This past week I was talking with some friends about race and racism in academia, social circles, and beyond. One of my friends, a white woman, asked my opinion on how people in general, but particularly white people should address racism. My answer was racism should be addressed in community regardless of the race of the individual. While I agree with Audre Lorde’s insistance that people “do their own work,” I am also cognizant that she encourages us to work across differences because no matter how brilliant we may think we are, no one can read their way out of racist practices or beliefs.
I am a straight black woman who was visiting a white lesbian couple for a week. Spending this time with them got me thinking about my friend’s question in regards to heterosexism and homophobia. This is an area where I feel like I can say that I am an ally, and that I try to “do my own work,” but oftentimes I feel like I fall short. Now when I say addressing oppression “in community” I mean it in an Octavia Butler Parable of the Sower kind of way. The your life and the life of your family depends on you learning to love across differences and really connect with people kind of way, not the I got a black friend or I got a gay friend way. So the larger question for me is how do we do the work of addressing oppression “in community.”
Here is one thing that comes to mind. I think everyone can name a person that they admire. Someone who provides a progressive or radical perspective on every front, who has complex identities relative to you, and who lives the politics that they write. Oftentimes this person or these people make you feel nervous when they are around because you fear saying the wrong thing and being challenged. I think these people are gifts. I have to imagine that Audre Lorde may not have been the greatest girlfriend to have around. But now we love her for her willingness to be vulnerable and to tell that damn truth no matter how it might make people feel.
Who is the Audre Lorde among you? If you can name someone be sure to cherish them as gifts. I encourage you to say what you are thinking when this person is present. Be uncomfortable. Take the risk. Struggle with the discomfort. And grow. I believe this is one part of what it means to address oppressions “in community.”
“Change means growth, and growth can be painful. But we sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves, although sharing the same goals… this can mean new paths to our survival.” Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider)