But I’m Not Racist! Part I: Defining Terms

Discussions of racism and privilege are often hit by the Derail Train when people start arguing over semantics and can’t get past that first point, so I’m going to define my terms as we go. This post comes as a resource related to my talk at TOFCon 2013. (This is an expanded version of something I posted on Storify ~4 months ago.)

Stereotypes, Prejudice, Discrimination, Oppression

Since so many people get stuck on the definition of racism and there are many varying definitions out there, I’ll sidestep that issue and focus on oppression instead. While I’m at it, we’ll tackle some other related words.

  • Stereotypes: “are attitudes, beliefs, feelings and assumptions about a target group that are widespread AND socially sanctioned. Can be positive and negative, but all have negative effects. Stereotypes support the maintenance of institutionalized oppression by seemingly validating misinformation or beliefs” (defined by The Portland Community College’s Illumination Project)
  • Prejudice: “is favorable or unfavorable opinion or feeling about a person or group, usually formed without knowledge, thought or reason. It can be based on a single experience, which is then transferred to or assumed about all potential experiences” (defined by The PCC Illumination Project). Hepshiba clarifies: “You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your [prejudice].”
  • Discriminationdefined by hepshiba as: “what takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice.  This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation.  Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against “unattractive” women, for example).  You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against.  White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.”
  • Race-Based Oppression: Carlos Hoyt Jr. (in his article “The Pedagogy of the Meaning of Racism: Reconciling a Discordant Discourse”) explains it as “the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner against people on the basis of a supposed membership in a particular race or races—which can manifest at an individual (micro) level if it is perpetrated by a person who, motivated by racist beliefs, uses superior power and force over another person, or at the institutional (macro) level, when policies or resources are shaped and channeled to advantage or disadvantage racialized groups.” For my purposes here, I want to establish/clarify this is NOT a “one-off” thing (because I can tell some people are going to come at me with “well X white person was a victim of race-based oppression when Y black person was mean to them”).
  • Institutions: “are fairly stable social arrangements and practices through which collective actions are taken. Examples of institutions in the U.S. include the legal, educational, health care, social service, government, media and criminal justice systems” (defined by The PCC Illumination Project).
  • Institutional race-based oppression: Also defined by Hoyt, is “the network of institutional structures, policies, and practices that create advantages and benefits for the dominant social identity group, and discrimination, oppression, and disadvantages for people from the non-dominant social identity groups.” This is, according to PCC’s resource, “a matter of result regardless of intent,” and the barriers are usually invisible to those being favored by them. Regardless of if individuals within a system or institution are being oppressive individually, the institution itself can be overall oppressive.

In more ways than you even realize.

White Supremacy, White Privilege, & Light-Skin Privilege

White supremacy: “is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by White peoples and nations of the European continent for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege” (from the Chestnut Hill United Church Antiracism Resource Packet).

In other words: being part of a white supremacist system means directly or indirectly upholding the ideas that white folks are better, “normal,” and somehow more deserving of certain resources on the basis of race.

White supremacy’s not just cross-burning and the KKK, y’all. Though few people identify as white supremacists or members of the Klan, many people do things that intentionally or unintentionally uphold white supremacy & privilege. Furthermore, we often focus on extremes of race-based hatred, like lynchings and hate crimes (trigger-warning for that link, btw) and things that show up on the news (if we’re lucky), but that’s not what MOST people are going to be perpetrating. MOST people are going to be part of and/or witness to the subtler things and those are the ones the escape most people. (P.S. Hipster racism is still racism.)

White privilege“refers to the concrete benefits of access to resources and social rewards and the power to shape the norms and values of society that whites receive, unconsciously or consciously, by virtue of their skin color in a racist society” (definition from the Racial Equity Tools website).

In other words, white privilege = unearned advantages and good stuff, as well as the LACK of certain bad things, on the basis of being white and/or being perceived as such.

Light-skin privilege: is the phenomenon where people who are lighter (but not necessarily, or not JUST, white) have certain advantages as outlined above. This happens most obviously within, say, Latin@ communities, who are united by a particular ethnicity, though the “racial” makeup can vary widely. This is also related to colorism.

NOTE: The above definitions don’t mean White people face no oppression or struggles (we are all beautiful snowflakes with many intersecting identities), but it DOES mean that they don’t face systematic problems due to their race and/or skin-color here in the United States.

An example of white supremacy and privilege that I cited in my TOFCon presentation? The hot mess surrounding Paula Deen and her planning her son’s wedding to be that “true southern plantation style” celebration. From the Daily Beast article:

Deen objected to the accusation that she used the N-word to describe the waiters. Asked whether there was any possibility that she may have slipped and use the word, she said, “No, because that’s not what these men were. They were professional black men doing a fabulous job.” Still, when asked why nicely dressed black men would be a part of a “Southern plantation wedding,” she said it reminded her of southern America “before the Civil War.” After being reminded that black men serving people in the South before the Civil War were slaves, she agreed, but said she “did not mean anything derogatory” by her comments.

WHAT?! Exactly. Folks on Twitter had a field-day, coming up with the amazing and snarky #paulasbestdishes hashtag. (Though, uh, some non-black folks making additions to the list is super awkward because some are using slurs and it’s seemingly giving certain people “license” to say messed up stuff they wouldn’t otherwise be able to say publicly.)

Paula Deen's Best Dishes

Other examples?

#pauladeensbestdishes

It seems like there are way more allegations against her, and that this recent issue is not the only one. Surprising? Nope. Also filed under “Unsurprising” is her pretty crappy apology letter. Man, if you can look back on the pre-Civil War era South and just get the warm n’ fuzzies, it’s pretty likely you’re a white person. For a more reality-checked version of “the gallant South” and what black people faced, watch the videos below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

This is one of the most haunting songs ever. And if you want to hear Nina Simone’s rendition, I got you! Click below and take a listen. Then stay tuned for Part II of my “But I’m Not Racist!” series.

Notes on Fetishizing People

I’ve recently been part of some conversations about attraction where the following questions/ideas have come up–“am I a chaser? am I fetishizing a community if I’m attracted to its members? is this terrible? is this something I need to think further about? can’t I just say I like XYZ and have it be that, with no ulterior motive? we all have fetishes [here on Fetlife] and some of those things are actions or body parts or people, or IDs…”

There’s a difference between
(a) liking a person’s appearance/body and appreciating it sexually/aesthetically 
and (b) placing value solely or primarily on that person’s body/appearance/identity category.
In (b), the person’s story, their life, their individuality is not of primary concern. It is less important than the “hot” identity that makes a person want them. This is also tied to someone having particular ideas about that identity (enter stereotypes!), which increase the desire and do not depend on reality, but on a fictional set of ideas and narratives about a person’s identity.

There are things we might find hot, but we should still interrogate those desires a bit more closely because so often they’re deeply entwined with racist, misogynistic, [insert ID]-st shit and they deserve a closer look. Really analyzing our desires, I think, can also serve to clarify them better for ourselves as well as for potential partners. For example, liking transwomen can be a thing for many reasons–it could be something about the history of transness, or the presumed/assumed anatomy, or it can be about finding someone similar/likewise trans*, or it’s an assumed attitude, the list goes on. What are you attracted to within the demographics you say you like? Are you attracted to women? To masculinity? To femininity? To genderqueerness? To men? To people with lots of hair regardless of what’s in their pants? The list can go on…

Personally, it can be tough for me to interact with people that I know fetishize some aspect of me. Random example–people who love “BBW” (Big Beautiful Women)! Personally, if I were approached by a self-identified “BBW fetishist” I’d probably give them some major side-eye because my experiences seeing that community deal with its attraction to fat bodies has been pretty sketchy in parts, and pretty objectifying. Ditto to someone who loves “Latin@s.” I’d question their motives, their interests, and their desires. I’d ask myself what about me are they stereotyping? Why is my Latinidad important to them? Is it something they wanna celebrate with me or is it something they want to keep out of sight and out of mind (and thus is easy to do because I don’t have an accent and am light-skinned)?

I think stuff like this can happen with any ID “category” (even things like…”gamer”), but it’s just exceptionally complicated and potentially hurtful to people when it’s around identity categories that put that person through shit and other people use to oppress them. Being a person of color or being queer or being fat are not “neutral identities”–they are loaded one that have been previously (and currently!) deployed to control people.

Finally, this conversation this also relates to (but is not the same as) being attracted to someone for how they are perceived and not how they actually identify, or ignoring a piece of someone’s ID because they can “pass” as something else that’s less “problematic.” For example, someone only/primarily being attracted to folks who appear/”act” white, regardless of actual cultural/racial/ethnic background, or someone being attracted to trans* folks that can pass as cis for whatever reason.

My 7th Grade Class Helped Me Define My Relationships

I remember learning about elements and electron-shell diagrams in my 7th grade science class. Who would’ve thought that that same model I saw on the whiteboard would be the key to explaining what the heck I was doing with my relationships years later?


Please scroll to the bottom for a 2016 update/note!


Fluorine has 2 electrons on
the first shell and 7 on the
second shell.

Unless you count a torrid online romance with a guy from Canada when I was 14, at the age of 19 I’d never been in a relationship. All my knowledge of the mechanics of sex and intimacy were purely theoretical, and then I suddenly launched into something with a married polyamorous man with a Ph.D who was almost 10 years my senior. Oh, and did I mention he also had another girlfriend in addition to his wife? Though precocious and definitely interested in alternative sexuality since before high-school, nothing had prepared me for this relationship model.

So I did what any self-respecting nerd would do: I researched! I devoured everything I could find online about non-monogamy (and polyamory especially), spending hours upon hours reading personal accounts, advice columns, informational websites, and research papers. I had to unlearn a lot of things and reprogram my brain to understand this new model of relationship. In that process, I had to interrogate the metaphors I used to describe my love-life, what visual representations I used to talk about significant others, and what kind of language in general I used to describe my intimacy and the people involved.

Enter: SCIENCE!

If “Lithium” actually just meant
“Aida,” this diagram would say that
I have 2 primaries and 1 secondary!

With increased hands-on experience (wink wink, nudge nudge) in non-monogamous living came more “opportunities” to describe my situation, both to potential partners and the general public.

One of the hurdles in explaining my relationship configuration was discussing how I could have two super important partners at the same time. I’m a pretty visual person, and non-monogamy sometimes necessitates a lot of diagramming, so I needed something I could draw for people. At some point along the way, my brain cycled back to my 7th grade science class and the electron-shell diagrams seemed to resonate.

So how does this work for me (and how might it work for you)? Read on, look at the Lithium diagram to the right, and keep the following in mind:

  • The big, red circle is the nucleus (made up of protons and neutrons), and that is the self (me!)
  • The little gray circles are electrons, and those are other people
  • The shells/rings are levels of commitment/closeness

1: There can be more than one electron/person on each shell (which goes against the ideas of “only one soulmate” in the monogamy model and against the “only one primary” notion in some polyamorous communities). The electrons don’t occupy the same exact space on the shell (read: the electrons are not on top of each other, ), but they ARE on the same shell, so it embodies how multiple primary partners are on the same general level of importance but are still fulfilling in different aspects.

2: Up to a certain point, the further a shell is from the nucleus, the higher the maximum number of electrons allowed on it. (For example: the first shell can hold a max. of 2 electrons, the second shell can hold a max. of 8, and the third shell can hold a max. of 18.) In relationship-talk, that means that I have a maximum number of people that I can pay attention to at a given time on a given rung, and I could have bigger numbers of lower-investment relationships than higher-investment relationships*. The maximum of two on the innermost shell is also probably accurate; I don’t think I could ever handle more than 2 primaries!

3 (not tied to the shell diagram, but just general atomic knowledge I wanted to include)While the electrons affect the charge of an atom, an element is identified by the number of protons in the nucleus. This jives well with the idea that while relationships might change me (and, heh, make me more positive or negative), I’m my own person and I have a recognizable identity outside of whomever I am partners with at a particular time.

4: Finally, just because a shell has a maximum number of electron spots available, it doesn’t mean  I HAVE to try to get that shell full of electrons or that bed full of people just because I can.

*Still, the model isn’t perfect. Number of partners on each “commitment rung” don’t have to follow the “filling” patterns of atoms. For example, in Real Science, each shell can only hold a particular maximum number of electrons (2, 8, 18, 32 for the first four shells) and shells get filled from the inside out, so I wouldn’t have an element/relationship with 2 electrons/people on the first shell, 4 in the second, and then 9 in the third. In my love life, however, I could totally have 5 casual partners and no primary, or perhaps I could have 2 primaries, 1 secondary, and 12 tertiaries. And actually, according to the Madelung Energy Ordering Rule, there are certain atoms who have “partially-filled” outer rings, so straying from the 2, 8, 18, 32 pattern is possible, but not the rule by any means.


07/30/16 — Edited to add: How I personally arrange my relationships and what words I use for them has changed considerably throughout the years! It’s important to clarify that the way I describe relationship arrangements here follows (or can follow) a fairly hierarchical model (though different from the “only one primary” idea, and without the problematic “only primaries matter” mentality). This electron shell model is useful for some but certainly not exhaustive, and there are tons of layers of nuance we can/should layer on top of it. This shell model can help with broad explanations and debunking some common misconceptions, but it doesn’t say anything about kinds of commitment, what names and partnerships in these “relationship rungs” look like, or anything like that. Intimacy and commitment are rarely so easily categorizable, so please keep that in mind when perusing. For some food for thought on polyamory, hierarchy, and more, check this and this out.

A Paragraph on Sex-Positivity: GO!

At its core, sex-positive individuals like myself see sexuality as a potentially joyful and productive aspect of human life, one that should not be rooted in shame and relegated to whispered conversations. I find it such an important and boundary-breaking way of looking at the world because it doesn’t dictate specific courses of action so much as it promotes comprehensive education and the availability of options for people to make their own decisions. Thus, there is no “one correct” way of experiencing pleasure and/or expressing one’s sexuality, but instead plenty of room for nuance, fluidity, and difference. For me particularly, sex positivity is deeply tied to ideas about feminism, anti-oppression work, and notions of intersectionality; it’s about the individual, but also the community. Bringing a sex positive attitude into practice means striving for the liberation of individuals from structural forms of oppressive control—recognizing that these don’t play out in the same ways for everyone—and asserting the right of people to pursue their sexual pleasure in ways that feel right for them, as long as they do so in a consensual, informed manner.

Advertising: Hope, Crying, and Culture

I often feel a desire to cry during movie previews. Well, not the movie previews, exactly, but some of the ads they play before movies–the ones with swelling music and Spanish words and some bullshit about what it means to be Puerto Rican. The Banco Popular one? Dear lord, it makes me well up like nobody’s business. There’s a longer version out there, but this the version in theaters (and it’s faster-paced):

Click here for it. Like, I’m watching it right now and I’m tearing up, even though I’ve watched it a bunch of times before. The part where the children’s chorus comes in? Ohhhhh man. If I haven’t cracked by then, that does it. (Of course, I have to be in the zone for the tears to be inevitable; catch me off guard or stressed and I will wave away the ad with annoyance.)

Anyway, I’ve translated the lyrics for those of you who are Spanish-impaired. 😛

I’m the light of the morning
that illuminates new paths,
that goes flooding the mountains,
the farmer trails.
I’m the fruit of the future,
the seeds of tomorrow,
planted in pure dung (read: fertilizer)
of my boricua land.
I’m a fisherman of dreams;
I go looking for a sea of spume
of shells and sands,
of sirens and moons.
Of stars and horizons,
my fortune is composed.
I’m a sailing seagull and an astronaut of fog.
Of the bread, I am the yeast that feeds the hope
of the Puerto Rican man,
of the awakening of my mother country.
I bring boricua blood;
I’m the son of the palm-trees, of the toads (does the song say sapos?) and the rivers
and of the singing of the coquí,
of valleys and coffee plantations,
of sugar-cane and pineapple,
of guava and mampostiales,
of tembleque and maví.

I chose to not translate tembleque, maví, and mampostiales. It feels too weird to see them in English, somehow linguistically reduced, or transformed into something else. But, if you MUST know:

  • mampostiales = “very thick, gooey candy bars of caramelized brown sugar and coconut chips, challenging to chew and with a strong, almost molasses-like flavor”
  • tembleque = creamy coconut pudding usually garnished with cinnamon on top
  • maví = “mauby,” a drink! (“The drink or syrup for the drink is made by boiling a specific buckthorn bark, Colubrina elliptica, with sugar and a variety of spices. In looking at individual recipes on how people make mauby, you’ll note spices and flavorings vary exceedingly. Cinnamon is usually included, but then the drink flavoring diverges according to recipe. Some people add cloves, anise, vanilla extract, or cola flavoring. For more info, just check the wiki.”)

If this doesn’t make your mouth water at least a LITTLE, you should get your salivary glands checked. Anyway. Why do I get so emotional? Part of it is the setting of the theater, of course, that sets the stage (no pun intended); everything is bigger and louder and more intense there, plus the darkness creates an air of intimacy and solitude (that’s more believable when one is not in a packed room with some dingbat kicking the back of one’s seat), or at the very least of uninterrupted connection to what is onscreen. However, even when I’m not in the theater, I can get teary-eyed. It’s the idea of this, well, idealized Puerto Rico. It’s a longing for that, and not coupled with the belief that it’s nonexistent, but with the belief that there IS that beauty and that wonder in the Puerto Rico in which I live–that it’s just a matter of stopping and appreciating it, or finding it, or even just knowing how and when to look. The beautiful visuals and music create an air of hope…and if an ad is going to make me feel something, hope is a fucking fantastic choice. It makes the viewer tune in to that part of themselves, the hopeful part, the part that identifies as Puerto Rican, the part that wants to be proud of the mother country and not ashamed. It’s the part that goes “yes yes yes” during the whole ad.

To me, advertising is important. Heck, I wanted to GO into advertising for a while! All things being equal, or more or less equal, I WILL give preference to the organization with better ads, not because I believe their product is better, but because I admire their advertising and feel like rewarding them for a job well done. I will purposefully choose to support a company whose ads I like. And speaking of other ads I like, Harris Paints created a CLASSIC with this one:

Click here.
This thing was played at EVERY MOVIE SHOWING IN EVERY THEATER (of the Caribbean Cinemas chain, at least, but I’m pretty sure CineVista also played them). It ran for YEARS. People went into a movie and sang along to this during the previews, some in barely audible whispers, others in great, booming voices. It was glorious. They eventually retired the commercial after a bunch of years and everyone got upset. And what does this ad have in common with the Banco Popular one? It invokes our sense of Puerto-Rican-ness AND it has great visuals AND catchy music. It talks about paint colors in terms of Puerto Rican things, colors WE know because we see them every day or we are at least pretty damn familiar with them. Green is not fucking…kelly-green or hunter green or limeade green, it’s “verde quenepa.” Red is this red, of the flamboyán (Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant). Blue is the blue of the cobblestones that line San Juan’s streets. And so on. In fact, here are the lyrics:

Paint your life
with the colors of my land.
Paint your life.
Piragua strawberry,
white like coconut,
mango yellow.
Quenepa green,
cobblestone blue,
flamboyán red,
turquoise of the sea.
The colors of my land,
our colors,
paint your life
with the colors
that Harris gives you.

Mmm, gotta love appealing to people’s sense of unified culture. I’ll avoid cynicism for now (shocking!). And for clarification, a piragua is like a snowcone, but the top is pointy like a pyramid (not rounded like a snowball). SO yes. Other ads or previews make me cry too, for different reasons. It’s usually the beauty in them, though, that captures me; they’re so intense and beautiful that I just can’t help but tear up. Same thing with music.

Defining Relationships & Breakups: Musings & Ramblings

Part of a journal entry I wrote like 3 months ago,
when these thoughts were fresh and raw in my mind.
A bunch of stuff has been added and subtracted
for the sake of clarity/elaboration

(and of not being too personal :P).

Generally, just because people go through rough patches or “more friendliness than mad desire” patches, they don’t just break up. However, what if one’s not enmeshed in what’s considered a traditional romantic relationship (or even a traditional breakup)? What if there was no big and official “want to be my girl/boy/x-friend?” What if there’s no “finality” to a split and there’s always the hazy possibility of somehow getting back together on any/some level? How does one define a breakup there? What exactly is there to break off, first of all? “How do you ground that which is ungroundable?” (shameless South Park reference; goth episode) If a couple hasn’t created a set boundary around them that they can just topple if the need arises; if they haven’t wrapped themselves with ropes that can be severed if shit comes to that…

Sometimes the words “breaking up” aren’t even uttered, and the shift in a relationship begins its demarcation through the “Uh-oh, where do we go from here?” An answer to such a question–particularly in the case where both sides wish to remain friendly and are breaking up for non-spiteful/dramatic reasons–would probably consist of defining expectations (or a lack thereof, which I think is an expectation in itself, anyway) and talking about how the involved parties would interact with each other “post-breakupwhateverthisis” more than anything else. “The Talk” in such a case would not be about about not seeing each other again, or “breaking up,” or anything of the sort. It would be about the repercussions of such a decision–the ACTIONS that would come as a result, and thus, it would involve setting clear expectations and boundaries, essentially redefining the relationship. Or something like that. Because sometimes, some people don’t like boundaries and expectations, or have little regard for their own, so that makes things at once easier and a thousand times more difficult for the other party. But I digress.

Even the words BREAKING UP sound a little harsh, no? The connotation of rupturing something, of violence, of pain. In Spanish (at least where I’m from), it would be more like “we left each other” or “X left me; I left X.” It’s more about the act of separation than a violence of breaking something (off) or someone being left in pieces. Then again, saying “s0-and-so left me” sounds really sad, too, so I guess I’m just focusing on the “mutual” terms–“we broke up” and “nos dejamos.” Maybe it’s just my experience, but to ME, “nos dejamos” sounds way less “explosive” than “we broke up.” I guess a more neutral way of putting it in English could be “we’re no longer seeing each other” or “we’re no longer together” even if those aren’t literally accurate (especially the former). Meh.

With that in mind, explaining a breakup is so strange, especially because a lot of people usually expect it to be a shitshow–crying fits, pints of ice-cream on Friday nights, awkward drunken dialing weeks afterward, gossip smacktalk, people begging to be taken back, keys scratching sides of cars, spiteful exes…DRAMA. If it’s not that, some people just wait on the sidelines, waiting for the shit to hit the fan (or someone’s head). This is…sometimes realistic? Since breaking up IS often a messy affair, I guess? But it’s also detrimental, I think. Having one’s friends constantly waiting for one’s ex to fuck it up? When a breakup “goes well,” having friends say “just wait” because “your ex is going to shit on your head”? Like…no. That’s not helpful. I understand where it’s coming from, but it just seems so negative to stand there waiting for bad shit (especially when the people doing are not even the ones who broke up, but their friends). It’s good to be realistic and acknowledge the possibility that parties involved in a breakup may turn to asshattery, but the perverse “waiting for it with an expectant smile” seems unhealthy to me. It’s no longer being realistic; it’s being pessimistic and masochistic. I think a better approach would be to say “yes, shit may hit the fan, and we’ll deal with it when/if it does, but for NOW, let’s just deal with what’s on our plate at the moment and not get ahead of ourselves.”

So, in the case of a “non-traditional” breakup (regardless of why it’s non-traditional and all the “but what does traditional even MEAN?” whatnot), especially one that is more about redefining a relationship than cutting it off entirely, the whole language and connotations surrounding “breakups,” I feel, are inadequate. But maybe that’s just me.

Moving on a bit–defining (or not?) relationships based on their little spurts and little individual moments is not something I’m used to–like, “we don’t have a label, but oh, today we’re more like romantic partners, and oh, today I feel more like ‘just’ friends.” That can work…but it also has its pitfalls. I like having that safe blanket-statement that covers and defines as a WHOLE what a relationship is. I’ll admit, it feels liberating and wonderful to NOT have that definition, because sometimes there’s just no need for it. But sometimes…it’s good and useful and safe to have it. But…relationships are fluid, I guess, and things do change, so an inherent label fluidity there is also useful. BUT what if the two people aren’t on the same plane and don’t talk about it? Pain and angst can ensue. However, that can be curbed with open, constant communication so one person doesn’t think “oh we’re together” when another thinks “oh we’re just friends” or something like that. I guess both have their pros and cons. The key to all of them is still communication, though, and NOT just making assumptions all the time.

Still, I do think that those blanket-statements can be good; they define the commitment the two people have toward each other, y’know? Regardless of how individual interactions play out, there is an underlying base there. If it ever needs to change, it CAN, but it allows the couple to operate under a certain set of assumptions and expectations (they define) while the label is in place. For example, within a marriage, there will probably be an ebb and flow of erotic desire and all that jazz, but underneath that, there is a commitment and there is a love and there is a fixed label. That’s the point I’m trying to get across. Just because the romance isn’t always there doesn’t mean there is NOTHING there at ALL. But in order to have those blanket-statements…one would have to pinpoint the place(s) where a relationship morphed from something into something else. How did a couple move from acquaintances to people who had sex with each other / friends to people with a more emotional…I don’t even know? And…fixed labels are such a terrible idea anyway…lol. I guess what I’m saying is that those “fixed” labels (such as wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend) require an acknowledgment of some sort of transition between spaces/other labels and NECESSITATE those distinctions in the first place.

Those fixed labels provide some form of “security” and “proof of underlying commitment.” However, they can mean whatever one wants them to mean, I guess (e.g. for some, a serious relationship implies exclusivity, but for others it doesn’t)…so the terms are devoid of inherent and universal meaning (nothing new there?), except for the implication that there is SOME sort of relationship there…and thus I guess it works out fine in the end, as long as one approaches the terms and labels in such a fashion and acknowledges how they work (or don’t).

So where does one draw the line between a lover and a friend, though? (And now I’m obviously going to be speaking for myself and my own desires, expectations, and boundaries) That’s the thing. 🙂 I don’t know. Before, it was easy. It was easy because my definition of love was pretty much singular. Now that my conception of what love is/can be is broader, it’s harder to draw little lines between things like “lovers” and “friends.” I mean, my lovers ARE friends, but not all my friends are lovers…so is the only difference the sex? What about FWBs? Those can be friends AND lovers, but lack a certain…spark, I guess. Is it a lack of sexual/emotional/romantic commitment and/or desire? Maybe. I think that’s part of the key. Who knows. The difference between love and in love under my new parameters? These things are all fuzzier now that I’ve embraced a more non-monogamous perspective, too. If before I might have defined the divide between a friend and lover with arising feelings of jealousy or possessiveness or a desire for exclusivity (especially the latter!)…now I can’t use it to define relationships because I DON’T feel that way, or don’t feel that that way is the ONLY way to construct a healthy relationship. So…ultimately—the line dividing the love between lovers and friends…is actually unnecessary in many cases. It’s a fluid line ANYWAY, which at any moment could potentially “be crossed,” so when it comes down to it…whatever. The line between who is considered a friend and a lover, however, I do feel is more important. Again, because of its relevance to relationship status and “official” shit, especially with monogamy.

A few examples I read about on an LJ polyamory group I follow:

A. The best I can come up with is: With your significant other there is an expectation of a certain level of communication and priority that goes beyond friendship. It has aspects more closely resembling a partnership, where final decisions are made together with the partner’s needs and wants a high priority. For instance, if I invited my best friend to Christmas, but he told me he was going to spend Christmas with his girlfriend and her family, I would bow out without complaint and wish them happy holidays. His girlfriend has priority. No problem. If my [primary?] boyfriend told me he would spend Christmas with another girlfriend without discussing it with me, I would be hurt that he hadn’t talked about it or wanted to negotiate.

B. An SO is a romantic partner whose needs I consider if I get sick of a location and decide I want to move. (Though I think this varies a bit if a person has hierarchized primary/secondary relationships and stuff, especially if they’re married? Though considering needs doesn’t mean making them priorities, so I guess that works…)

C. For example, if I want to quit my job, or move to another city, or have a child, or yadda yadda. Friends, fuckbuddies and similar people in my life might have input and I value their opinions. However, what they say will not have a deciding vote on my decision. The people who I consider to be my partners are those whose input will affect my final decision on those kinds of matters. (Again, the primary/secondary hierarchy, if in place, would matter here for some people.)

D. It’s an extra level of connection and commitment – I love you dearly, and share my life with you, and beyond that, we will work together as a team and see each other’s goals and hopes as our own. I will care for you when you are sick, as you would for me. We share our resources, invest together, and actively build our family’s future. (Older age-bracket, or simply more geared to cohabitating partners, which is not my case at the moment.)

E. If I have a good opportunity that would force me to move, I’d say “I’ll miss you” to a friend and “Do you think I should go/When can you come with me?” to an SO. I’d also be more expecting that an SO would try to move with me than a friend would. So, in my mind, I guess, an SO has a level of long-term commitment to work together towards common goals, where a friend, while maybe emotionally and physically intimate, doesn’t.

My personal example was (since I am not dealing with cohabitation, children, or pooling of resources at this point in my life): If I wanted to start a monogamous relationship with someone, but found I couldn’t without SOMEHOW breaking up with other people in my life…that’s a pretty nice indicator. Or, er, putting it in a different and less negative light, if I’m beginning to date someone and there is another person (or a set of other people) whose level of closeness and intimacy I feel I should inform this new potential partner about because it would/should/might affect their decision to date me or not, then that’s an indicator.

I guess the importance of labels is relevant in terms of how one’s relationships impact, er, one’s relationships. We don’t live alone, or in pairs, so what we do and whom we do it with affects things outside the “immediate” circle. Also, Linda/Speedy brought up a nice point in our discussion of this–labeling friendships. We both have decided to NOT label friendships (in terms of what kind they are, like best friend, better friend, close friend, yada yada)–people are friends and that’s it. Trying to hierarchize and tier-off friendships would be hard and not really productive, especially in a world where social circles shift, people move for college, and friendships can be established and/or carried on via the internet, or after being incommunicado for months (even years). Personally, I feel each individual relationship gets negotiated between the two people involved. There are friends whom I’d drive 100 miles to see, there are some whom I wouldn’t, and there are yet others whom it would depend on a multitude of other factors.

That’s a reason I don’t want people to gauge my love for them or my interest in our friendship by, say, what gifts I get them, or what random things I do for them, or what things I feel are appropriate to share. Sometimes I feel more inspired and creative, or have more time, or *know* a certain person REALLY wants X object, and so I get it for them..but it doesn’t “devalue” the other relationships I have. I think the non-zero-sum love model is applicable here as well, and that whatever happens in one relationship adds or detracts from THAT relationship, not the others. Anyway, I guess I’m not worried about labeling friendships because they don’t…affect our “official relationship status” or legal standing. Because that’s the biggest and most relevant, I guess, real-world and long-term application of all this theorizing = legal benefits and the difference between singlehood, domestic partnerships, and marriage. I’m not going to get into that now, but I just wanted to put it out there for those that may feel all this rambling is totally unecessary. 🙂

To wrap things up, I wanted to say that I’m in favor of using new terms or unique words/phrases to describe relationships. Kinda like what Katie/TLC do (or did). Calling a partner “kool-aid” (e.g. She’s my kool-aid!) or “licorice” or something of that nature is interesting. Using labels for people that are more descriptive, or personal, like…cuddle-buddies, cagemates, occasional lovers, sweeties etc. They’re more individualized categories than gf/bf/xf and such. The labels mean whatever the two people involved want them to mean. However, when translating that so other people can understand…it gets a little harder. That’s something one can deal with, though, somehow. Whatever. Analogies, anyone? I loves dem.

Ok. Blah. I’m done. Enough about relationships.

Real Women Have _______ [edited]

Statement by Gabrielle Hennessey via Flickr.

I hate Dove’s “Real Women Have Curves” slogan with a passion. I stuffed my bra in seventh grade because of ideas like that, because of society’s undying belief that Breasts = Woman. A few days ago I walked into a store and a fellow shopper didn’t hesitate to tell her partner that my body was “gross.”

She said this while three or four feet away from me. I assume she wanted me to hear her and feel bad about my alleged eating disorder/unhealthiness/low self esteem, so that I’d go home and cry over some bonbons about my wasted life and listen to Christina Aguilera and discover my inner beauty and suddenly gain thirty pounds so I could be normal like her.

Real women have hearts and blood and bones. They have skin that breaks and nerves that feel the cold. They are made up of carbon and water and constantly renewing cells. They know who they are.

Real women may not have breasts. They may not even have vaginas. They might like girls or boys or a bit of both or neither at all. They may not always consider themselves to be women, or they might have to fight to be called such since no one else believes them.

Find a new slogan, Dove. Thousands of the people you’ve unwittingly condemned as Not Real Women are waiting.

Enjoy your profits.

Oh, labels. What makes a “woman”? What makes someone “[insert group here]”? What makes someone anything? If breasts don’t make a woman, what does? Is it the chromosomes? Is it the genital appearance? Is it the clothes? Is it other people’s perception of them as a member of a certain group? Is it a certain grouping of these aforementioned things? Is it an intangible essence, a “je ne sais quoi” of “woman-ness”? What does that even MEAN? And why is it necessary to make this distinction?

If we reduce these broad categories (e.g. woman, man, Latin@, homosexual, American, etc) to a list of “traits,” no one person will embody all of them. However, devoid of things that describe a label or devoid of things that make UP a definition, categories become meaningless. With no signified, the signifier becomes empty–just surface, with nothing beneath it. We keep using these terms in hopes that they will represent our realities somehow and allow us to communicate with one another, and ourselves.

The problem with all labels is that they ultimately define through exclusion; they purport to build a community based on, yes, shared traits or ideas or WHATEVER, but it always happens at the expense of keeping “something” out. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to ask for the abolition of all labels and categories because I DO find them useful (although inherently flawed). What I’m going to ask for is the fluidity and openness of thought to think outside those categories and constantly question them. What I’m going to ask for is a critical, analytical approach to definitions and life in general–one that will allow for change, multiplicity, and a degree of uncertainty about it all.

Next time you ask yourself “Oh, is that person [insert label here]?,” ask YOURSELF why you even need to know. Not because you don’t need to know the answer to your original question (maybe you do, maybe you don’t, whatever), but because I feel an integral part of understanding the world is understanding (or at least trying to understand) ourselves. Being introspective and looking at our own minds and our own actions in a way that is honest, questioning, and even slightly playful (because taking things seriously 24/7 only leads to nasties like high blood-pressure and a permanently furrowed brow) can tell us a lot about the world and why we perceive it the way we do. Asking yourself why you need to know if the person sitting next to you on the bus is “a girl or a boy” or “Mexican or Asian” will probably (eventually?) show you some of your own preconceptions, and by becoming self-aware, you can finally begin a process of growth and change. You can’t break the bars of cages you can’t see.