This quote of Audre Lorde’s is timeless, has been interpreted and re-interpreted countless times, and still pertains to the way we rebuild communities today. It may be a good time to revisit this penetrating truth, in light of the heightened awareness of the need to “dismantle the Master’s house”.
The Master’s tools, The Master’s house
We have been using the Master’s tools to build and rebuild communities of the United States and beyond, in the image of the Master’s needs. This fundamental truth and its legacy continues to unfold in ways most of us do not fully comprehend. The tools of a belief system of race and class oppression, gender and sexual oppression, and all the other power-generated means of separation, control, exploitation, and oppression have been used to build and rebuild communities over the centuries. Focusing in on racism, white supremacy and classism, these tools imprinted and evolved the genetics of this nation. These tools justified wiping out the Native American population, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, urban renewal, mass incarceration, and segregation as “normal” ways to build and rebuild communities of Black, Brown, and low-income peoples. Indeed even the current president of the United States acknowledged: “It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, in almost every institution of our lives, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it. Racism, we are not cured of it”. The nation’s slow and long-awaited acknowledgement of this truth is prodded by the recent heightened awareness of killing of Black lives: killing of 9 Black lives in Charleston, SC by a white teenager, police killing of Black lives in South Carolina, Maryland, Missouri,New York, Ohio, Chicago…the list goes on. The uprisings against such acts of violence, highlighted the intricate ways community disinvestment and abandonment, community fragmentation, police violence, and wealth and health inequities, interact as causes and effects and continue to create conditions prone to violence of all forms. Listening to residents in East and West Baltimore before and after the uprising confirmed the way the Master’s tools, driving the machine of structural racism, continue to perpetuate these conditions:
“When I worked on Monument a police was stopping a woman walking down the sidewalk with her dog. Back then, you couldn’t walk you dog on the side walk. He was yelling at her, calling her black B. Sheila Dixon was walking by, was on the City Council at that time. She said to the officer something about not talking to the woman like that; the officer said she should shut up and keep walking. Next thing you know, he called Sheila Dixon a black B and started calling her name, grabbed her, cuffed her, and had her sitting on the side walk. [Sheila Dixon went on to be Mayor of Baltimore]. Another time, I was on Jefferson street in the afternoon. This police got out the car and told everyone standing on the sidewalk, sitting on their stoops, to get into their houses because this was his street and nobody was allowed outside. I don’t know what to think about that…felt like this could be a german gestapo, know what I mean?”
“Yes [been harassed by police]. We’re just standing in front of the Chinese carry out…just waiting for our food…and the police come and tell us to move along. Move along?…we’re waiting for our food…thought the side walk was public property…we can’t stand on the corner in our own community? they want to pat us down…ask us if we have guns…we call it “SWB”…you know what that means? means “standing while black”…if you black you can’t stand on the corner…did you know that? Not the first time I been harassed or seen other people. Too many times to count… yes it breaks up our community…you know why? because we can’t just stand around and talk…they think we’re selling…we can’t even talk to each other…more than two of us and they scared…you know where this comes from? from slavery…when they saw two or more of us talking they thought we were trying to do something…since then they been scared…”
“Yes, of course [been harassed]. First time was 16. Since then I get harassed/ stopped at least once every year. This is all a system problem. What happen with Freddie Gray is not a one-time occurrence. Last time got harassed, was driving and pulled over, profiled. Some guys walked past and distracted the police. They just left me there, told me to go. Didn’t pull me over for anything. They have to meet that quota.
“police all about themselves. take money for themselves when they raid drug houses, take the drugs too. Then people get killed because drugs missing, money missing”
Our belief systems embed and nourish systems of structural racism and white supremacy, built institutions that maintain racial oppression in place and continues to perpetuate violence against our communities of color, more physical and brutally severe in our low income communities. These are the “houses of the Master” eerily reminiscent of the past times, times we like to think are gone. When we compare the neighborhoods that were redlined in Baltimore (Black neighborhoods characterized as not worthy of investment by banks, supported by the Federal Housing Administration) from the 1930’s and the neighborhood maps of current day Baltimore we see a consistent pattern of disinvestment, almost 100 years later. Many of these neighborhoods disinvested in the 1930‘s remain the neighborhoods with the highest amount of poverty, low educational attainment, highest rates of parole, lowest rates of employment, lowest life expectancy, high rates of infant death, highest amount of abandoned and vacant houses, lowest rates of homeownership (maps courtesy of Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance).
Many of the neighborhoods disinvested in the 1930‘s remain the “houses’ created by the Master’s tools. Those currently with moderate or majority White populations are also the result of the separation and resultant community investment using the tools of the Master: creating communities of inequity, in all aspects of life. Why? because we continue to use the Master’s tools to build and rebuild communities: communities of separation by race and class. Listening to the voices of residents:
“Get the people some jobs…people can’t find jobs…and jobs that pay good money.”
“gentrification cause police brutality…the brothers don’t have anywhere to go now, they hang out on the street corner and get harassed and arrested for that”
“Ain’t none [referring to changes in the neighborhood]. govt gonna do what they want to do not mater what. if they did, they would be done help people. Look at Johns Hopkins, buy up houses and kick them people all out. “
“Less police, more schools, better housing. we need jobs. how can you support your family without a job. No job, you get into trouble. Been clean for a long time now…the job keeps me clean. Got something to do everyday. Things for the kids to do. They get in trouble because they got nothing to do after school”
“t’s not the money, it’s who the money is going to. If the money goes to the same three benefactors, who do the same thing every year, nothing is gonna change. I call it a “pipeline”. They the ones in the pipeline for all the funds for all these things [policing, education, housing, workforce training, recreation, street repair] get allocated to the same ones. We have to allocate our funding more broadly. We need more community oversight. More than that, we need community based organizations in the community doing the work, not outside the community. The money need to come to the community and stay in the community.”
“They giving the police so much money but they not doing their job.Need money to clean up the streets. I love Baltimore, don’t want to go anywhere else. start with this house, they need to fix it. I rent, he’s a slumlord. but I have to try and fix it myself.”
“Took away the rec centers, day care so people ended up having to work two jobs for $8/hr. mothers have to work, so they become prostitutes, then they lock them up. get some jobs so we can live. then we won’t get locked up for living. Now want to stop foodstamps; keep the foodstamps going. are you being fair to people, or just trying to get over?…How come you won’t hire an ex-convict? why can’t give them a break? Ex-convicts have a lot of skills, some of them really smart. Can’t find a job…How bout those ones they falsely accuse, then 20 years later they say “oh sorry” you’re not guilty, and want to give them money. They lost 20 years, can’t make up for lost time, money can’t heal yourself.”
“Need jobs here…That Hopkins project, 2 people working over there on that new project. They talk a lot about giving people a chance, helping people in the hood. but what I see is they don’t hire people from here. EBDI doesn’t hire the local people. But they talk big…tell you you got a record…don’t help you cause you got a record? thought they suppose to help you even if you have a record, don’t call you back”
“Need housing, places for the kids to play…so they don’t keep doing the same things. see those kids over there? they bored on a Saturday afternoon.
when I was a kid we use to play over there, now there’s Johns Hopkins…now the kids they make up their own games, like “steal the smart phone game”…So they get creative, make up games like that, and other ones”
“Nothing changed in this community all the years I been here. Only thing change is the rent, it keeps going up and the management don’t tell you why just that the rent will go up in a month. If you can make it you stay, not you out. Need affordable housing and better landlords. People need to make sure landlords do right by us. Nobody watching them. but they watching us. Who gonna help us?
Need safe places for the kids to play so they don’t go join them gangs and run from school to house because parents don’t want them on the street corner. hard for kids these days. Lucky with mine, she just went to college, so proud of her.
Why change our tools, change our houses?
So what tools are we to use, to dismantle this “house” of oppression and separation, and build communities of equity? How do we as individuals and societies, use the tools at our disposal to rebuild communities in line with peace and justice? Perhaps what Ms. Lorde was leading us toward, was the need for us to re-interpret the use of the tools used by the Master to build communities of fear and hate. Perhaps her guidance was to reconsider not only the use of different tools, but the transformation of ourselves so we could re-interpret the use of the tools at our disposal-previously used to build “houses’ of separation, fear, and anger. Take the knife for example, it can be used to peel a ripe and delicious mango, to offer joy and satiate the taste buds. Or it can be used to cause harm. And so it is with any tool at our disposal. The use of construction labor, justly compensated can benefit those rebuilding communities-developers, corporations/universities/hospitals, other private and non-profit interests- and those doing the actual building if they receive a living wage. Just compensation for any type of work, can benefit those with the means to pay for the work being done and those doing the work. Building homes which are affordable to those with low incomes or subsidized incomes along with homes for the middle and market rate earners benefits everyone, not just those with the means to live where they choose. Health care access and benefit for everyone, regardless of race and class, not limited access for some and excessive access for the rich and majority white population moves us toward equitable health. The tools of community building and existence is at our disposal; unfortunately, based on our belief systems of separation of race and class, we have been using them to benefit one race and class of people resulting in accumulation of good health and wealth aggregated into communities of majority White and professional classes. The children and grandchildren of these groups-the supposed “creative class”- continue to benefit today, while the children of Black and Brown peoples, working class and low-income continue to be disenfranchised, individually and as communities, physically and mentally displaced. Changing our belief systems will be necessary to change the ways we use the tools of community building at our disposal.
Individual transformation, of the ways we perceive those different from us, is necessary. Why? Because we don’t only separate based on differences, we compare and judge, demonize, exploit and oppress using notions of inferiority and superiority. These are the tools of the oppressor, the Master. The stories we hold in our mind, the perceptions and thoughts passed on from our ancestors and kin folk, neighbors and friends, places of worship and education, employment and recreation, these are the fundamental tools, the building blocks of words and actions which justify our use of the physical and mental tools of economic violence, social violence, political violence, and health violence against the other. And these are the tools that lead to justifying the continued neglect and abandonment of communities of color and low income. This justification to demonize results in actions that build communities abandoned not only of physical resources, but abandoned of love, compassion, patience, understanding. This fear of the “other”, often unspoken, spins stories in our mind of the inferiority of Black people. As the White teenager in Charleston admits, even when the Black congregants of the church were kind in words and actions toward him, he had to do what he had been mentally trained to do: remove those who he was fearful of, the other, the “demons”. Such a mind was cultivated to believe these tapes and fear Black people; such a mind justified actions of violence. And it is such a mind, aggregated en mass as White Supremacy which built this country and continues to enact implicit and explicit bias against Black and Brown people, continuing the gap between the majority of White and higher income communities and majority of of-color and lower income communities. Returning to the the insights on the streets of East and West Baltimore:
“The big people know this has been going on. All the time. They don’t care and they turn their backs on it. Turn their backs on this community. If they decide that it has to change, from the top, it will change. Finally someone at the top did the right thing [referring to the indictment of 6 Baltimore police officers involved in the killing of Freddie Gray]. See what happened. The police stop working. [referring to the non-responsiveness of police officers during the month of May after the indictment of the 6 Baltimore police officers] We need them. Just need them to stop harassing black people.”
“The media, don’t get me started…they orchestrate all this. they gonna get me on the news for a night, then something else important come up… but we still here. got to get City paper to see what’s really going on.”
“They took away a lot of stuff, left us here with nothing. Nothing but a little part everyday. so everybody get equal opportunity to leave…they say. But some of us can’t leave…now, we black people, don’t like to see any of us get ahead. If i buy a new car and park it there, someone gonna come along and scratch it up. Just cause they don’t have one. We don’t let each other get ahead because we jealous of them. If we see someone get ahead, we try to bring them down…been left too long”
The gentle steps of change
So what will it take for this shift in our minds, the ultimate tool of oppression, the ultimate tool that fuels the building and rebuilding of the Master’s house. The Master’s house is a house of separation, oppression, and exploitation, in all aspects of life. Therefore in any aspect of our daily life we have the ability and opportunity to change these tapes of the Master. In every step we place on the earth, whether we are walking from the bed to the toilet, the car to the store, the apartment to the restaurant, the bus stop to the barber shop, each step can be a transformative act when we are conscious and aware. And what does this awareness do? Simply being aware of the thoughts passing through our minds, is already a step toward transformation. We can begin to notice the thought that comes to mind when we see a person different from ourselves, or whom we perceive as being different from ourselves, based on some physical appearance. We note what goes through our mind. Maybe we start noting a pattern of thoughts that come to mind when we see a Black person, a White person, a person dressed in older clothing, a person dressed in clothing just off the rack, a woman, a man. Then we notice how these patterns shape the words we use with these perceived others, the actions we engage in with the other. Just this mere awareness, when connected to the understanding of love, of compassion will make us question ourselves: “how am I perpetuating division and discrimination when I have thoughts like this; is it in line with the love and equality, peace I speak about, of the patience I say I want to offer to everyone”. Noticing in ourselves first, how we participate in acts of separation and violence, is a big step toward changing the way we interact with others. When we become more aware of ourselves we become more aware of the interactions we engage in and how others act similarly or different. The individual gentle steps of transformation is a major path of change toward dismantling the Master’s house of exploitation, separation, violence, and injustice. A transformed self transforms all the interactions and spaces we engage in and with: after all houses, communities, societies are made up of individuals. A house of aware and non-violent individuals builds communities and societies of awareness and non-violence. Such collective communities are powerful forces for change, to recreate and rebuild communities of justice and peace, equity and sufficiency.
When we listen to residents of East and West Baltimore, we have an imperative to change:
“Hope things change, want better for this place. I’m a part of it. I just live here, want better cause I live here. Got people growing up, tell me you wanna raise the next generation in something like this? I wouldn’t want to be a child right now, too hard. that’s why I dont have not right now”
“People have to come together, coming together, changing each other.”
“Community is already fragmented-the mentality-The generations before us didn’t inform everyone how the system works, they didn’t tell the kids. Life is a game, change the whole game. lots of people don’t care anymore. know the cause but don’t care about the effect. they say don’t get involved.”
“I learn to stay by myself. If you talk to the ones on the corner drinking, even if you not drinking, they’ll harass you, arrest you, make you sit on the curve. That’s why I stay by myself, stay out of trouble, sit here and drink my beer. Safer that way.”
“Can’t fragment what’s already fragmented; already broken. can’t get any worst. 38 bodies died already in May-more bodies than the days in a month. The police took the month off. Police not making it any better, not worst. It’s a cop out to say they cause the community to fragment. [referring to the number of deaths occurring in Baltimore City in the month of May 201]”
“yes, they [referring to police violence] break up the community. anybody loose someone they love, of course they grieve. They harass people and don’t think they have families.”
“Don’t get involved, keep to self and keep block clean. Don’t socialize. Up and down this block I clean up. I play with my grandkids, raised all 5 of them. My grandaughter graduate from college tomorrow. So proud of her. I teach them to get a job and hold a job. As long as you clean and smelling good, you’re okay.
These my boys [referring to several young men 3 stoops down who come over to ask for a light]. They respect me, I tell them to get jobs”
“Yes, community fragmented b/c they don’t know which way they should go. don’t know which way to go, don’t know if they for us or against us. Fragment, when they should get involved…when police are wrong. don’t know if should get involved. don’t know if it will hurt them. should get involved… we come together as one people. if I say or do something it can be wrong. got everything so enclosed like…one guy thought I was snitching, cop at my door. my [family member] is an officer.”
“Feel like not wanted in the hood. feel like I don’t fit in that area.
Feel like they don’t want no criminals involved, make me feel like I can’t get no job either. Cause once you arrested, you can’t get a job. I got into the Jericho program for ex offenders just come home. They do some training, like cooking. Does it work? see where I’m sitting now? you get a certification in cooking but you got to find you your own job.”
“Get excluded cause have to be on guard. you know. don’t want to talk to the police and don’t want to talk to the gang either, then police think you doing something with them too. Keep to myself, just go and come, say hello, smile, that’s it.”
“The parents don’t teach the kids respect. They allow them to go buckwild.
Never believe in whipping, you can sit down and talk to your child. Don’t have to holler at them. I don’t care how bad they are, even autistic kids you can sit and talk to them. Kids act like this because they weren’t bring up right.
When I was brought up, if I didn’t go to church I couldn’t go outside. 8pm be on the step, 9pm inside the house. playing was fun, that’s it. But now parents they got so much on their mind. The kids running around and throwing stones at cars for fun, little kids..not nice. I just tell them God don’t like ugly.”
If ever there was a time in our society, for change, it is now. Unfortunately, our history has offered us many periods, when change was the only solution. And this is one of them. The tools of oppression must be dismantled, must be transformed; this tool of the mind must be transformed toward understanding, peace, non-violence, justice, and equity, in a breath, in a moment, in a movement. The process of change will recreate and rebuild our house in order and truth. Peace is the way.
Full report of resident voices on policing, community fragmentation and change, by Social Health Concepts and Practices, Inc. will be available soon.