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But what are the alternatives?

Are we limited (or being limited) to using the master's tools in our fight – or do we require different tools to dismantle the structures and systems?
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Are we limited (or being limited) to using the master’s tools in our fight – or do we require different tools to dismantle the structures and systems around us?

This is the question that emerges when we think about how ‘wicked’ global challenges seem to be, and how they affect the communities and organisations around us in disparate ways.

We might also want to ask:

  • How is the experience of climate change, or the distribution of technology, or the availability of identities, constrained by current systems and their tools?
  • What tools are offered by those voices that are often not heard?
  • In other words, how might race, class, or gender shift relations to global challenges for individuals and communities?

This line of questioning has significant implications for how we engage with the communities that face global challenges. Much like how Malcom X described interfacing with systems through the ballot or the bullet, Lorde considered how the system(s) must be turned upside down to right their course.

This example of the COVID-19 situation was mapped by Klement (2020) to show the issue’s environmental-health-socioeconomic system. Note how Klement has coloured certain modes of understanding the challenge that one ‘community’ might understand and empathise with more than others.

A preliminary causal loop diagram displaying the complexity of the COVID-19 crisis’s environmental-individual-socio-economic-political system, with modifications to show where the master’s tools and alternative interventions exist. Adapted from Klement (2020), Figure 1; CC BY 4.0 Deed.

I’ve modified the diagram for our purposes to show where the master’s tools exist, which may seem to sustain the house. I’ve also added other tools that provide radical alternatives to the system. It does not suggest the radical tools are potent or appropriate solutions in this case; they are here to help understand how they transgress the system and arrest or hinder its flows.

These types of interventions are tricky, raising further questions. How do we find ways of addressing a challenge that are alternative to how the system understands it? And how can we communicate these in ways that matter to the system? Or are systems – with their fluid nature, shifting from new forms of feedback – able to be dismantled at all? What are we trying to change – the system or its existence?

In some ways, this mirrors the difference between being an abolitionist and a reformer. According to Anna Akbar (2020),

‘non-reformist’ work to dismantle unjust systems ‘does not aim to create policy solutions to discrete problems; rather it aims to unleash people power against the prevailing political, economic, and social arrangements and toward new possibilities’. (p. 102)

Akbar, like earlier scholars such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) and André Gorz (1968), focuses on prisons as an industry in global capitalism. Instead of reforming prisons to make them more productive experiences for prisoners and society, they ask the deep question of whether ‘safety’ should equate with increased ‘policing’ in the first place.

As Gilmore asks, what are the changes that will ‘unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization’ (p. 242)? In other words, how can we escape the system?

Operationalising these ideals remains tricky, not just because of the depth of power you assume you’re fighting against, but also from dealing with the complexity of multiple identities while considering a complex problem. Consider how racism, indigeneity and the environment come together in Australia. So called ‘black-green’ relations have to deal with ‘multiple competing political narratives of different Indigenous activists and environmental organisations around notions of environment and economy’ (Pickerill 2018: p. 1124). Thus, environmental activists hope not to (or should not) tokenise indigenous knowledge or peoples, but are forced to act within systems that do.


In the next step, we’ll give an example of how the master’s tools have addressed a complex and seemingly intractable global challenge.

But first, think of an instance where it became obvious that the master’s tools were not making a difference in the acute problem experienced by a community you know, stemming from a global challenge.

It may help to go through the following questions:

  • What is the global challenge and what is the affected community?
  • What are some ‘master’s tools’ at work to deal with this challenge?
  • Are they being put to use in finding a solution? What seems to be working and what does not?
  • What would be the radical alternative to the master’s tools in the situation you’ve identified?

Share some thoughts in the comments below.


Akbar, A. A. (2020). Demands for a Democratic Political Economy. Harvard Law Review Forum, 134(2), 90–118.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden gulag : prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. University of California Press.

Gorz, A. (1968). Strategy for labor : a radical proposal. Beacon Press.

Klement, R. J. (2020). Systems Thinking About SARS-CoV-2. Frontiers in Public Health, 8.

Pickerill, J. (2018). Black and green: the future of Indigenous–environmentalist relations in Australia. Environmental Politics, 27(6), 1122–1145.

© Deakin University
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