Poly And Race: Poly and Black
“Poly and Race: Poly and Black.”
Sounds tokenizing, and really, definitionally, it is. But that’s the honest reality of life as a Black American. Until recently in my life, a lot of that tokenizing was even self-inflicted, in concert with the current enveloping American culture. But thankfully, as I’ve begun to come out of my shell and become more involved in social justice activism, I’ve made peace with it.
That said, I cannot possibly talk about being Polyamorous and a Black American in the space allotted to a degree that’s satisfying to me or my audience. The amount of information I would need to cover just to give anyone reading this even a sliver of understanding of what my life is like is massive. To add to that, in my experience (and most other people of color’s), whenever race issues are discussed, it often takes only a moment before at least one white person starts to claim that we’re “whining,” especially if the discussion is online. I’m concerned about that distracting from the real point of this article, especially since there is no way to NOT talk about race in my life, as it is something that is incredibly tightly woven with me being polyamorous.
So, in light of that, and in keeping with the spirit of this project--and the positive intent of the people at the helm of ModernPoly.com--I will attempt to steer clear of that and talk about something I deeply feel is just as important and relevant:
To put it bluntly, we are doing it wrong.
As a community, I don’t think we have a firm hold on how we present to the outside world. We don’t understand, fully, what our makeup truly is, or the untapped power we hold. Neither do we understand how each member of our community brings their life experiences and social norms with them, or how that impacts us on a broad scale. We don’t look to historical examples or other communities to draw experience and learn from, and we don’t truly listen to each other, or get to know a little bit about each other beyond our ‘geometry’.
As a relationship style/orientation and as a community, polyamory is extremely young. But this gives us a great opportunity to change our current course and become a stronger community. The BDSM/Kink communities missed this point, and now find themselves scrambling to answer the question, “Why aren’t there more people of color showing up to events?” This is the biggest reason I’m writing this piece: I want to share my perspective, and in the process, open a new avenue into how my race and polyamory intersect, that hopefully helps build a stronger community.
The recent upswing in online threads in the BDSM/Kink communities discussing and questioning the involvement, engagement, and attendance of people of color is telling. It’s also relevant to the poly community, in that hopefully we can learn from and possibly prevent some of their mistakes. Any number of people of color could (and have, and do) sufficiently answer the question of why there’s not more of us out at events, from their personal experiences. But Margot Weiss gives a broader analysis of the social mechanics at work in her book, Techniques of Pleasure:
“This is what Howard Winant calls a “neoliberal racial project,” a form of whiteness that disavows social and structural racism through a colorblind, individualist understanding of race. These disavowals use neoliberal rationalities of free choice, individual autonomy, and personal responsibility to obscure and sometimes reinforce forms of inequality. This can create opportunities to transgress, or feel free of, oppressive social norms while simultaneously restricting these possibilities to – and fortifying the position of- those with dominant class, race, and gender positions. When SM is seen as “just play”, in other words, it can help obscure the dense circuitry between public and private, between oppressive social hierarchies and free, individualized desires.”
This is the point the BDSM/Kink communities missed, which has led them to the struggle to answer the diversity question. While SM is a separate community from polyamory, there is still a lot to gain from watching a community realization that it doesn’t fully grasp how it presents to the outside world. Hopefully, we can use this opportunity to gain a better understanding of how people outside–and more importantly, inside--see us.
The “call for submissions” post on ModernPoly.com noted:
“… growing concern that people who have never been exposed to non-monogamy before will see it as something only the rich or privileged can have or do, and that's something we *are.* But that's simply not true. And in the month of August, we will be incredibly busy proving it.”
Actually, it is true, on the surface at least. Between neoliberalism tightening its grip on the world and America’s individualistic “you get yours; I’ll get mine” society, that’s all that counts. The people who are the least threatening to the status quo--wealthy white people who are mostly straight, cisgender and presenting in traditional gender roles--are the ones who are safest to come out as polyamorous, since they have less strain from our kyriarchal, systemically oppressive society. These are the people our capitalist society will see as marketable and thrust out into the public eye.
It stands to reason, then, that this is what the public will see, and what creative media professionals will replicate in their artwork. And while I recognize that “coming out” presents a whole host of challenges to any polyamorous person, people of marginalized groups have their own challenges of living in this neoliberal, capitalist society on top of the challenges of being polyamorous. Our unwillingness to address this within our community--or the continued denial of the intersectionality of oppression and the effect it has on marginalized groups--creates an unsafe-space, resulting in those groups keeping to themselves and withdrawing from public eye.
For some people of color, being poly is a serious cultural risk. We risk being alienated and disowned by our indigenous community, and while there are many polys who incur this risk, people of color have historically relied upon their community for survival. It’s well-documented that every non-white race in America has been forcibly indoctrinated into the prevailing white culture. People of color were forced to leave their own culture and religion behind and so--in order to survive--they assimilated and rallied around the communities they rebuilt.
A great example is the golden age of Harlem, New York during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Heralded at the time as the “Negro capital of the world,” this was one product of Black Americans working, assimilating and putting together a culture and community from the pieces of one that had been ripped from their hands hundreds of years earlier. However, the Great Depression coupled with Jim Crow laws led to the community’s fall. Later during the 1950’s and 60’s and throughout the Civil Rights movement, Black Americans redefined what it meant to be black in America and a created a new community through cultural solidarity.
In his foreword from Rebecca Walker’s book, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes: “There are 40 million black people in this country, and there are 40 million ways to be black.” But it isn’t obvious from looking at American mass media. With the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent rise of “Blaxploitation” films in the 1970’s--films like Shaft, Dolemite, Live and Let Die and Jim Kelly’s character in Enter The Dragon--American “blackness” splashed across movie theaters and home television screens all over the nation. This narrow view of American blackness not only became a controversial topic,
it found its way into the mainstream. Continuing on with musical genres such as Funk, Soul, R&B and Hip Hop, American capitalism took hold of this phenomenon--misunderstanding its place as tool for cultural solidarity for Black Americans--and pushed it as the identity of Black America. Now, kyriarchal systemic oppression, an inadequate educational system and growing global capitalism are all dividing and eroding away this and other cultures and communities.
Being a polyamorous person of color effectively means leaving this all behind for a community that is currently blind to intra-racial tensions, or struggling to hold on to both. As a product of that generation, but having been raised in suburban neighborhoods, my life has always been a constant struggle to live between two cultures and two communities. Although both my parents are black, I’m enveloped by the dominant white culture. Societal norms, thoughts, opinions and actions are directed and/or influenced by whiteness, while my knowledge and love of history, culture and sociology tugs at my cultural roots and the burning desire to define my own blackness. Coupled with this is the external and internal fight to relate to those of my own race and ethnicity, including those who begrudgingly or unknowingly indoctrinate themselves with the current American capitalist stereotype of blackness. One the one hand, I have black people questioning and criticizing my ignorance of the nuances of the American capitalist stereotype of blackness and subsequent deep immersion into white culture, while on the other I have white friends and loved ones oblivious to these struggles. I can’t count how many times poly people--and non-poly people--have joked with me about being a “pimp” or having a harem, without a single thought of the struggles I may be facing against those negative stereotypes.
Community is more than just an acceptance of individuals; it’s about respecting individuality in its entirety. Yes, we are all humans and we all have our struggles, but
erasing history is erasing personhood, and that destroys individuality. The polyamorous community spends a lot of time talking about partying, having lots of sex, and how we are unfairly treated by the mainstream monogamous culture. However, when the spotlight falls on us, it is too easy for us to return to our comfortable societal norms of mainstream culture, and tokenize different marginalized groups so we can claim we are “diverse”. So, in writing this article, I’ve taken up the “token black guy” mantle again... only this time, I brought a mirror.
We need to continue to look toward historical examples and other communities to learn from. But above all, we need to talk more, and learn to listen--not just hear--each other.
“We [Black Americans] are not a monolith, but we are a community. And the members of a community talk to each other-and talk about each other.” - Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Let’s chart a new course for ourselves. Please, use this article as inspiration to explore the depths of our own community. Scratch the itch of curiosity and research a bit about the various cultures and subcultures present in polyamory. It’s not necessary to be an expert on every culture that exists, but a strong community has members that can deflect most common misconceptions about its people. Sit down and talk to other marginalized groups in the poly community. Listen to them, not just hear. Try not to get defensive; remember, their experiences and pain are just as valid as yours. Listen to ways you can help to lessen the negative impacts of your culture on them, and share ways they can help lessen the negative impacts on yours.
B. L. Bunche
About the Author
B.L. Bunche is an aspiring filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist looking to bring the untold stories of real people to life. He a Kinky, Polyamorous Black American with two committed partners and two new loves. When he’s not working waiting tables or tending bar in downtown Seattle, you can usually find him pwning other racers on console games like Need for Speed, or touring the lands of Skyrim, assassinating his way through dungeons or reveling in the challenge of completing a quest right under the bad guys’ noses.
Check out his upcoming blog at: http://thesensualblackadonis.wordpress.com/
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