– “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” -Audre Lorde
This quote by Audre Lorde really resonates with me. As I have gotten older been in and out of academia. Learned the ways in which my identities play a part in how I navigate the world. This quote becomes more and more true in my life, as I see how the systems actively work against us. This quote comes from a larger piece by Audre Lorde on her experience being invited to a New York University Institute conference. This won’t be a summary so I encourage you to read it on your own when you can. But what does this quote mean and why is it important to me?
What this quote means to me is exactly what she is saying. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. As I have navigated in and out of academia and education, I have been made more aware of the violence, atrocities, and brutality brought upon black people. I want to dismantle and destroy the current systems that are designed to kill me and people like me. I don’t want to reform them and I don’t want to change the system from within.
In particular, I have had a lot of non-black people tell me that I must work within the system to bring about change. That I must work my way into the systems that oppress and kill me, that I must be tolerant of ignorance, that I must be respectable. That I must break my bones to fit into a system that was never made for me. The system thrives on my broken bones because while I was contorting myself to fit, I am so broken that I can no longer help anyone else, let alone myself. To the people telling black folks how we should achieve our liberation. I have a question for you. When has working within the system ever brought about institutional, systemic, and systematic change.
When has successfully working within the systems that be, ever led to true liberation and true equity. Let’s think back to slavery. Like most things in American history the pain of black suffering has been watered down. The savior, freedom, and abolishment of slavery has been boiled down to an old white man. When I think back from my High School Civics class. Who was the one credited for ultimately freeing the slaves? It was Abraham Lincoln. You may say that he did because he had the power to free them. While that may be true in a sense, that power ultimately led him nowhere but a civil war.
Some of us are aware of Harriet Tubman. An amazing woman who risked her freedom countless and countless times to free the slaves. We rarely here about Harriet Jacobs, we rarely hear about the slave revolts, we rarely hear about the slaves who freed themselves. Were they working within the system? Did they work within the system that literally killed them every single day?
Well, you may say, it was different back then. Well yes, that is true. But even if you made your way from the field to the house, you were still a nigger. I say this because no matter how respectable, how presentable, how much schooling you have. At the end of the day the first thing people notice, if you are black, is that you are black. So working within the system did not work during slavery and that is relevant to where we are now.
Where did the abolishment of slavery lead us? It led to lynching’s, Jim Crow segregation and the condemnation of blackness. Let me talk about The Condemnation of Blackness. The Condemnation of Blackness is a book written by Khalil Gibran Muhammed, this book examines how blackness became deviant by default. How black people were the first group of people to ever be studied and how that reinforced racism and ideals, in not only the South but the North as well. Whether it be studying Jesse Owens, for the “extra” muscle in his leg, the cranium studies, or various forms of ethnomethodologically black people were studied. This led to the enforcement of Jim Crow Segregation.
Jim Crow segregation was de jure. De jure segregation is segregation that is sanctioned by law. This means separates water fountains, separate but equal, denying black folks the G.I. bill, and other forms of segregation, discrimination, and racism that were legal. Years and years of this, is what ultimately led to the civil rights movement. But did they work within the system to achieve liberation?
For me that answer is no, most of what they did was considered illegal. Though the laws were unjust they were legal. Most of what civil rights activist did was considered illegal. No matter how unjust the laws were, you can’t work within in the system, if you are breaking the laws that hold it up. By breaking the law they couldn’t have been working within the system. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and various other civil rights protections signed into law. But did this make black people more safe? Did this make black people more free?
What this ultimately led up to was de facto segregation. This is racial segregation, that happens “by fact” rather than by legal requirement. After the civil rights movement, we move into a state of de facto racism, segregation, and discrimination. Whether it be for black people wearing their hair in braids, locs, twists, or other forms of natural hair and getting fired or reprimanded for it. Refer to the hotel firings of many different black women for wearing their hair natural in the 1980s. It was the implementation of the war on drugs which was started by Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Which in turn created some of the largest law enforcement agencies that still stand today, like the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Why is this important? Because it leads us to the carceral state in which we live. It’s the war on drugs of the 1980s and the “crack” epidemic, the racialization, and criminilazation of marijuana. Which demonized a whole community of people. They achieved this by showing images of black people getting their doors kicked in from drug raids. Black babies being born addicted to crack, and being born premature, and predicting the troubles their lives would hold. It was the questioning of black mothers being the sole responsibility for the black community and all its failings. It was a creation of the “welfare queen”, which still holds true today. It was the five grams of crack cocaine being a 5-year minimum sentence versus 500 grams of powder cocaine for the same amount of time.
You might be thinking well Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were conservatives and we know now that they are racist. The thing about it is, it is not conservatism that creates this chaos that is white supremacy. It is the white liberal who holds the glue of white supremacy together, by disguising their racism. Naomi Murakawa’s, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, examines the very myth that our prison system and mass incarceration was created and reinforced by only conservatives. It examines the role of progressives, democrats and liberals parts in creating our current police state. They were the one’s who built this notion of colorblindness. Which included sentencing guidelines, mandatory minimums, and coded language under the guise that it would be cut and dry and give judges less discretion. Thus reducing bias. Every part of our legal system disproportionately affects black folks negatively. Whether it be the ones behind the bars or the ones getting killed by the state. Murakawa goes on to explain how the Clinton Administration is highly responsible for mass incarceration as we know it today.
Okay, so why is all this important to understanding the Audre Lorde quote stated at the beginning? This is to point out that even when we are given what seems like freedom. For example, affirmative action, civil rights act, voting rights act. It is still put there in place to keep us down. This little bit of evidentiary explanation is to get you to understand how black people have never been free and if we have it was for 5 minutes.
Where did mass incarceration, mandatory minimums, and coded language lead us? It leads us to the present day. We are still not free. We are still not close to being free. It is true I am not physically shackled by chains. However, so many black people are in prison shackled and being forced to work for free in abhorrent conditions.
Yes, I can sit in a class with a “diverse” group of students. However, schools are still funded through property taxes, which disenfranchises poor black students. Because the quality of your education is based on the privileges and disadvantages that are mostly beyond control. Black kids are not being sent to time out, detention, or suspended. They are arresting six year olds and putting them in the system earlier and earlier.
We are still being lynched and they are still gathering around to watch us die. It’s not ropes, trees, and postcards anymore. It’s state sanctioned violence, a video recorder, and social media. We are still getting killed without justice. Emmet Till was beat to death and his murderers got off. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin and the many more people who have also gotten murdered with no justice.
We still don’t have a right to defend ourselves or our bodies. Marissa Alexander for firing a warning shot to escape abuse. The New Jersey 4 for defending themselves from a vicious and brutal homophobic attack. To then get attacked for their race, their gender and their sexuality. Cece McDonald defending her life from a transphobic attack. The countless other black people who are imprisoned or dead for defending not only their bodies but their right to exist without fear and without violence.
Look at it this way, the house is white supremacy and the tools that perpetuate it and keep it up are white privilege. So tell me, as a black queer femme, how can I use the tools of white privilege. I can never benefit from white privilege, because I am not white. I can use the few privileges that I have to bring about change temporarily but then ultimately they will never work long term. When has there ever been true equity and liberation for black folks? Because I cannot think of one single time. If our legs are free, then they shackle our arms. If our arms get free, then they shackle our legs. We have always been chained.
The election and 8-year presidency of President Obama does not erase that. Unless all of us are free, then none of us can be free. I will never free myself without freeing everyone else. This means everyone; all black people. Sex workers, poor people, disabled, homeless, drug addicts, incarcerated, educated, conservative, innocent, or guilty. But this liberation will never, has never, and can never be achieved by working in systems of white supremacy. You cannot reform something that was created to be violent. That would only be making the violence a little less violent, but it would still be violence. Unless the system is dismantled, destroyed, and rebuilt; I can never be free. So I ask this again, to all the people who think that liberation can be achieved through the systems that oppress us. How can that be achieved and if it’s never been achieved before, why can it be achieved now?
The First Civil Right – Naomi Murakawa
The Condemnation of Blackness – Khalil Gibran Muhammed
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
Lockdown America – Christian Parenti
Arrested Justice – Beth E. Richie
Queer Injustice- Andrea J Ritchie, Joey L. Mogul, and Kay Whitlock
The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House – Audre Lorde.
When Black Hair is Against the Rules – New York Times 2014
Police handcuff six-year old – CNN 2012