Okay, so I just read Mia McKenzie’s interesting and challenging list on 8 Ways Not to be An Ally. Mia is a writer I hugely respect. But the item on dating sat uncomfortably with me, and awoke some tensions I’ve been trying to work through in my own thinking and politics – not because I don’t think that fetishism and exotification are important – but instead because I think we need to make sense of relationships in even more complicated ways, and make sense of the way intersecting axes of difference can operate differently across different aspects of relationships. Mia McKenzie writes:
Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.
I want to discuss some aspects of my long-term relationship with my ex-partner as a means of extrapolating what I mean by intersecting axes of difference and power, and the way these complex intersections play out in relationships. And simultaneously, I want to use an intersectional feminist analysis to deconstruct some of the uneasy assumptions about what it means to be a partner and ally, and raise important questions about how we think about partners – as either allies, limited term allies, or as non-allies (because of the potential for exotification or fetishization).
Firstly, Mia’s statement is about making sense of people who don’t just have one relationship with someone from an Othered or marginalised category (i.e. a POC or a trans person say), but who continually date people from that group. Is that fair enough? Is that just a reasonable means of identifying people who may be threats, who fetishize a particular group? Here’s where it gets more complicated for me.
I am a Kailoma (mixed-race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer femme genderqueer cis woman from a poor background. My ex-partner is a white middle-class bisexual trans woman. While we were together, I sometimes experienced hostility from other white trans women who felt that I was ‘cis privileged’ and didn’t like my participation in trans events. I was also called a “tranny chaser”, and when I spoke to other lesbian cis women who were partnered with trans women, I found that they had also been called “tranny chasers”.
So my then-partner and I had a big talk about how we saw privilege and power operating in our relationship, and between us. We agreed that while there were a small handful of situations where my cis privilege meant that I experienced more social ease than my love, by and large her whiteness and class privilege trumped my cis privilege in most areas of our lives together. This doesn’t mean that the social ease given to cis people wasn’t real or relevant in our lives. It means that class and race are such forceful social mechanisms that in most situations being non-white and from a poor background made me relatively disadvantaged in relation to her.
We need to think carefully about how axes of difference play out in intimate relationships. It’s not much that one person holds privilege and that necessarily extends to “power over” the other person. It’s often more that privilege creates access to wealth or resources that the other person might not have to hand. And that, in an intimate relationship, if one person continuously experiences less access to resources, that may amount to a relative lack of power. This relative lack of power might play out as a diminished ability to make decisions in the relationship that effects both people.
But of course, what happens in a relationship like mine where a couple are negotiating multiple differences is that you experience privilege differently in different sites. So in lesbian nightclubs or queer events that were more multicultural, my status as cis would mean that I would experience more social ease than my partner (women might exotify me, but my identity as a woman wouldn’t be questioned). But at university, my partner’s whiteness and class background created an pervasive ease and sense of belonging that I didn’t have. Her whiteness acted as a buffer in an educated academic setting. And because under capitalism, work and education have more impact on our overall lives than social relationships do, she was relatively privileged in relation to me.
But what does this mean when a couple might – like us – negotiate different cultures and classes alongside different gender identities or sexualities? Does it mean that her whiteness acted as the most powerful lens and I was racially exoticized? Does it mean that my cis status acted as the most powerful lens and she was fetishized? What if I told you that her previous partner was also non-white? What if I told you that another former partner of mine is currently exploring their gender identity? Are we both freaky perverts for daring to border-cross? Or were we delusional for imagining that we could find genuine love, intimacy and fairness across differences?
It’s worth recalling Braidotti’s claim that in the West, difference is colonized to denote relative power – so our delineations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ become a means of creating and reinforcing social hierarchies. Difference outside of this context of meaning-making might be neutral. So we can question the ways in which we view ourselves and others in light of the cultural value we assign, and how this produces power relations.
One of the biggest problems I have with the “tranny-chaser” perception of trans-partners is that perpetuates another binary between the “good” trans-partner/ally and the “bad” “tranny-chaser” that doesn’t speak to the complexities of relationships and ongoing need for dialogue between partners. In the first year of our relationship, I probably unequivocally saw myself as the “good” trans-partner/ ally. That’s because we hadn’t been together long enough for me to know that we would eventually need to have hundreds of difficult and painful conversations about gender. Not because I wasn’t entirely on her side, whatever that might be. But because over time we realized that we understood gender entirely differently, and we had different perceptions of what ‘woman’ meant, which was as much about our different racial backgrounds as it was about our cis/ trans status. My belief that I was an ally – on the basis that I believe trans women are women who should have equal access to rights and dignity as cis woman – didn’t necessarily amount to a shared understanding of my partner thought was important about her gender. And as much as I wanted to truly recognize my partner the way that she saw herself – because I wanted her to feel recognized and validated in our relationship – I couldn’t always understand gender in the way that she did. Equally, we have had hundreds of difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, classism and racism.
Hundreds of conversations about differences probably sounds exhausting, and it definitely could be. But I actually think that overall it is something we did pretty well. It’s hard to have to constantly be trying to put your own preconceptions to one side, and listen wholeheartedly to someone else. It takes a lot of love and compassion to carry you across that gap in worldviews. And strength of character to hold on to different perceptions where they are important for your own sense of authenticity and self. You need to talk heaps about gender and race, and at the same time hold on those feelings of love and connection that make relationships worthwhile.
I like how Sandoval has talked about love as creating radical possibilities for alliance across differences. I guess if I were talking to a trans and cis queer couple contemplating a relationship despite differences in culture and class background, my advice would be to love radically. Fetishization happens when someone views another person as less than who they are, because their viewpoint is obscured by a cultural stereotype. They classify the person as an erotic Other. I loved my ex-partner as a whole, complex and unique person. I wasn’t afraid to love her trans-ness, but I also loved the complexity of her story, her ideas and insight beyond being trans. I loved her enough to listen carefully, and ask questions, and disagree and try again. You need love, mutual respect, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue about how salient social differences impact on your ability to relate to each other.