by Cathy Chen
“We’re never gonna get anywhere as long as our economies of attraction continue to resemble more or less the economies of attraction of white supremacy.” –Junot Diaz, Keynote Speech at Facing Race 2012
Over the years, I have had many friends, both hetero and LGBTQIA(lesbian, gay, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual) people of color, who practiced radical politics in their lifestyle and work but I’ve noticed a curious pattern—that they almost exclusively formed romantic relationships with socially privileged—in other words, mostly white—partners.
The most visceral experience was with a close friend who inspired me to study critical social theory and philosophy. I witnessed first-hand some very self-destructive relationship behaviors that were inextricable from race, culture, and class identities. Junot Diaz’s speech is the first time I’ve even heard of the phrase “decolonial love” and it immediately resonated with me. It gave a voice to the helplessness I’ve felt for years, unable to address certain obsessive patterns of behavior from people of color I loved and respected.
Kicking colonialism’s butt is about giving land, natural resources, and cultural heritages back to people of color, and it’s about more than that, too. In order for us to truly decolonize our identities, we need to address our bodies and desire as well. It is not enough to stand against military oppression, but also the oppressions of classism, sexism, shadism or “pigmentation politics” as Diaz termed. Using these terms, I articulated the issue to my family of radical POC and found out that this is a pervasive and under-addressed issue in our community. After many thought-provoking and deeply-personal conversations, I have listed five steps that reflect upon practices of dating, sex, and love that will further empower us as people of color.
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1. Think of all the reasons why you find this person attractive and how much of it has to do with their status and privilege.
Initial attraction is almost always superficial. Maybe the object of your desire has “good taste”—in clothing, in music, in food, in books, and so on—all of which are purchased. Those with deeper pockets are more able to wear their tastes on their sleeve. It’s like a subtle advertising campaign. Those who appear more desirable are always those with more means to appear desirable. So in other words, examine what the privileges of this person are in relation to who they are as a person. How much of this person’s persona is validated by mainstream society’s definition of attractiveness? How much of their tastes are culturally appropriated to show off how well-travelled they are? How passive are they in taking advantage of and perpetuating these privileges that they were born with? Be wary of self-proclaimed “allies” who treat POC partners as trophies to show off how “enlightened” and “not racist/classist/shadist/ableist” they supposedly are, while continually benefitting from a system that actively discriminates against their partner.
2. Recognize that intimacy with someone in order to “enlighten” them is problematic.
Often times, we still buy into the idea of “educating” the privileged elite through intimacy. The problem here is that while ignorance is inexcusable, “awareness” alone is not the solution. White people are always promoting “awareness”… of the suffering of the disadvantaged, of the stacking inequalities of classism and racism, and of their own privilege. But the truth is that “awareness” without action is worth shit. (In fact, it’s far more despicable.) And by action, I mean more than fucking a person of color, more than accepting them, more than parading around as an “enlightened” person of privilege. Some “allies” believe that by “sharing” their privilege with those who are systemically denied access (for instance, by having POC+LGBTQIA friends or giving money to their causes), they are forgiven for their privilege. This notion of “trickle-down privilege,” just like trickle-down economy, only plays right into systemic injustices and inequalities by making the “social consciousness” of those at the top of the social ladder the basis for equality and justice. In a healthy social justice system, the power to action should be with the oppressed people, not the oppressors. It should always be about you, not them.
3. Don’t fall into the trap of secretly wanting to be white.
It’s hard for people of color to admit this, especially those who self-identify as politically radical. Let’s be honest. As people of color, almost all of us have had those agonizing moments when we wished we were white.
It’s no surprise either. After hundreds of years of being second-class citizens and shamed for the way we look, some of us have developed an obsession with those who have dominated us, oppressed and dehumanized us, exploited our resources and insecurities, and ruined our political and economic sustainability. The natural reaction is to want to join them if you can’t fight them. We have all seen this play out in skin bleaching, eye and nose surgeries, death of mother languages and traditional clothes, and embarrassment and shame whenever we are being too “ethnic” in front of white people. We have to actively fight the urge to whitewash our identities in order to be accepted. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to be unapologetic in our resistance to supremacy.
It’s not a cliché: you cannot love someone else if you hate yourself. Stop confusing who you are dating with who you want to be. Ironically, this logic also applies to white people who fetishize people of color and exclusively date a specific ethnicity for this reason.
4. Don’t fall into the trap of guilting yourself.
It’s important to realize that desire for someone with multiple social privileges does not make you a terrible person. We have been hardwired by hundreds of years of social hierarchies to desire those who are on the top of the food chain. In a social experiment with apes, lower-ranking apes would give up a reward like juice or food, in order to look at photos of high-ranking apes. Sure we can pretend otherwise but the truth is we are no different. It takes active analysis, self-reflection, self-examination for people of color to shed the social conditioning that is part of our everyday life—from film and television to music to everyday social interactions.
5. Try to open up yourself to diversity in romantic partners, especially those who are deemed “unlovable” by mainstream society because of their race, class, shade, gender identity, and ability.
Face your demons, put the vulnerabilities in your own self-identity under a magnifying glass, and don’t shy away from being honest about internal prejudices that shape how you view relationships with other people of color. As with any kind of social intervention, it’s difficult to do without a group or at least a friend who can empathize. Just remember, you are not alone. There are many who share your burden and your shackles who are actively seeking to shed them. Seek them out, start a Facebook group, arrange a Meetup, and have conversations. Remember: it always helps to talk and connect with other people who share your experience. Trust me, we are out there!
Cathy Chen is the Co-Founder and current Outreach Director of Fab Lab El Paso, a non-profit makerspace in El Paso, Texas. Chen grew up in New York City. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Critical Theory and Philosophy and certificate in Film/Video/Digital from Duke University. She also holds a Masters degree in Media Design from Keio University in Tokyo, Japan.
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