Does Race Matter? Do we want to know whether race matters? When we look at that question, do we stop to ask our outer selves in preparation of finding an appropriate answer, appropriate that is to white people in our environment, in what aspect of life are we trying to determine if race matters? Would that be our social life, or life at work, at home, in the classroom, at worship. Do we give ourselves permission to define the realm in which we seek to determine if the question of race matters, or not? It matters everywhere because it is all about difference ideology.
I met Audre Lorde, the teacher, the other day while reading her essay, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” She delivered her essay at Amherst College in 1980. Reading the essay for me is required course reading. While I am delighted in having met Lorde, not all of my course reading is as exciting.
Such is the case with my justice course. Just reading through the syllabus and watching a few snipets of videos, I cringed. Thus far, nothing has popped out or sparked interest. Bored, I went back to Lorde, where I was engaged, fascinated and drawn in, eager to learn and at the ready with highlighter, sticky notes and a cluster of “favorite” writing tools. I quickly gathered up Lorde as another mentor and prepared myself for a wonderful journey wherein no doubt I would gather up many more mentors along the way.
Some may find it odd that I refer to “meeting” a person and calling them a mentor in the present tense when in reality Audre Lorde is deceased. But so is Shakespeare, Du Bois and Ralph Ellison. They too are my mentors. Do I see dead people? No. Their words turn a reading into an encounter that develops into a relationship of both the heart and mind.
Words are a powerful force. “The pen is mightier than the sword” is no idle statement. Words can condition us as human beings to behave in a certain manner; to cause us pain and joy and laughter. To deliver a powerful blow; both good and bad and many levels in between.
So. To open a conversation on whether race matters and where, I have decided to quote Lorde’s opening statement of her essay as it sets the tone and provides an excellent starting point:
Much of Western European history conditions us to see human differences in simplistic opposition to each other: dominant/subordinate, good/bad, up/down, superior/inferior. In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. Within this society, that group is made up of Black and Third World people, working-class people, older people, and women.
As a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself a part of some group defined as other, deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong. Traditionally, in american society, it is the members of oppressed, objectified groups who are expected to stretch out and bridge the gap between the actualities of our lives and the consciousness of our oppressor. For in order to survive, those of us for whom oppression is as American as apple pie have always had to be watchers, to become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection. Whenever the need for some pretense of communication arises, those who profit from our oppression call upon us to share our knowledge with them. In other words, it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes. I am responsible for educating teachers who dismiss my children’s culture in school. Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.
Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.
Your thoughts on race.