Time travel with me. Remember the doomsday forecast of December 21, 2012? Everything seemed so important and urgent back then. I was 27 and needed to figure my life out before it was too late. During that winter, I was asking myself questions about identity, community, and the difference between charity and justice. In the spring, I made some really wonderful, socially engaged friends with brilliant minds who opened up my world to radical perspectives on race, culture, and intersections. We decided to start a collective of radical people of color to further engage with our community on issues we thought were important and got busy creating roadmaps to liberation (you know, before everyone died).
On warm summer nights we would walk by the river and talk for hours about the ways in which colonialism impacted our lives, our families. How it crushed our sense of a cohesive identity and left us with a deep disconnect. We would cry together and hold each other as we shared parts of ourselves we were too strong to show the rest of the world. All of us being people of color (PoC), we shared in the collectively felt pain and trauma of white supremacy. We created PoC-only spaces where we could be free from the need to cater to white fragility. We organized protests and crashed city council meetings. Everything was so important and so urgent, and we were on a roll.
It was during one of our PoC-only meetings that my friends lovingly brought up my white partner. They were curious and concerned about the power dynamics of a relationship between a white man and a marginalized/fetishized womyn of color. Although I was in a committed, loving relationship with a man I adored, I began thinking about the role internalized colonialism played in our union. My feminist, and at the time, separatist leanings went into overdrive and I was furious at myself for not considering or acting on the power dynamics in our relationship sooner.
That fall, I listened to Junot Diaz’s keynote speech from the Facing Race conference where he brought up the idea of the “economies of attraction of white supremacy.” I saw myself as being complicit in this economy of attraction as I have mostly dated white, cis, able-bodied men. I couldn’t shake off the need for deep reflection on this topic. After much thought and consideration, I made the difficult decision to end my two-year relationship. I did not want white supremacy or any of the -ISMS in my life, much less my bedroom.
Breakups always encourage change and growth but when you apply the theory of the “personal as political” the direction of that growth can get a little fuzzy. Because the personal politics lense puts every single action under a microscope the earth beneath my feet became eggshells. White supremacy was everywhere! But I was committed to moving toward my liberation from years of internalized colonialism and the way I thought best to do this was to to build up my inner power. I started drawing up a new roadmap. One that was different fromt the one I made with my friends- this one was for me. I drew in more education, I drew in reconnecting with my family, the Tibetan community, and I made a promise to never date a white person again (and broke a few months later).
While I know that my friends were trying to call in with love at my situation, they fucked up in two major ways: First, I got the message that the primary way I engaged in political activity was through the realm of intimacy. That my choice of a partner seemed to have more weight as a political act than all of the other work I was doing around issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. To feel like the agency I had as a powerful actor for social justice was reduced or negated by who I was choosing to be intimate with felt disempowering.
Second, breaking up with my white partner did not dismantle white supremacy. It triggered a reactionary urgency in me through guilt and shame. Power super structures, like white supremacy, manifests itself in so many ugly ways that it needs an all directional attack. Of course, I know my friends didn’t intend to cause me pain and distress by voicing their concerns about my relationship. However, intention and effect often don’t mirror each other. If I was wildly dancing with flailing limbs and hit someone in the face causing a nosebleed, my good-natured intention of expressing myself through dance will not stop that nosebleed. Concentration and care will.
Whenever something seems incredibly urgent and important, I’ve found it good practice to slow things down and really think. Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, lead me to this thought during the months when I was struggling with notions of interpersonal power plays within a politicized identity. Had I taken the time to think deeply and carefully about this dynamic, I could have saved myself from a lot of unnecessary heartbreak.
If I could time travel to when I made that life-changing decision, I would tell my 27-year old self to calm the fuck down and act in a loving way because I hadn’t. I was very cold and cruel to someone who I told I loved. That means not letting guilt, shame, or fear guide my actions. That means asking my friends to respect my ability to decide for myself with whom I share my body. That means asking them to not put the weight of the ancestral trauma caused by white supremacy on decisions regarding my body. It means carving out some peace living in our nuanced realities.
I’ve been re-reading bell hooks’ All About Love, in which she borrows a definition of love from Scott Peck as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Where love as a verb, a choice is central to the action. Love as something that doesn’t just happen, but rather occurs as a powerful act that we intentionally habitualize with specific people. I take to heart this guidance from a respected elder when I get really wrapped up in my decolonization process. Like the light of Eärendil (LOTR fans anyone?), this idea gives me hope when I’m in dark places and lets me use the focus dial on that personal-political microscope.
Power can come from within and with. I want to be clear about when to build on different forms of power so one doesn’t suffocate the other. This could mean that while we’re all figuring out how to dismantle institutions of oppression, we are also building nourishing interpersonal connections. Ones that don’t throw shade on women of color or men of color for choosing a white partner. People questioning my anti-racist validity on these grounds makes me feel more isolated, alone, and freak-ish. As a person who suffers from depression and anxiety, these kinds of thoughts spiral into a very ugly place. I’m on my own path that I drew up toward my own liberation and my mental health is at the center. So for the love of Gandalf, unless your loved ones ask you, please stop policing their decisions on who they choose to be with. Trust them, they know what they’re doing.