Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Radsplaining, or: Why I rarely aspire to be an ally.

Before I get to the main point of this post, I will ask you to indulge me as I share a lengthy anecdote about what was probably the single most formative experience in my commitment to working towards a world that is more just, equitable and inclusive.

A dozen or so years ago, I worked for an independently endowed library housed in a liberal Christian church in the Northeast. As part of my work there, I became part of an anti-racism taskforce that met at the church I served. Its meetings were a combination of education and activism; the publicity for them declared, “All are welcome.” Emotions ran high but were contained within a strong sense of shared mission and vision. At one meeting, a new (white) participant and one of our established (African American) leaders got into an extended shouting match. I was concerned for the integrity of the group. We put “all are welcome” on our meeting announcements. The meetings were in my library. How could we invite people to come and then yell at them?

This same leader had expressed anger with me before, and raised voices were not unknown. It was a natural part of a multicultural group discussing charged issues. The difference in this case, for me, was one of hospitality. Interactions between founding members were, in my understanding, interactions between hosts; we had collaboratively set the agenda and shaped the conversational space. Newer participants, in contrast, were our guests; they came into the space to which we had invited them. We hosts had the power of influence, as recognized leaders of the group. We also had the power of coercion: as the organizers, we controlled the space and could eject individuals who behaved harmfully within it.

I was concerned about how we used the responsibility that came with our power. I suggested that we talk about the shouting match at our next meeting, because it had highlighted differences in our understandings of what it meant to be a host. The suggestion was declared racist. I reiterated that I was not proposing any specific behavioral standard, e.g., emotional neutrality and calm voices; I just wanted us to talk as a group about what we all thought might be hospitable and what might not be, and why. The reiteration was declared a denial of my racism.

At this point, I felt in a bind. On the one hand, I felt (and feel) that it is important for white people to be deferential to people of color when they report experiencing harm from racism. On the other hand, I was not comfortable continuing to act as a host in a setting where we could not clearly communicate to guests what they might encounter during meetings.

I did the only thing I could think to do that would walk the fine line between these two tensions: I offered to drop the subject and step back from active participation in discussions, remaining the secretary and organizational conduit for funding. The offer was declared an unacceptable attempt to exercise my white privilege. Things went downhill from there, because the objection was that only people who “participated equally” in the conversations of the group would be welcome.

In other words, it was unacceptable for me to either voice my authentic concerns or to respectfully allow others to have the conversations they felt were important under the conditions they felt were necessary in order to have them. If I spoke, they were harmed; if I listened, they were harmed. I could not avoid harming them without lying, and unfortunately, it appeared to me at the time that they were quite comfortable with the idea of me lying.

Under these conditions, I could not continue to participate in the work. As far as I know, the work stopped entirely. In my view, some members of the group had been unable to navigate the rocky waters between their marginality in the broader society and their power within this specific educational and activist context. It was very hard for me to accept my inability to find a way for us to continue doing God’s work together despite our unresolvable differences, but I had to, or else I would have been paralyzed when engaging with these issues in the future.

Similarly, I could not find this acceptance through shifting all the blame onto the people with whom I had the differences, or else I would have inevitably acted in bad faith when engaging with these issues in the future. After all, I had apparently been unable to navigate the rocky waters between my privileged position in the broader society and my more precarious position within this specific educational and activist context.

This experience was formative for a couple of reasons.

First, it established for me that there is, in fact, a point past which I am okay with people believing I am racist. The people who endure racism get to make that call. That's their moral right and a necessary part of them defending themselves from a hostile world.

Second, it established for me that my instinctive reaction to situations where claims about fact and history come into conflict--READ ALL THE THINGS--is actually productive. I usually learn that the argument I've walked into has actually been going on for a long time, in one form or another. Group insiders disagree about analyses of the forces affecting them and the actions that should be taken in response to those forces. Consensus views ebb and flow. Group outsiders grasp reflexively for something, anything they can use to either confirm their prejudices or guide them in making choices that can help ease the suffering of the oppressed.

Third, it established for me the existence of what I now (unoriginally) think of as "radsplaining," whereby one progressive lectures another about how, actually, it's false consciousness or unchecked privilege or lack of empathy that explains a disagreement--instead of the fact that the world is complicated and people can think long and hard about an issue in good faith and still reach different conclusions.

And now, as promised, the main point of this post.

For at least a year, there has been an ongoing argument about whether using "poly" as shorthand to cover polyamory, polyfidelity and other forms of ethical non-monogamous relationships makes it harder for Polynesians to preserve and expand their cultural ties to each other in the face of colonialism and diaspora. I first encountered it not as an argument at all. On the social media site Tumblr, where hashtags are a common way of connecting people with shared interests, a request made the rounds to reserve #poly for Polynesian spaces. The polyamorous Tumblr users I interact with basically said, hey, that makes sense, we'll change our tags.

The internet being the internet, and humans being humans, it didn't end there. A lot of (primarily white) people apparently took to the broad spectrum of social media to mock, dismiss and otherwise crap on the whole idea and its advocates. I say "apparently" because it happened places I don't generally go, so I don't have much direct evidence, but I completely believe it.

Aida Manduley provides a good overview of the controversy and some suggested action steps for people who try to make a habit of being considerate with their language use. Whether it sufficiently meets the concerns of the Polynesians it matters to--as Manduley notes, and as should be expected, she's received a very wide range of feedback from self-identified Polynesians--is for them to decide.

One of them, Lily Stone, decided it very much was not sufficient. Beyond it being a confusion of labels, she argues that poly-for-polyamorous "co-opted, white-washed, and repackaged" the true poly of Polynesians. As such, using it in any context whatsoever is violent and oppressive, even in private off-line conversations--or as she describes it in reference to Manduley, "away from accountability and call-outs."

Remember my tendency to READ ALL THE THINGS? A lot of those things have fallen into the categories of linguistics, classification and description of information, and group discernment in pluralistic environments. So I have thoughts in response to Stone's piece as an attempt to convince readers of the exclusive correctness of both her analysis and her demanded course of action.

But those thoughts can be (and to a lesser extent have already been) radsplained away. So let me explain in direct personal terms what the cost of categorically abandoning "poly" as a shorthand for relationships and sexuality would be.

"Poly" is the word that has held my family together through reconciling our different backgrounds with, and impulses toward, multiple relationships. "Poly" is the word that lets me blog about Christianity and multiple-adult families without throwing people who aren't polyfidelitous under the bus. "Poly" is the word that makes it possible for me to talk with friends and family on Facebook about my life and the problems with compulsory monogamy without linking myself to the popular movement of "polyamory" that I have very few formal ties or ideological commonalities with. "Poly" is the word that unites me and others in my MCC congregation who structure their lives very differently from me.

"Poly" is a lifeline, an existential necessity in the face of the fact that my family has no culture we can call ours. Mainstream white culture? Ha. Queer culture? We're either slippery slope speed bumps on the road to acceptance or assimilationist squares. Radical culture? We're not radical.

We've been cut off from our roots and have no branches. And we are committing an act of violence against Polynesians and their culture? Simply by using the tools we have available to survive? No. I empathize with Stone and others who agree with her analysis. I affirm that they have the right to advocate for whatever they feel is necessary for their own existential defense. I am happy to not tag things as #poly on social media. But I feel no moral or ethical pressure to say yes to the broader demand, the true nature of which they don't even know they're making.

And that's one example of why I don't aspire to be an ally. There is no amount of listening or empathizing I can do here that will change the fundamental impasse. If "white-washing Poly to mean anything other than Polynesian reinforces the imperialist colonialist erasure and eradication of [their] peoples," and abandoning "poly" as an identifier for myself and my family means I have to burn down and re-build decades of delicate psychological and theological self-construction, then I guess I'm gonna have to go with being an imperialist cultural eradicator.

Which, just so we're clear, I don't think I am. (At least, not any more than I already am by virtue of being a United States citizen and consumer of capitalist products, or whatever.) But they do. And the same will be true for some portion of any other marginalized group. Heck, even groups that I myself belong to--did you know that marriage equality "has nothing at all to do with any kind of social justice," for instance?

I wish empowerment and justice and thriving for everyone. I do my best to support them. But sometimes people will think I am counter-productive or actively destructive when I disagree with them. And I'm okay with that. Since I need to leave people the freedom to see me as their enemy, I rarely aspire to be an ally.


Some may ask why, if I am uncomfortable in applying the word "polyamorous" to myself, it's right there in the subtitle of my blog ("Welcoming Polyamorous Families into the Life of the Church"). I could write a treatise, but here are the bullet points:

  • Even before this controversy, I strongly believed in clarity and disambiguation. Sticking "polyamorous" at the top of each page was always intended to let readers (and search engines!) know what sort of "poly" I am writing about.
  • I am more comfortable with "polyamorous" as a clinical descriptor of relationships (including my family) than as a personal identifier that applies to me. I am writing about relationships that include more than two adults. They are not monogamous. (They are also not necessarily "non-monogamous," a category that includes swinging and monogamish arrangements.) The people in those relationships might apply any number of labels to themselves, up to and including "monogamous" or asexual and/or aromantic.
  • I do want all families that fall under the umbrella of "polyamorous" to be welcome in the life of the church, even if I can't myself currently reconcile some of their life choices with my understanding of Christian discipleship (or good sense). The subtitle is a reminder to myself as much as to others.
  • Look at the actual URL of my blog: I seriously considered calling it (see above re: search engines). The thought made me feel then, as it does now, physically ill.