“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 RelationshipsTo 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 VerbMost 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.