There is No Hierarchy of Freedom and Liberty: Another Gift from Audre Lorde

By Christian Matheis (November 14, 2016)



In the 19th and 20th century, when the U.S. was formally, legally segregated under Jim Crow laws, regressives cried “freedom! liberty!” in order to paint a false moral picture of their ill-gotten, mean-spirited grip on political and economic power. When activists responded with efforts to desegregate, those who opposed civil rights often did so with the same rhetoric of “freedom! liberty!” Today, when oppressed communities and their allies make calls for integration, many of which have not yet succeeded, they find the same opposition voiced with cries of “freedom! liberty!” Regressives would have people believe a falsehood: that liberatory movements to provide disenfranchised, oppressed groups with fair, equal shares in society compromise freedom and liberty.

Who knows what we would do without Audre Lorde’s voice reminding us that there is no hierarchy of oppression. In the short essay published in 1983, Lorde put to words what many caretakers, activists, and scholars already deeply felt and clearly understood: we must not allow identity politics, created and maintained in oppressive institutional and cultural systems, to turn people against one another through the belief that some forms oppression outrank others.[1] On the contrary, we should feel suspicious whenever we encounter the idea that suffering oppression in one way or another somehow causes worse harms than suffering oppression at all. That is, no particular form of oppression causes any more or less suffering than another form, despite how easily we might feel otherwise. No, Lorde argues, people cannot cut one another or themselves up in this way. None of us can live regardless of some aspect of ourselves. People are whole, integrated and beautifully complex inclusive of vast characteristics and expressions. Moreover, Lorde’s work illustrates that, to challenge oppression, we need not fully understand one another before choosing to help liberate one another. We can seem quite mysterious and misunderstood to each other while at the same time choosing to act for liberation.

Racism does not cause harms in any better or worse ways than sexism and heterosexism. Sexism does not do anything more or less brutal than racism and heterosexism. Heterosexism does not result in any more deeply felt pains than racism and sexism. Even as these forms of oppression differ, they stem from devaluation of human dignity. Sometimes, specific incidents of each involve more or less brutality, and at times we may too easily to believe in hierarchies of oppression, yet we cannot let these false rankings of suffering fool us.

One might wonder whether the two ideas – freedom and liberty – also smuggle something troubling along the way. Or, perhaps, there exists no fundamental flaw within ideas of liberty and freedom except when different people put them into hierarchies, benefitting themselves at the expense of others.

I was born white, relatively able-bodied, cisgender, and male. I grew up speaking English and I have never personally faced extensive poverty. I try to act as the most humane person I can in order to live the life into which I was born, a life I did not earn, and the life I have since earned. When I can, I help facilitate relationships, a labor of making one another, to foster a livable future, feasible for this earth and for my loved ones. As a white, queer, feminist, anarchist, scholar, sometimes I find myself part of some group which the majority defines as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.” However, I also benefit from advantages I did not earn and as a result I often gain unfairly granted opportunities. Moreover, people often treat me as if I am just plain “right.”

Even though people sometimes gain certain rewards for acting as if some forms of oppression are worse than others, such as a small financial gain or a change in civil rights, these often amount to hypnotic carrots dangled before us. The paltry rewards for turning on another can, for a time, seem to give me or you or us an edge over them or those people, but horizontal hostility and internalized oppression (terms I borrow from Suzanne Pharr) can only keep us working against one another.[2] Following after these petty rewards results in a particular kind of self-harm and community-harm – a persistent degradation of dignifying relationships.

At the same time, if we know the game is rigged, we can decipher the feasibility of fostering liberatory coalitions; we can find another key to understanding oppression and solidarity by noticing a message implied in the details of Lorde’s original gift. If there is no hierarchy of oppression, then there is also no hierarchy of liberty and freedom.

Lorde gave us at least two gifts in what initially may read as only one: there is no hierarchy of oppression because all oppression stems from the devaluation of human life. Likewise, no hierarchy of freedom and liberty can endure if freedom and liberty are the affirmation of human life. Each one of these ideas follows from the other.

It might be a bad idea for a white guy from Texas to emend Lorde’s writing. Some say that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Some say it goes “against the rules” to alter what someone else wrote and, in doing so, to put words to someone else’s name without permission. Maybe it breaks some taboo to act as a heretic by revising sacred texts. Sometimes, heresy honors the sacred notions more than devout preservation of the original words as if one way of writing a story counts as the only way. I do not think texts require us to treat the ideas too dogmatically, even if it risks some disrespect. In what follows, I have changed Lorde’s original essay to reveal the complementary notions that I think her original explanation entails. I think that what follows would have to hold true given the original version Lorde wrote. I would like to think that Lorde would forgive me for the things that I do not get quite right.

The phrases marked in italics have been revised to illuminate the underlying idea that there is no hierarchy of freedom and equality, otherwise there is no such thing as freedom and equality for anyone.


“There Is No Hierarchy of Freedom and Liberty”

Inspired by Audre Lorde

I was born Black, and a woman. I am trying to become the strongest person I can become to live the life I have been given and to help effect change toward a liveable future for this earth and for my children. As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain “wrong.”

From my membership in all of these groups I have learned that liberty and freedom and the tolerance of difference come in all shapes and sexes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of liberation and freedom. I have learned that sex equality (a belief in the inherent fairness of each sex toward another and thereby everyone’s right to equality) and equality of sexualities (a belief in the inherent value of each pattern of loving respect in fairness as are all others and thereby everyone’s right to equality) both arise from the same source as racial justice – a belief in the inherent fairness of each race with respect toward all others and thereby everyone’s right to equality.

“Oh,” says a voice from the Black community, “but being Black is NORMAL!” Well, I and many Black people of my age can remember grimly the days when it didn’t used to be!

I simply do not believe that one aspect of myself can possibly profit from freedom and liberty any more or less than any other part of my identity can benefit from freedom and liberty. I know that my people necessarily profit from the freedom and equality of any other group which seeks the right to peaceful existence. In fact, we enhance ourselves by securing to all others what we have shed blood to obtain for our own children. And those children need to learn that they do not have to become like each other in the sense of giving up who they are in order to work together for a future they will all share.

The increasing freedom and equality for lesbians and gay men are only an introduction to the increasing freedom and liberty for all Black people, for wherever freedom and liberty manifests itself in this country, Black people are potential beneficiaries. And it is a standard of right-wing cynicism to discourage members of oppressed groups to act toward and in support of freedom and liberty for each other, and so long as we are divided because of our particular identities we cannot join together in effective political action. Yet so long as we are united because of our particular identities we can join together in effective political action.

Within the lesbian community I am Black, and within the Black community I am a lesbian. Any defense of Black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other Black women are part of the lesbian community. Any defense of lesbians and gays is a Black issue, because thousands of lesbians and gay men are Black. There is no hierarchy of freedom and liberty.

It is not accidental that the Family Protection Act, which is virulently anti-woman and anti-Black, is also anti-gay. As a Black person, I know who my allies are, and when the Ku Klux Klan goes to court in Detroit to try and force the Board of Education to remove books the Klan believes “hint at homosexuality,” then I know I cannot afford the luxury of advocating one form of freedom and liberty only. I cannot afford to believe that guarantees of fairness are the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to favor only me. And when they falsely appear to favor only me, it will not be long before they falsely appear to favor only you. But when they appear to favor me as much as they favor you, it will not be long before they appear to favor you as much as they favor me.

[1] Lorde, Audre. “There is No Hierarchy of Oppression.” From “Homophobia and Education” (New York: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1983).

[2] Pharr, Suzanne. 1996. In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation. Berkeley: Chardon Press.

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