Dismantling the “Master’s House”: Audre Lorde in Conversation with Critical Race Theory and Vulnerability Theory Restricted; Files Only

Ghura, Sonia (Spring 2018)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/xs55mc12w?locale=en
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Abstract

Audre Lorde was a mid to late 20th-century American poet, essayist, and activist. Identifying as a black lesbian feminist, Lorde was strongly dedicated to advocating for her identities, their associated identity groups, and the social justice movements that they supported. She spent much of her life conceptualizing identitarian harms that marginalized people face, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Thus, Lorde has been credited with helping to create the intellectual climate out of which a contemporary legal theory known as critical race theory was born. Critical race theory examines the dynamics between race and power, rejecting the liberalism at the core of U.S. law, policy, and society. 

While most of Lorde’s writing represents her dedication to marginalized identities, I argue that her reflections on cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 1978 and passed away from in 1992, represent not just a heavy focus on identities and identitarian harms, but also a significant focus on institutions, especially healthcare entities, and their specific methods of harm causation. Better suited than critical race theory to analyzing Lorde’s focus on institutional harms is another contemporary legal theory that rejects liberalism, vulnerability theory. Vulnerability theory conceptualizes how all people, as embodied creatures, are vulnerable to harm. Vulnerability theory notes that people are especially susceptible to institutionalized harms, due to lifelong reliance on institutions for resources and care. In Lorde’s writing on cancer, one can see that institutional harms both overlap with, and exist separately from, identity-based harms. While institutions often cause specific kinds of marginalized identity-based harms, they also can and do harm people in general, even those with conspicuous privilege, due to the universality of human vulnerability. 

Previous scholarship in a diverse array of fields has begun the task of tracing the linkages between Lorde’s writing, particularly her essays, and critical race theory principles. I seek to build on this past work in my project. I also seek to begin filling a gap in scholarship by putting Lorde’s writing on healthcare into conversation with vulnerability theory, which, to my knowledge, has not yet been done.  

Table of Contents

Introduction……………………………………………………………………………………….1

Chapter 1

Eschewing the “Master’s Tools”: Critical Race Theory and Vulnerability Theory Propose Alternatives to Liberalism……………………………………………………………………...7

Chapter 2

“Sister Outsider”: Identitarian Focus in Lorde’s Non-Cancer Writing………………............….26

Chapter 3

“A Burst of Light”: Identitarian and Institutional Focuses in Lorde’s Writing on Cancer…………………………………………………………………………………................45

Conclusion………………………………………………………………………….....................62

Works Cited…………………………………………………………………………...................67

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