Representation Matters

When you talk to white middle class polyamorists, you get the viewpoint of white middle class polyamorists.

Olivia Goldhill recently wrote about polyamory and whether it is a political movement. While she acknowledged the existence of Black & Poly's Facebook page, she concluded that the poly community was largely white and cisgendered. Unfortunately she did not reach out to Ron Young or any of the non-white leaders in the polyamory movement. As a result, her article demonstrates a narrow view of polyamory.

Missing from the article are people of color and queer people who struggle to live their lives in a culture that is not at all accepting. Despite the fact that black polyamorists face discrimination from family, potential partners, and work colleagues, non-monogamy has always been a part of black culture. The Black Panthers lived collectively and had multiple partners during the sixties, but the author is ignorant of this history. Black & Poly specifically takes a womanist view of the world that centers the experiences and desires of women in a distinctly non-patriarchal way.

The author also glosses over the LGBTQ community and their history of non-monogamy. Though she mentions some women and non-binary people who identify as queer, it's clear she has only talked to bisexual women who largely operate in the heterosexual poly community. Ana Valens, responding to the article, writes: “Instead of suggesting polyamory began with hetero communes and ended up in Brooklyn bars, it’s much more accurate to suggest that queer poly people see their sexual and romantic interactions as part of a larger queer experience of challenging the norms that permeate in cis, straight relationships. In other words, poly queers are not looking for belonging. They’re looking to exist independently from straight people.”

Middle class whites did popularize swinging, where couples meet in homes or sex clubs for purely physical relationships. The author confuses these two flavors of ethical non-monogamy while trying to define polyamory. In doing so, she conflates sex and love in a way that many poly people dislike. The event she profiles in the article is not a poly meetup but a BDSM mixer. While the kink and poly communities overlap, they have many differences. The only black voice in the article talks about a common problem in the BDSM community, but it is not necessarily representative of black women's experiences in the poly community.

Her description of polyamory also ignores the asexual community and those who include non-sexual relationships in their polycules. It was inaccurate and harmful for her to say that both men and women are “expected” to enjoy sex because consent is the absolute bedrock of polyamorous relationships. The couples new to non-monogamy that look forward to threesomes with single women quickly realize the reality of polyamorous dating: you can't force sexual attraction.

Her article has an uncomfortable focus on the economic benefits of polyamory. Poly family homes are another stereotype that is not part of most people's lived reality. For all her focus on marble countertops, she ignores the subset of black polyamorists that specifically seek to build black economic power outside of the mainstream economy. Once again, the black poly community is actually more political than the people she interviews.

While I know and respect the people at Chrysalis, none of them can be considered typical polyamorists. New Culture is a radical movement focusing on relationships and vulnerability, but it faces its own issues with race and LGBTQ representation. I was disappointed that Michael Rios, a respected leader, downplayed the effort required to maintain interracial relationships. Kevin Patterson's book Love's Not Colorblind deserves more than a casual reference as a guide to how people can deconstruct race and privilege in the poly community.

The benefits of polyamory, such as autonomy and self knowledge, are not limited to those who live together and have group sex. Polyamory requires not only openness but a desire to build interpersonal skills and work through tough problems. The author's drawing of poly as a cozy, multi-family network doesn't show the real work that people do to maintain their relationships. This is the reason polyamorists do not disparage those who chose monogamy. It's not for everyone, and we certainly don't expect everyone to move into family-friendly communes.

The author went looking for radicalism in the poly community, and she found middle class people who are using their privilege to live comfortably despite having an alternative lifestyle. She missed the people who are actively challenging white privilege and patriarchy through their relationships, and in doing so she did a disservice to the entire poly community.

If it feels like history is repeating itself, it is.

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2 thoughts on “Representation Matters”

  1. Thanks for your article. I’ve seen many articles like this where journalist focus solely on Brooklyn. Either they themselves live in that area and its convenient for them or they are deliberately trying to draw out an irony that connects polyamorous politics with economic prosperity. i agree that representation would have given the article far more depth.

  2. Olivia Goldhill misquoted me-badly. I did not in any way downplay the effort needed to maintain interracial relationships. Nor did I say that racial diversity was not an issue.
    What I said that was “no problem” was to identify people of color; they can usually be identified visually, and there is a natural basis for group identity; support groups, for instance, can be formed straightforwardly. By contrast, people who are neurodiverse are not usually identifiable visually, which makes it harder for them to find each other, and harder to have a group identity.
    As for race and LGBTQ representation, it is true that New Culture not as racially diverse as we would like to be. We have made several initiatives in this regard, and the representation has been increasing. However, we have a significant representation of LGBTQ persons–and this includes our organizers as well as participants.

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