race

The Politics of Relationships

bogolis

Storks grazing in suburbs. I want to be a stork. Or perhaps I just don’t like my life right now.

CW: not for little kids

This is going to be some weird shit. I’m fucking a white boy, and you know shit is always weird when I’m fucking a white boy.

Probably not surprisingly, lately, I have been contemplating this question. Should I be with a person whom it makes sense to be with politically, or should I date a person who agrees with my politics? Ten times out of nine (Beyonce Carter Knowles, 2016), these two things do not occur simultaneously in the same person.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m a woman of color, right? I try to praxis in a way that centers marginalized folks. However, I’m also educated and upper-middle class. If I was with a person who politically makes sense for me, I’d probably choose a man of color, probably also someone educated and raised upper-middle class, if we’re going with a traditional partnership which my family would find acceptable. If I’m thinking of personal satisfaction in my romantic and sexual partnerships, I could also see myself with an educated woman, most likely of color as well, though class background may vary (in my experience, I seem to get along with women of color across various class backgrounds).

In a strictly political sense, these categories of people make sense for me to partner with. In practice, partnering with people like this is a whole. Other. Experience. I firmly believe that our first experiences with people of a certain identity sort of “stick” in our brains. They create patterns that we fall into again and again, if we are observant enough to notice. The first men of color I ever dated were very abusive people. There was much behavior-monitoring and slut-shaming in those relationships. Since then, I’m not sure I have rationally been able to trust men of color. The ones I am attracted to seem like surprisingly sub-par people, and I suspect these attractions originate from those early abusive relationships, where my brain now has connections between men of color and abuse. Because that is a familiar dynamic, one which I even romanticized, my brain is wired to be romantically attracted to abusive men of color. This is probably a pattern I need to dismantle if I ever hope to be with a man of color.

With women, while the dynamics are certainly less problematic, they seem vastly more nebulous. There were three women in my life that I ever felt attracted to romantically. For the first, I was so puzzled by my feelings that I never told her. She was a kindly mentor sort of person who I greatly admired in high school. She promptly went off to Harvard, never to be heard from again. The second was quite friendly, though she had a boyfriend and I never told her as well. The third is now a good platonic friend of mine, for whom I do not feel romantic attraction any more. I am not certain what kinds of patterns this sets me up for, or if indeed, a pattern is even in place for women I am attracted to.

This brings us to the second part of the question: instead of a person who seems like my political counterpart, what about people who agree with my politics? Let’s examine that, shall we? First off, very few people seem to truly “agree” with how I see the world. The ones who really do are usually my good platonic friends. I keep those relationships platonic because these people are few and far between, and the relationships are more important to me than some fleeting romantic or sexual experience.

Thus, the options I am left with are varying levels of political compatibility with another person. Even there, the data is somewhat ambiguous, as I have not devised an actual method for measuring how closely my politics align with my romantic partners’. For some problematic reason (and I think this says a lot about how we are conditioned to feel about race in America, as well as how men of different races are conditioned to present themselves as masculine people), the partners I choose are more closely aligned with me around gender politics than around racial politics. This, too, could be inaccurate because I measure the alignment, at least initially, based on what men say, and not always what they do. (The latter usually presents itself later in a relationship, and I find myself disappointed more often than not). Perhaps not surprisingly (again), this means a lot of white men. I speak entirely from experience when I say, the white men I have dated are less defensive around topics of gender. Frequently, they will agree with me about the circumstances of women. Men of color, at least the ones I have been with, are surprisingly resistant to talking about gender. I don’t think this means that men of color cannot be trusted to talk about gender, but it certainly says a lot about intersections of race and gender. I think men of color are usually so targeted with racism that to have to admit they actually have a kind of power in gender structures is actually threatening. After all, it must be confusing to be both targeted and have power. Theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins do a much better job than I do talking about why this occurs. There are a great number of social and political factors that make men of color defensive. I don’t have much to say on the subject besides, it sucks that these systems take so long to dismantle. It really does.

Anyway, after being told in a rather roundabout fashion by said white boy who I’m fucking that he cares more about the white women in his life than he does about me, I promptly find myself running out of faith in romance once again. I feel I have been swindled again, as I always am, and I become progressively cynical, deadened, hopeless. Stubbornly unwilling. I suppose this wheel grinds rather slowly. Just as I gradually discover what I will not tolerate in a professional setting, and what I am willing to suffer for, it seems that my romantic life must follow the same path. Though, uh, I think in the professional sense, I am the more willing creature. I have discovered I would much rather be in a bad job than in a bad relationship. At least a bad job still pays. A bad relationship is just a lot of bad memories clogging the sacred inner world.

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The Monolith Myth

light

Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.