Critical polyamorist blog
I am a minority within a minority. I am a polyamorist. Polyamory means being romantically involved with more than one person at a time. With the knowledge and consent of all involved. It does not mean just sex with multiple people. For me and many others it involves the heart.
And I am Native American. No really, I am! My great-grandmother was NOT a Cherokee princess. I am descended from at least four different tribal peoples, and I am a citizen of one of those tribes. And unlike some folks who claim a Native American identity based on some distant and sometimes unsubstantiated ancestor, my entire family—at least the biological relatives—are Native American. Of course, polyamory is not a traditional Native American practice. Or at least it’s no more or no less traditional historically than patronizing your local diamond counter, registering for china at Macy’s, and going down to the little white church. I’ll come back to that in a future blog post.
The polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff notes that people of color and working class people “do not appear in large numbers in mainstream poly communities.” Feminist scholar and critic of monogamy Angela Willey explains that while others engage in varied practices of non-monogamy without necessarily calling it “polyamory” there is a "white hegemony in poly literature" that "has tended to presume a universal subject, neutral and therefore implicitly white, middle-class, college educated, able bodied." As a woman of color raised poor or working class in rural America, although I am now a professional, there are challenges in being an explicit and especially rare practitioner of polyamory. Like many other poly people, I have a university degree. Of course! I would NEVER have been exposed to all of you poly folks if I did not. But after living and traveling in many places, I find that I am still a small town girl in ways that surprise me. My extended family is historically not very formally educated but we were nonetheless a book-reading and PBS-watching lot. I was exposed early on to politically oppositional thinking. My family is anti-racist and anti-homophobic. I am the only one who identifies as a feminist, but most of the women in my family act like they are. I have uncles, aunts, and cousins who are definitely country. Some of them hunt, own guns, and drive trucks. All of the recipes they post to Facebook involve something in a box and or a can. They shop at Walmart. None of us are vegetarians or hippies who practice free love in communes. Well, except me a little.
The Critical Polyamorist is an experiment to think through in cyberspace, as an unusually situated person, this adventure that I have embarked upon. This isn’t public journaling. I want to begin a conversation with other polyamorists who feel not only socially challenged in the broader monogamist culture but who also feel culturally challenged within our rather homogenous polyamorist communities. (Disclaimer: I live in middle America, not California or New York. Maybe there are more folks of color who are out as poly in those places. But it’s a pretty pale landscape around here.) I am starting this blog in order to reflect and converse about these struggles with others who feel like me. I know you are out there. I am interested in reaching folks who are grateful for the models other polyamorists provide to love plurally and ethically. Their books and blogs keep me committed to this path on those days when I am suddenly weary or sad. When I feel like falling back into monogamy because it seems easier, because the world is made by and for them. I often hear poly people talk about the lack of models in our society for living this kind of life. We are inundated from birth with monogamy, indoctrinated in its norms and values. Few of us are born into poly families. We often come to this path after living as monogamists for substantial portions of our lives. I have only identified as poly for about a year. At this point I am proceeding with more determination and faith than support or understanding.
And for a minority of us within an already poly minority, the examples and support we can find in mainstream poly communities fall short in specific ways as we struggle to do polyamory as particular raced and classed subjects. I identify not at all with the kind of New Age-tinged, communal mode of life taken up by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco in the 1970s that is credited with birthing the polyamory term. And I still see too much for my taste of stereotypical “hippie-dippy” culture in this community. But I am inspired by the systematic shift in both practice and thought that polyamory articulates. I like its intellectual substance. I just sometimes get turned off by its particular form of white cultural drag. I want to find a home in this poly world. If I’m going to do that I need to help make it more diverse. My gift to this community is to provide this place of reflection such as would reaffirm my struggle on those days when I doubt I can do this.
So what do I mean by “critical polyamory”? This blog brings critical social theory including analyses of U.S. race and culture to analyze poly life and politics from my perspective as a woman of color, as a rural-born and now urban-dwelling Native American professional. I take the label “critical” not to downplay the radical critique of our society’s compulsory monogamy that polyamorists already engage in. We poly people are critical thinkers and actors who think it is possible to ethically love multiple people simultaneously with the consent of all involved. Polyamory is in this sense inherently and deeply critical. But when I take up the label “critical” it is not redundant. It draws on a broader tradition of “critical social theory.” That is an academic term in which analysis and critique of social problems are not just for the good of knowledge, but they are geared toward social change. Indeed, in pushing for greater inclusion in dominant society, have communities of color not always explicitly called out both obvious and not so obvious politics and cultural practices that exclude our experiences and histories? Critical social theory traditionally brings insights from multiple social science and humanities disciplines (anthropology, psychology, history, sociology, literature etc). I will occasionally add insights from the biophysical sciences to inform my analyses of poly life and politics. That divide between society and nature is a false one anyway. The biophysical sciences also matter very much in understanding our world. And increasingly, disciplines are getting smeared across that line between culture and nature.
My kid tells me that I have an “evil sense of humor.” This blog will sometimes get evil, and hopefully funny. All names, locations, and other identifying information will be changed or hidden to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud.”
The Critical Polyamorist
 Angela Willey, “’Science Says She’s Gotta Have It’: Reading for Racial Resonances in Woman-Centered Poly Literature,” in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly