On May 6, 1979, Audre Lorde wrote a letter to Mary Daly to open a necessary dialogue on the relationship between black women and white women, race and gender. I turn to this letter to try to make sense of the profound frustration and sadness that accompanies a history-making moment in U.S. history, the campaign between Obama and Clinton. It is a sadness that is, I feel, shared by anti-racist feminists. We feel ourselves torn, not about which candidate to support, but about how race and sex have been used to score expensive points, about how race and sex, two categories that, only recently, have learned to speak with and not past each other, now seem to be talking at each other.
This letter has been delayed because of my grave reluctance to reach out to you, for what I want us to chew upon here is neither easy nor simple. The history of white women who are unable to hear [b]lack women’s words, or to maintain dialogue with us, is long and discouraging. But for me to assume that you will not hear me represents not only history, perhaps, but an old way of relating, sometimes protective and sometimes dysfunctional, which we, as women shaping our future, are in the process of shattering and passing beyond, I hope.*
Unable to write anything of my own, I have turned to Lorde’s wisdom, her ability to forge alliances through critique, to give some voice to what remains inchoate in my own thinking. As Lorde knew so well, the process of turning feeling into thought and action can be difficult, if not impossible.
As outsiders, we need each other for support and connection and all the other necessities of living on the borders. But in order to come together we must recognize one another. Yet, I feel that since you have so completely un-recognized me, perhaps I have been in error concerning you and no longer recognize you.
In this renewed period of la migra, living on the borders makes it dangerous to misrecognize each other. There’s a skill to reading tracks and shadows, distinguishing the trackers from the tracked. And the patterns we fail to recognize may be those that save us. Living on the borders, we read faces and bodies, scents and shadows. And the danger of forgetting what we have learned is a risk we dare not take.
But we also live in history and the tracks and faces we once knew may no longer suffice. Our skills in shadow-reading become rusty. We risk inhabiting past habits. Those formed before our fragile alliances jostle with those of our fragile alliances.
It is tempting to misrecognize each other, to hear every rustling on the borders as a threat.
This letter attempts to break a silence which I had imposed upon myself . . . I had decided never again to speak to white women about racism. I felt it was wasted energy because of destructive guilt and defensiveness, and because whatever I had to say might better be said by white women to one another at far less emotional cost to the speaker, and probably with a better hearing. But I would like not to destroy you in my consciousness, not to have to.
I invoke this letter to say that the fissure between race and gender is not new but also that attempts at rapprochement are similarly not new. We have been speaking with, at, and to each other for a long time, and we have heard each other, often with great pain, recognizing our mutual misrecognition. I invoke this letter to note the shame of self-revelation. It is easier to be angry and resentful, to be silent and aggressive, than to admit one’s pain. Against a political culture that claims admissions of pain are simply a mode of “playing cards,” needless self-victimization, I insist on the incredible difficulty of admitting one’s vulnerability. I invoke this letter as a model of what we can do if we dare to read shadows, if we dare to share the borderlands.
I need this history to mediate the present, to refuse the invitation to privilege race or gender. I need Audre Lorde to remind me that this choice is impossible, confounding even Solomon’s wisdom. But I also need this history to modulate my own simmering, split resentments: resentment against sexism and against racism, resentment against those who exploit and deploy both.
I need this history so I can step back, take a breath, recognize what is at stake.
To say that I am deeply saddened does not mean that I am resigned, for that would be to give in to la migra, to give up the borders and the borderlands. Like Geraldine Ferraro, I believe we need to study how racism and sexism have marked this election process, we need to translate feeling into thought and action, modulated by reflection. Most crucially, we need to recognize that we need each other.
* Audre Lorde, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press Feminist Press, 1984) 66-71.