Culture

How to Become an Ally in Our Intimate Lives

| 06/17/2020

how to be an ally Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

Often, we find a vision of a better world when we’re most in crisis. I was a young, queer woman in an abusive relationship with a partner who was marginalized in different ways than me. I needed help, but none of the institutions supposedly built for survivors—police, anti-harassment committees, even mainstream anti-violence orgs—spoke to my experience, or to those of my queer women and trans friends. As we attempted to build healthy relationships at the intersections of multiple identities, we longed for accountability and care, but conventional systems promised only retribution. 

So we turned to each other, and to the writings of women- and queer-of-color-led collectives. These visionary organizers argue that marginalized people cannot have healthy relationships until we have healthy communities, free of economic exploitation and institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia. They advocate for the abolition of police and prisons, for investment in marginalized people’s well-being, and for the idea that communities, not repressive power structures, keep us safe.

The recent Black-led uprisings against systemic anti-Black racism and police violence have thrust this vision into the spotlight. As protesters fill the streets with demands to defund and abolish the police, we are all challenged to create more just and egalitarian relationships and communities. For those of us with racial privilege, this means reflecting on the ways we have used our privileges to cause harm, and committing to actively anti-racist ways of living and loving.

This is particularly vital for those of us in interracial relationships, or any kind of relationship where we experience different forms of privilege and oppression than our partners. Veronica Chin Hing-Michaluk, LMHC, a sex and relationships therapist, says this moment has led to a period of re-evaluation for many of her clients in interracial relationships. I’m seeing especially now with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a disconnect that couples are discovering exists around cultural identity, cultural competency, and activism,” she says. Healing that disconnect is the responsibility of white and more racially privileged partners, who must actively take an anti-oppression stance. 

“The goal is to empower both partners where they have been disempowered.”

Ultimately, says Chin Hing-Michaluk, “The goal is to empower both partners where they have been disempowered.” That means building relationships in which we are accountable for our privileges—including in class, race, gender identity, immigration status, and disability—and supported in our vulnerabilities. 

Oppression Shapes Our Relationships

To be in solidarity with our partners, we first have to ask: How does structural violence, like racism and policing, affect our intimate lives?

Sabrina Santiago, co-executive director of The Network/La Red (TNLR), has been working to answer this question for almost two decades. TNLR is a social justice organization that works to end partner abuse in LGBTQ, S&M, and polyamorous communities. The group is based on the principle that none of us will be free to love until we’re all free of structural oppression.

“The same tools that we learn from society are carried into the relationship,” including abusive ones, says Santiago.

These tools look different depending on our experiences. Relationship health and violence affect all our intersecting identities, and women who are Black, trans, bisexual, undocumented, and living in poverty are especially vulnerable to abuse. But the common thread for all survivors, says Santiago, is a similarity between the tactics abusive partners use to cause harm in intimate relationships, and the tactics systems of oppression use to control marginalized people.

By understanding structural violence, we can begin to build deeper kinds of solidarity, intimacy, and love. 

Take, for instance, police violence against communities of color. Just as police surveil these communities, threatening residents through their very presence in a neighborhood, so too do abusive partners surveil their victims, using the threat or enactment of violence to maintain control. The connection between policing and intimate harm is often literal: A horrifying 40% of police officers abuse their families.

Abusive partners may also directly enlist systems of oppression to isolate or harm their victims. Abusive white or racially privileged partners may use the racist criminal justice system as one of these means of control, by, for example, telling a Black partner that they will file a false criminal complaint or call the police, says Santiago. Similarly, an abuser may threaten to call ICE on an undocumented partner, withhold hormones from a transgender partner, or threaten to out a closeted partner. 

Love, Like Ally, Is a Verb

Most people in interracial relationships, or other relationships with privilege differentials, will not be directly abusive. But by understanding structural violence, we can begin to build deeper kinds of solidarity, intimacy, and love. 

For Chin Hing-Michaluk, the couples’ therapist, solidarity begins with acknowledging what we don’t know. “I’m a therapist of color, and I encourage all of my clients to educate me on their lived experience,” she says. “I never make an assumption that I 100% know what they’re going through.” Even if we share one identity, like gender, we may not share others, like race. Of course, each of us experiences our own identities differently, so even if we do have similar backgrounds as our partners, it’s always good to ask questions and listen with an open heart. 

We may feel uncomfortable talking about race in our relationships, but it’s vital to address racism, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Ignorant comments from white partners toward partners of color, such as “I see you for you, not for your race,” can deny the ways in which identity fundamentally shape who we are, says Chin Hing-Michaluk. “It feels like an erasure.” Instead, we should listen and validate the ways in which our partners experience race and culture, both in struggle and joy.

We also have to understand how these experiences fit into a cohesive system. “Have an analysis around oppression,” says Santiago. This means that, if you’re white and you have a partner of color who has had a traumatic experience with police, you need to understand that the cop in question wasn’t just “a bad apple,” but a representative of a racist system. “I’ve been really encouraging clients who feel like they’re not doing enough to read, to self-educate, to sit with their frustration,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says. 

Solidarity is an active, mutual, messy process of challenging the ways we have been taught to coerce or exploit one another.

Supporting our partners’ experiences of race is different from racial fetishization. When we fetishize, we reduce someone to their racial or cultural identity, often perpetuating racist stereotypes, and treat someone’s identity as a “trend” to try out. In contrast, genuine support requires us to understand our partners’ racial and cultural experiences as part of a deeply felt, complex, lived reality, and to be accountable when we fail to live up to these standards.

Ultimately, solidarity doesn’t come from wanting to be liked or seem “woke.” It stems, instead, from our own enduring commitment to racial, social, and economic justice—a commitment that persists regardless of who we are dating.

Learning The Signs of a Healthy Relationship 

Relationships are complex. We may experience privilege in some areas relative to our partners, and oppression in others. For example, a white trans woman will experience different barriers than an Asian cis man; a non-disabled, undocumented woman will be marginalized in a different way than a documented woman who has a disability. 

Solidarity, therefore, is not a math problem or a checklist. It’s an active, mutual, sometimes messy process of challenging the ways we have been taught to coerce or exploit one another. “Who is willing to use power over another person? Ultimately that’s what it comes down to,” says Santiago.

There are some warning signs that tell us we may be causing harm to our partners, or vice versa. “A big one is crossing boundaries,” says Santiago. If you notice yourself or your partner violating the other’s comfort levels, especially when it comes to race or identity, that’s a red flag. Similarly, it’s a bad sign if the relationship is causing either partner’s life to become smaller, or if one partner is isolating the other from their community.

When we spot red flags, we can pause, check in with ourselves, and engage our partner in conversation. If we are the ones being called out, it’s our job to listen, to be accountable, and to commit to change. Of course, we always have the right to leave a relationship, regardless of what our partner says or does. But if the person who has caused harm can demonstrate a genuine understanding of what they have done, and takes concrete steps to grow, that may be a sign that it’s safe to stick around and put in the effort.

On the other hand, says Chin Hing-Michaluk, if you feel stuck in the partnership or like issues are not getting resolved, that may indicate it’s time to break up. Ending a relationship is a far more loving choice than allowing it to devolve into toxicity or violence. “It’s okay for people to not be a good fit for one another,” Chin Hing-Michaluk says. 

If you’re honoring each other’s boundaries, listening to one another, and feel that you can resolve the conflicts that do arise with mutuality and respect, you’re probably on the right track. “If you can come together and have these sometimes very painful, sometimes very difficult conversations and feel like you’ve made progress or you’re steadily making progress, that’s a good sign,” says Chin Hing-Michaluk.

Another World is Possible

Fighting for social change is a lifelong commitment, and those of us with more privilege must care for ourselves so that we can show up for others. “There’s some accountability we have to take for our self-care, for having the capacity, for having these conversations and doing this work,” says Chin Hing-Michaluk.

The same goes for our relationships. Like movements, intimate relationships can be challenging and uncomfortable. But they are also spaces of joy and imagination, spaces to nourish ourselves and to affirm the dream of collective human thriving. “This is a time to celebrate identity differences,” says Chin Hing-Michaluk. “I want folks to not feel like it has to be ‘work-work,’ that you punch in and punch out, but that it can be an ongoing journey.”

Intimate relationships alone won’t create a world free of oppression—for that, we need structural change. But we cannot transform the world without learning how to love each other.

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