Poly, privilege, race, and class: New voices
|(Designs by Mai Li / Modern Poly)|
First, some statistics. From last week's big Globe and Mail article about poly in the U.S. and Canada:
...The cast of Polyamory is typical of poly culture. According to a growing body of research, the community is dominated by white professionals and college students. Ninety per cent of the respondents [to a recent survey of 1,100 polyamorists by Melissa Mitchell of Simon Fraser University] identified as Caucasian, and 94.5 per cent had some college education.
Of Dr. [Elisabeth] Sheff’s interview subjects, 89 per cent were white, 74 per cent were in professional jobs, and 67 per cent had at least a bachelor’s degree.
A 2011 literature survey by Dr. Sheff and Corie Hammers, which compiled racial and class data on polyamorists and related groups from 36 independent studies, confirmed that sexual minorities are heavily weighted toward upper-middle-class whites.
It makes sense, Dr. Sheff says: People who face poverty or racism often cannot afford to take the risks associated with defying social norms, which could lead to losing their jobs, homes or kids. Legal protection is particularly scarce for polys, which is less of a problem for those with the financial resources to hire lawyers.
...“It’s easy to cast as a personal choice if that’s all it seems to you, devoid of social and political context,” Dr. Sheff says. “But some people can’t ignore that context.”
One person who has tackled the diversity issue seriously is San Francisco's respected queer/kink/poly organizer Pepper Mint (his real name). He was the lead organizer of June's OpenSF conference, which drew 500 people. That set a new record for the largest poly-themed gathering since the word was invented in 1990. Pepper and his co-organizers achieved this in part by their vigorous outreach to local minority communities underserved by the white poly movement.
panel discussion (photo at right) on responsible nonmonogamy was held in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. PolyPOC Oakland and others deliberately publicized it only in local minority networks. That strategy drew more than 100 people of color to what they knew would be a comfortable event that would be speaking to them. This kind of work was surely why Oakland was later so well represented at OpenSF.
More recently, the Modern Poly organizers have finally been getting their website into high gear. As part of this, the site's magazine portion began a series called Poly &, to present voices from a diversity of races, religions, politics, genders and other polyfolk identities.
The Poly & Race series began in August, with four articles so far. The stories make for out-of-the-ordinary reading. Excerpts:
Poly & Race: Poly & Black, by B. L. Bunche:
Sounds tokenizing, and really, definitionally, it is. But that’s the honest reality of life as a Black American.... As I’ve 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....[But] 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 [polys] 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....
Poly & Race: Poly & Boricua, by Elizabeth:
...I am 30 years old, Puerto Rican, and I live a polyamorous lifestyle. I live in the Bronx in New York with my Triad: Katherine, my wife, and Francis, my husband. We have been together for 8 months. My sister, Maggie, is also in a triad with her husband, Ray, and her wife Lisa. Together our triads form a family unit we have come to call The Polyfam....
The greatest benefit that I have seen in the melding between living this lifestyle and my culture has been the strong sense of family. I think many Latinos and Latinas will agree with me that family is everything to us. We are constantly in touch with one another, and everyone knows everyone else's business....
With such a large and close knit [poly] family as we have, no one is ever made to feel that they are alone. In this family, you always have someone to talk to and share with. My family (and my wife Katherine’s family) has heaped all kinds of love and affection on me and the Polyfam. And unless it has been expressed in advance that one or more of us wishes to be alone, we do everything together....
And family, for us (like many Latinos & Latinas), has to have a structure. I have seen many other Hispanic families fall apart due to the lack of a clear head of the household. In my family, we have always had a leader of the family. For the first few years of my life, my father was our family patriarch. But unfortunately, he passed away when I was very young, and there was no male of age in our family. So it fell to my aunt, Margaret, to take the reins as matriarch. She has kept the family stable for over 30 years now, and we would all be lost without her.
Since this whole adventure was my idea to begin with, I have taken the title of head of my family unit. I use the same model of family structure I grew up with in my Triad and The Polyfam: The Polyfam all turn to me for guidance and leadership, and we have all agreed that I have the final say in family matters. It has worked rather well for us and to date, we see no reason for changing that policy. And while historically speaking, our culture has been male dominated, having a female in charge has proven to be even more stable (for my family, at least). In fact, the few males we have seem more than content to have the women running the show. As my husband Francis says: "I have seen the boss' job, and I don't want it!" And in keeping with the trend of poly family units being full of strong women to begin with, this form of matriarchy seems to work out well for the Polyfam as a whole.
But not everyone understands our form of family unit. Some members of my larger Puerto Rican family & culture have a really hard time accepting my poly lifestyle. Most of my family (and my wife Katherine’s family), like most Hispanics, is steeped in the Roman Catholic Church. It has taken some of the family time to get used to the idea of a triad instead of a "traditional" married couple....
...Another great way to address our acceptance has been to play on my Puerto Rican culture’s feelings about having children. When Katherine approached me and Francis about wanting another baby, it was a Godsend!... Having a child is a basic REQUIREMENT of a stable home and family within the context of our culture. It has worked beautifully to the advantage of the entire Polyfam, and made all of the Polyfam and extended family very happy....
Poly & Race: Poly & Asian, by Bryan D.:
...My mother emigrated from Korea when she was 18 and became a naturalized citizen in the 1970’s. My father is Japanese, Austrian and Russian, but grew up with a Japanese mother while living in New York. Recently I asked my sister, “We’re not part of the Asian community and we’re not really even 2nd generation Asians. What the hell are we?”
And I’m Poly – or at least working on it....
I often joke with friends about being Asian or gripe about the things that my ‘Asian parents’ do. Although I’ll catch myself on the occasional stereotypical behavior, like my obsession with Anime, building Gundams, cooking with chopsticks or taking my shoes off whenever I enter someone’s home, I’ve always felt I’m not very Asian when compared to other “Asian Americans” in the Puget Sound....
But perhaps nowhere has “Asian culture” frustrated me so much as when interacting with my parents. In Asian culture (Korean and Japanese); families are very private and inscrutable. Asian families don’t talk about their problems; they sweep them under the rug. If ever my parents DO want to express their ‘disappointment’ with me, I have to visit them in their home, because they are embarrassed to discuss these things in public places. They have always communicated very passive aggressively and have very strict standards for being successful. First impressions and ’etiquette‘ are very important to them; if you screw up, they will hold a grudge forever and shame you with it for the rest of your life....
In some ways, I’ve felt that Poly culture and Asian culture are polar opposites. Asian culture, as I have experienced it, is very closed in and private, whereas Poly culture encourages openness and communication. If anything, my upbringing in “Asian” culture primed and pushed me into Poly culture because they are so opposite. When I was growing up, I thought life was a formula: graduate high school, graduated college, get a high paying job, get married, start a family, and die. But my life opened up when I moved back to the city and started college: I had an epiphany about how I wanted to live and what I wanted to strive for....
...Polyamory depends on direct, open communication, negotiation, boundary setting and meeting needs. As a poly individual, I choose what rules govern my lifestyle and I create my community through my own choices and effort. If don’t communicate my needs, or negotiate agreements and discuss boundaries, my relationships will fail and I won’t have a ‘community’ or ‘support group’ to fall back on. I think that’s one reason clear and direct communication, and honest intentions are imperative in Poly culture. In this way, Poly culture is scary, but it is also freeing. It’s like living the American Dream for me: I can live the life I want and be happy if I work hard enough....
Poly & Race: Poly & Chicana, by Avie Saenz.
I am Chicana.
I am polyamorous.
I am queer.
Chicana is not race; not by certain political markers. Like queer, it's also a political identity; you can be of Mexican heritage and not call yourself Chican@. You can be homosexual and not call yourself queer. You can be in an open relationship and not call yourself polyamorous. There are differences, nuances of declaration and intent that I need for you to distinguish, when I identify as a polyamorous queer Chicana. These are the words that describe me; I declare them quietly.
...I pass quietly through my life, but never in denial. I live my identity; it is me. I don't need to introduce myself so fully to everyone I meet, but I will never deny myself. It is a liminal space, and I am always having to recontextualize what it means to be myself. As Gloria Anzaldua said, to occupy this liminal 'borderland' space leaves you "caught in the crossfire between camps, while carrying all"; I carry a lot here, in my personage and in the check boxes on demographic surveys. I occupy a space of crossroads, refusing to be any less than the sum of myself.
...My mother is an academic. She made me acutely aware of the dearth of representative role models for brown girls. At the very least, she taught me about Frida Kahlo, who aside from being brown like me, was also queer like me, and was nonmonogamous. As a youth, to be Chicana meant that I had Frida, and her terror, and her art.
...Coming out as polyamorous was among the scariest things I have done in my life.... You might ask why I would owe anyone an explanation then, but being open with my mother is something I'd always relied upon -- and who is anyone to tell me, an adult woman, that my happiness is invalid?
Still, my mother had no reassuring books or characters for me to feel secure about before I found my own reflection in them. Frida Kahlo wasn't monogamous, but she was known for cheating and despair, not happiness or consent with her husband. I was terrified about coming out; I was afraid I would finally cross all lines and borders from just being different, into being unacceptable....
..."We love you no matter who you love. You may bring anyone you want into your family, and we will support you," [my mother] said....
I asked my mother how it was that despite the noted social conservatism, that I keep seeing other Chican@ families opening up and welcoming their children of all walks of life.
“M'ija, the world is hard for us, and at the very least, we have each other. And that ends up mattering more than anything else.”
And more than anything else, even being polyamorous and queer, my family and my Chicana heritage has given me somewhere that I matter, somewhere I am loved, and I intend to keep sharing that with the polyfamily I am building.
Also of note:
The Poly People of Color Facebook page and Tumblr website.
The host of the NeoBlaqness show asks, "Why Are Polyamorists Mostly White?"
Labels: polys of color