Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Response to Audre Lorde's "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference"

Jessica Mason McFadden
WS 455 (Dr. West) - WIU
Reading Response 4
November 8th 2005

Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference

Fear of differences among college students is accompanied by insensitivity to differences. At each of the four colleges that I have attended, students have reacted to difference with fear and insensitivity. I have heard female students of varying ethnicities and classes verbally attack behaviors that are different from those they are comfortable with. My experiences in college classes are evidence of a much larger pattern of fear of and insensitivity to differences.

In a Women’s Studies course at the University at Buffalo (“Gender in the Custodial State”), students verbally attacked women for wearing tight shirts, sex-workers for prostituting themselves, female prisoners for wanting to share holidays with their children, and parents for not beating their children into submission. I supported the groups who were attacked—sometimes defending their positions, sometimes posing questions to the attackers, and sometimes just shaking my head and holding in all of my frustrations. The students were so quick to criticize different groups because they weren’t listening to all of the information.

Listening isn’t easy; it requires that humans embrace difference. It is important that people strive for awareness and sensitivity. While I try to be aware of and sensitive to difference, I am not perfect. I am an advocate for difference itself, but I am not an advocate for every behavior that is different from my own. I fear high risk differences, those differences that threaten my or others’ well-beings.

Sadomasochism is an example of a unique practice that I am not comfortable with because I am not comfortable with violence and pain. I will never embrace violence and I may not even listen to arguments in support of violence. I believe that my fear of violence isn’t the same as someone else’s fear of interracial marriage. I have observed violence and I believe that it is always harmful. I have also observed interracial relationships where there is love and respect, and I do not believe that there is anything harmful about two people of different races loving, having sex, or raising children together.

Fears toward differences are not always dangerous; but they become a problem when the fear overpowers rational thought. If humans reflect upon their fears, they may or may not change their minds about them. Reflection is an act of sensitivity that requires questioning, comparing different opinions, and justifying beliefs with rational arguments. Unfortunately, humans often avoid difference because their fears inhibit their sensitivities.

In “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” Audre Lorde theorizes about women’s roles in understanding and transforming societal perceptions of difference in human relationships. She exposes the use of difference in capitalist economies. In a profit economy, differences are ignored, copied or destroyed because the economy values dichotomous roles—the dominant party and the submissive party (339). Profit economies challenge unity. Instead of supporting the view that humans who are different from each other can still be unified as a human family, profit economies separate humans because of their differences. Racial and sexual differences do not separate us, but racism and sexism do because they are predicated upon an imbalance of power.

Differences in age, race, class, and sex are misplaced into categories of good or bad, right or wrong, superior or inferior. Then those categories are named and accepted as positions of god and man, man and wife, lord and serf, master and servant, sergeant and soldier. Capitalism is parasitic because one person profits off of the financial disadvantage of another person. Humans use difference to preserve the capitalist economy by isolating individuals and groups through fear.

In a factory, a supervisor holds power over a worker’s job (financial gain) and, therefore, controls the workers life. A supervisor holds all the power because he controls the money. His position renders him powerful in many ways because of the high value of profit in a capitalist economy. The factory worker is rendered powerless because he or she has no control over the financial distribution. This may result in the workers being subjected to long hours, verbal or physical harassment, or poor working conditions. Lorde challenges the corruption of difference under the capitalist structure, claiming that it has destroyed our ability to relate as equals in the midst of our differences (339). Ignoring difference is ignoring humanness, a dangerous behavior that negatively impacts lifestyles. When we choose not to see other humans as they really are (whether they are similar or dissimilar), we are denying them their humanity.

Many humans are misled into ignoring difference. Those who are mistreated or unrecognized because of their differences feel the injustice, but may continue to ignore difference in others. An example of this pattern is the tendency of some European American women to generalize their experience as the experience of all women. When a European American woman purports to speak for all women, she ignores individual differences of race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality among women. Audre Lorde notes that when white women’s voices become the dominant voice of all women, women of color are either ignored or separated because of their differences. When women of color are ignored by white women, it is often because white women are hesitant to see women of color as women and different (340). If white women listen to women of color and pay attention to differences, both communities will redefine difference as real and unthreatening.

Lorde’s theory on difference is very important for men and women of various races, ethnicities, and classes to consider. Many humans ignore difference or avoid it if they can. To preserve sameness, they often assume critical spirits, criticizing foreign behaviors even if they have never encountered them before.

At Western Illinois University, the population is largely homogeneous so it is especially important for professors to encourage students to be reflective and conscious of their surroundings. Differences aren’t always visible or recognizable, so it is important that students strive to be sensitive to members of their community. My claims in this response are based on my personal experiences as a European American, lesbian, privileged, and multifaceted woman. My writing does not represent Audre Lorde’s theory; it represents my beliefs about and interpretations of her theory. My experiences with students’ powerful preference for sameness have led me to reevaluate my own behaviors and recognize differences.

I would like to help redefine difference, but I need to consider others’ ideas about how to do so. In Feminist Theory 455, we currently discuss our differences in relation to ideas presented by feminist theorists. Our discussions involve an exchange of ideas, requiring that we listen to each other. We are able to work through new ideas and challenge each other to consider diverse perspectives because the environment is one of support and compassion.

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