
If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact 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? What is the theory behind racist and feminism?
“The Master’s Tools” is a multilayered critique of White Feminism. Lorde begins with the New York University for the Humanities:
Here Lorde takes issue with how White feminists reinforce inequality even when they are attempting to challenge oppression. Failure to adequately represent Non-White people in the academy does not alter the status quo.
And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? 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 parameters of change are possible and allowable.
The results of this year’s presidential election are enough to confirm that White women put Whiteness ahead of issues that affect all women. Thus, the failure of the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house directly references that White women help to maintain white male patriarchy.
- Emphasis added ↩