How is difference discussed in Sister Outsider?

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Audre Lorde views difference as a positive force for social change in Sister Outsider

Lorde discusses difference most strikingly in "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference." She says that difference has often been seen as a source of domination and then claims that that view is wrong. To Lorde, differences are a positive thing and should be acknowledged. She believes that accepting difference can bring about positive social change.

Lorde begins by explaining that

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.

She goes on to explain that those differences are charged. They're traditionally used to dehumanize and oppress people. Lorde speaks from her perspective as a lesbian, black woman, feminist, and socialist—characteristics that she says usually mark her as other, deviant, or wrong. Those groups, she asserts, are often required to be the ones willing to bridge the gap and help the oppressors understand them better. She says:

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.

Lorde explains that this creation of subordinate groups of people is the result of the institutionalized rejection of difference—which is necessary for the profit economy that needs surplus groups of people. She says it has programmed people to respond to difference with fear and loathing. People react to this by ignoring it, destroying it, or imitating it if we think the difference is dominant.

She says the refusal to recognize differences is what separates people. Lorde explains that this refusal stops us from looking at the differences, how they distort our perception, and how they affect our behavior. She says, for example, that "unacknowledged class differences rob women of each other's energy and creative insight." When a women's magazine decided to publish only prose and reject poetry, Lorde says it showed their lack of understanding. It takes more time to write prose. Poetry, she explains, takes less paper, time, and materials. It's the voice of the poor working class.

Ultimately, Lorde believes that if people acknowledged and celebrated difference, it would be a step toward mobilizing resources and harnessing the energy that real change takes. She says, "Change means growth, and growth can be painful." But it's worth the work it takes. Accepting difference would allow people to better see the problems that face all groups. When difference is acknowledged, understood, and accepted, it benefits all members of society and helps create social change.

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