By Lucy Rykers


Theory is never produced in isolation, but exists within a broader corpus of knowledge from a multiplicity of social locations and perspectives. In assessing the relevance of Audre Lorde’s theory of difference, I draw upon Shireen Roshanravan’s conceptualisation of plurilogue to offer a meta-methodological tool for positioning Lorde’s work in relation to, and in coalition with, more contemporary works from women of colour: Maria Lugones and Chandra Mohanty. I discuss Lorde’s theory of difference as providing an analytical framework for understanding inequality. I then elaborate and expand upon her understanding through the works of Mohanty and Lugones to build a more comprehensive and complex understanding of interwoven global systems of oppression. Next, I reflect upon the potential for Lorde’s theory for creating possibilities for human relations within equality based on new understandings of difference. Again, I enhance Lorde’s resistance strategies through connecting them to the decolonial feminist frameworks offered by Mohanty and Lugones. As such, I argue that by situating Lorde’s theory of difference within a plurilogue with Lugones and Mohanty, her work is illuminated as connected and relevant within a coalition of theory from women of colour. Such a coalition of thought continues to offer the way forward in terms of epistemic disobedience and critical theory with emancipatory imperatives and functions.

Plurilogue and Coalition

In engaging ‘Women of Colour’ (WOC) politics to theorise strategies for dismantling the compounding gendered and racial oppression of global capitalism and colonialism, I draw upon Roshanravan’s notion of plurilogue. [1] According to Roshanravan, this is a “meta-methodological device for clarifying and amplifying the relational differences among WOC methods.” [2] Engaging a plurilogue resists the homogenisation of WOC theorising that often occurs within scholarship by offering a non-hierarchical, multi-voiced heterogeneity of different yet interconnected positions, theories and methodologies. Roshanravan argues this enacts epistemic disobedience by de-linking knowledge production from a Eurocentric masculinist canon and providing a platform for forming a coalition of WOC’s decolonial resistance strategies. [3] In this essay, I engage Lorde, Mohanty and Lugones in a plurilogue for two reasons. Firstly, to enact epistemic disobedience through rejecting the reductive and homogenising tendency to take any one women of colour’s theory as ‘universal’; and secondly, to enhance each scholar’s decolonising feminist strategies through clarifying their relational differences. Because their works are grounded in their own situated and specific “geo- and body-politics of knowledge,” Lorde, Mohanty and Lugones each bring unique theories and epistemologies on the issue of difference in constructing and maintaining systems of inequality. [4] In this way, I hope to inspire the very same possibilities for coalition based on an understanding of difference that constitutes the essence of Lorde’s work; a testament to the continued relevance of Lorde’s work when modelled within a plurilogue.

 Lorde’s Theory of Difference: An Analytic Framework

Lorde describes herself as a “Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two” who has grown up in the United States.[5] Her theory of difference provides an analytical framework for understanding structural inequality as theorised from this subjective social position. According to Lorde, unequal human relations are configured through a capitalist system that uses “institutionalised rejection of difference” along lines of race, gender, sexuality and age as a normative mechanism to create, justify and maintain unequal distribution of power and capital.[6] In this way, Lorde writes, “we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.”[7] Rather, individuals are taught to respond to difference in one of three ways: ignore, copy (if it is dominant) or destroy (if it is subordinate). [8] These existing normative frameworks for understanding human difference are thus underpinned by one of two logics that lead to distorted human relations:

  1. A binary logic, which defines humans within a hierarchy and in opposition to each other, and where human difference is read as human deviance; and
  2. A homogenising logic, which ignores important differences, claiming they are non-existent. [9]

Both of these logics serve to “misname and misuse” differences. [10] The first does this in its ability to ‘other’ and dehumanise groups of people, whereby classism, sexism, ageism, racism and hetero-sexism sustain the belief in the natural superiority of one group over the other. These differences are constructed as insurmountable and naturalised, consequently acting as the mechanism and justification for domination and inequality. The latter does so by imposing the pretence of universal norms of experience that are reductive and poses an equally dangerous impediment to women’s coalition. For instance, Lorde points out that there are important discrepancies in struggles facing black lesbian woman compared to the experiences of heterosexual white women. Unlike white women, black lesbian women that are “caught between the racism of white women and the homophobia of [our] sisters.” [11] However, when these differences are ignored and subsumed into false calls for ‘sisterhood’, Lorde argues women rob each other of their unique insights and creative energies, preventing the mobilisation of women’s shared power. [12]

Mohanty writes from the locus of having experienced growing up in a post-independence India, wherein she had “an acute awareness of the borders, boundaries, and traces of British colonialism.” [13] As a result, while she draws upon similar understandings of binary, homogenising logics as Lorde, she locates her theory within a global scope, specifically focusing on the material and ideological exploitation of third world women (TWW). She consequently extends understandings of how difference is used to define and delimit TWW for the service of Eurocentric global capitalist interests through “the interwoven processes of sexism, racism, misogyny, and hetero-sexism… in conjunction with the regressive politics of ethnic nationalism and capitalist consumerism.” [14] In particular, Mohanty emphasises the centrality of heteropatriarchy as an institution—reinforced by colonial and gendered ideologies—in naturalising the exploitation and position of TWW in performing unskilled or little-no wage labour. Mohanty terms this the ‘Third World Difference’. Produced by a Eurocentric gaze, the Third World Difference constructs TWW in opposition and as naturally inferior to western women. [15] Not only does this reinforce assumptions about western women’s secularity and liberation at the expense of TWW, but it also acts to “homogeniz[e] and systematiz[e] the experiences of difference groups of women… [and] erases all marginal and resistant modes and experiences.” [16] Mohanty’s theory thus expands on Lorde’s theory of difference by providing a transnational, cross-cultural map for tracing commonalities of experience of historicised exploitation amongst TWW that places primacy on the material effects of inequality.

Lugones further clarifies how understandings of raced and gendered differences are mobilised by colonial regimes to sustain global inequality.[17] She writes from the position within a US Latino/a community in which “she experiences the silencing of her sexual subjectivity” as a result of imposed heteropatriarchal and colonial logics. [18] Subsequently, her theory is also rooted in an understanding of the complex interaction of gendering, racializing and economic systems within a global capitalist regime. Her ‘coloniality of gender’ illuminates how gendered relations are mapped onto colonial relations with “the attempt to turn the colonized into less than human beings.” [19] Echoes of Lorde’s theory of difference are evident throughout, especially in Lugones writing on ‘colonial difference’. According to Lugones, this relies on the collusion of gendered and racial binary logics that work within coloniality to uphold Indigenous peoples as ‘naturally inferior’ and ‘uncivilised’ in opposition to European subjects. [20] Here, hierarchical dichotomies and categorical logic organise people into “atomic, homogenous, separable categories” that sustain a world order which “disallows all humanity, all possibility of understanding, all possibility of human communication.” [21]

Echoing both Lorde and Mohanty, Lugones writes that the effects of such an oppressive system is occlusion of resistant ways of thinking about one’s self that is outside the binary embedded within ‘colonial difference’. The imaginings of colonised peoples are reduced to “animals, to inferiors by nature, in a schizoid understanding of reality that dichotomizes the human from nature, the human from the non-human.” [22] Such a system makes no room for coming to know oneself as beyond a ‘fractured locus’ in which externally imposed definitions of the self as colonized and inferior are in tension with other ways of knowing oneself. [23] Lugones’ theory offers an expansion and clarification of Lorde’s understandings of how differences, false dichotomies and categorical logic are mobilised to create and justify unequal power relations. Both Lugones and Mohanty illuminate a global capitalist system that continues to materially exploit TWW and colonized peoples.

Lorde’s Theory of Difference: Strategies of Resistance

Another aspect of Lorde’s theory of difference is its transformative potential. It offers new frameworks for human relations to be configured equally rather than in hierarchical opposition. According to Lorde, this requires a complete overhaul of the binary logics and existing normative frameworks of viewing difference, for these only offer “old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression.” [24] Rather, a reconfigured and just theory of difference is contingent upon recognition of important differences, rather than either a dismissal or fear of them. The differences between women should no longer be conceived as divisive or irrelevant, but “a springboard for creative change”.[25] Lorde locates this possibility for new human relations in subjects’ abilities to conceive of themselves and others within a non-hierarchical understanding of difference. In this way, self-scrutiny and self-reflexivity are integral aspects of Lorde’s call to action. She contends that women are only able to harness their individual and joint collective power and creative energies if they reject externally imposed definitions of themselves and begin to conceive of themselves in relation with others. [26] Only when the power structures and logics orientated by reducing complex human beings to stereotypes based on gendered, classed, raced, or aged differences are challenged, can subjects come to “enrich our visions and our joint struggles” and relate to each other as human equals. [27]

Although Lorde acknowledges that fear of difference is both constitutive of, and constituted by, a capitalist system, she does not explicitly identify strategies for resisting capitalist processes, especially in terms of a transnational coalition. Mohanty’s notion of an ‘antiracist feminist framework’ provides strategies for TWW to resist global, colonial capitalism and thus offers a useful additive to Lorde’s theory. [28] Mohanty’s framework premises resistance on solidarity and anti-capitalist critique. To foster solidarity, she argues for a conception of community based on terms of mutuality, accountability and recognition of common interests. According to Mohanty, this can be achieved through means also espoused by Lorde: reorienting the language of difference from its current configuration as either a threat or a homogenising ‘sisterhood.’ [29] Rather, women’s differences should “be acknowledged and respected, not erased in the building of alliances.” [30] However, crucially, this must also be paired with anti-capitalist critique. Being attentive to how the specific operations of global capitalism are bound up with ideological and cultural processes of gendering and racialisation is the only way to ensure that TWW can build a coalition focused on “the multiple effects of globalisation and on building solidarities.” [31]

Mohanty’s framework provides a platform for coalitional organisation amongst TWW, who already have self-identified social, political and material interests. However, as Roshanravan identifies, this strategy might exclude sub-alternised communities where “deep investments in dominant ideologies block an awareness of issue-based common interests”. [32] In this way, Lugones’ theory of decolonial feminism, if conceived as an extension of Lorde’s theory of difference, provides a way in which motivations for coalition can be fostered.

A framework of ‘decolonial feminism’ offers new logics with which to challenge and resist the Eurocentric, capital-driven, dichotomous logics that underpin ‘colonial difference’. [33] Like Lorde, Lugones asserts that, in order to resist the gendered and racial dichotomies that categorise subjects into human/non-human, individual subjects must imagine themselves outsidewhat the hegemon makes us be.” [34] However, while Lorde speaks to the necessity of conceiving oneself and others beyond imposed definitions, Lugones goes further to offer a starting point for how subjects can reimagine themselves within communities. She locates this within the urgent need for coalitional learning; to de-naturalise colonial difference and begin to ‘dwell’ with others, to learn “creative ways of thinking, behaving, and relating that are antithetical to the logic of capital.” [35] Lugones asserts that this process involves subjects coming to “know each other as selves that are thick, in relation, in alternative socialities, and grounded in tense, creative inhabitations.” [36] In other words, community resistance can be fostered through collective imaginings of the self and self-in-relation-to-others that do not reproduce the violent categorisation of humans within binary understandings of difference. Only then, will a plurality of non-hierarchical resistant meanings and identities become a possibility, and dichotomising logics and fears of difference can be dismantled. Only then, is it possible to construct “a new feminist geopolitics of knowing and loving.” [37]

~

Lorde’s theory of difference remains relevant in 2018 when situated within the broader political and theoretical frameworks of an array of women of colour scholars. I draw upon Roshanravan’s notion of plurilogue as a meta-methodological device to link, clarify and amplify the relationality between Lorde’s theory of difference and more contemporary theories of feminist decoloniality offered by scholars Maria Lugones and Chandra Mohanty. Both the analytic framework and emancipatory resistant strategies that are offered by Lorde’s theory of difference are expanded and enhanced by Mohanty’s antiracist feminist framework and Lugones’ decolonial feminism. While their differences are reflective of each theorist’s own geo- and body-politics of knowledge, their commonalities speak to the space for solidarity and collective coalition amongst women of colour theorists. Theory when considered as a plurilogue—with the past, present and future in mind—ensures the collective strength of such a corpus of knowledge by encompassing a multiplicity of theories of knowledge that enhance their overall analytic power without reducing them to a homogenised call for ‘sisterhood’.


Lucy Rykers is a self-identified jack-of-all-trades whose multidisciplinary pursuit in areas of sociology, gender studies, history, politics and psychology equips her to understand an increasingly complex world with a unique blend of intellectual lenses. When she’s not struggling to comprehend and pin down the immensity of the world’s problems in essay format, you can find her exploring what it means to be human through film, music, photography, acro-yoga, and a whole lot more YouTube than is probably healthy.


Endnotes

[1] Shireen Roshanravan, “Motivating Coalition: Women of Color and Epistemic Disobedience,” Hypatia 29, no. 1 (2014).

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lorde, Audrey, “Age, race, class, and sex: women redefining difference,” The Audre Lorde compendium: Essays, speeches and journals (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996), 114.

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 122.

[9] Ibid., 115–116.

[10] Ibid., 115.

[11] Ibid., 122.

[12] Ibid., 116–117.

[13] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (London: Duke University Press, 2003), 1.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 40–41.

[17] Maria Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism,” Hypatia 25, no. 4 (2010).

[18] Roshanravan, “Motivating Coalition,” 46.

[19] Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism,” 745.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 724–751.

[22] Ibid., 751.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Lorde, “Age, race, class, and sex,” 123.

[25] Ibid., 115.

[26] Ibid., 120.

[27] Ibid., 122.

[28] Mohanty, Feminism Without Borders.

[29] Ibid., 193

[30] Ibid., 7.

[31] Ibid., 12.

[32] Roshanravan, “Motivating Coalition,” 52.

[33] Lugones, “Toward a Decolonial Feminism.”

[34] Ibid., 746.

[35] Ibid., 754.

[36] Ibid., 748.

[37] Ibid., 756.


Works Cited

Lorde, Audrey. “Age, race, class, and sex: women redefining difference.” The Audre Lorde compendium: Essays, speeches and journals. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

Lugones, Maria. “Toward a Decolonial Feminism.” Hypatia 25, no. 4 (2010): 742-759.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Roshanravan, Shireen. “Motivating Coalition: Women of Color and Epistemic Disobedience.” Hypatia 29, no. 1 (2014): 41-58.


Featured image by Elsa Dorfman via Wikipedia Commons

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