Costa do Sauípe, BA, Brasil: 08/09/2016

Resisting and Disrupting The Master’s House at the AWID Forum

Ed. note: This is the first of a series of posts we’ll be running this month as part of a media partnership with the Association of Women in Development (AWID) to cover their semi-annual Forum. The 2016 Forum took place earlier this month in Brazil and explored diverse perspectives on “Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice” with a focus on voices from the Global South. All coverage of the Forum will eventually be available here.

This month marks the 37th anniversary of Audre Lorde’s now famous speech, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Lorde offered this talk at the 1979 Second Sex Conference in New York City, which she criticized for dismissing and ignoring the contributions of poor women, lesbians, Black women, and women from the Global South. Lorde spoke at the only panel during the conference that featured Black feminists and lesbians and denounced this oversight as an example of using the master’s tools — that is, erasing difference — to dismantle the master’s house. “Difference,” Lorde claimed, “must not be merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” Tired of being tokenized and misrepresented, Lorde’s speech offered a blueprint for feminist organizing and movement building.

I saw Lorde’s vision come alive during the 13th AWID International Forum held last week in Bahia, Brazil. During the second plenary of the forum — “Experiences of Solidarity, Resistance, and Creative Disruptions” — the various panelists spoke from their lived experiences as activists, organizers, and artists to explore possibilities and limits for cross-movement collaborations. Arelis Uriana Guariyu, who leads the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, argued that while we do not all experience the same problems or suffer the same violence, we can still form alliances across feminist movements. We can still understand how our oppressions are interconnected and how they are not.

Rather than pushing for a one-size-fits-all solution to our struggles as women from different national, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds, the panelists encouraged us to reflect on how we can build coalitions and support one another without erasing our differences. Khouloud Mahdhaoui, a founding member of the feminist LBT organization Chouf in Tunisia, said that for her, a single feminism does not exist. Women artists and creators from radically different backgrounds participate in the Chouftouhonna International  Feminist Art Festival Mahdhaoui organizes and she believes this diversity creates power. Difference is then not an obstacle to be overcome, a footnote to be included, or a disclaimer to be announced. Difference is strength. Difference is our own tool. 

To “creatively disrupt” the master’s house, unity cannot be presumed but must be constantly (re)negotiated. Solidarity cannot be based on an essentialized notion of shared womanhood but must be (re)imagined as a political project. Resistance requires both care of self and respect for others. 

In “Poetry is not a Luxury,” Lorde wrote: “The white fathers told us: ‘I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: ‘I feel, therefore I can be free.'”

Whenever I’ve attended a conference or forum in the past, the emphasis has always been on theorizing rather than on feeling. At the AWID forum, however, feelings mattered. Those deep, internal, ancestral parts of ourselves were celebrated as producers of knowledge and agents of change. During the final moments of the plenary, we reflected on the remarks that had been given. This reflection, we were told, was meant to come not from our heads but from our guts, from the part of ourselves that were moved in that moment. Our feelings are also our own tools. They, too, have the potential to dismantle the master’s house.

Many of us have been told that our differences and our feelings somehow make us less effective advocates and activists. We have been told to be sensitive to the emotions of those who hold power over us rather than respecting and listening to our own feelings. We have been told that our religious, cultural, and linguistic differences are liabilities to our respectability, that homogeneity is what makes us feminists. There is one feminist project and we can either get on board or our “feminist card” will be revoked. This plenary told me that only by listening to one another, honoring and highlighting our differences, and prioritizing our feelings and ways of knowing can we dismantle the master’s house. And that’s a message I think Audre Lorde would get behind.

Header image via AWID.

Durham, NC

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, & intersectional feminism.

Barbara is a PhD student at The University of North Carolina. She writes about immigration, migrant activism and organizing, & intersectional feminism.

Read more about Barbara

Join the Conversation