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A Letter to My Teenage Sister: On the Challenge of Loving Freely While Black

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October 1, 2019

By Keyanah Nurse

To my Baby Sister: 

Society taught me at a very young age that the value of black women, rather than being an indisputable fact, has always been up for debate.  I saw this at home, as our mother sought to prove her desirability, her lovability through caring for weak and abusive men. I saw this in school, as the invisible yet inescapable social currency of whiteness depreciated my own self-worth.  And I saw this in the media, as black women could only be (il)legible through a series of tired tropes: the vixen, the mammy, the sapphire

You’re fifteen years old now, and I imagine that you, too, have encountered this idea.  While certainly old in its origins, this characterization of black women as it appears on social media is novel, unforgiving, and somewhat inescapable, especially for your generation. I suppose this is the part where I insert the caveat about all men carrying around some form of misogynoir, but you and I can appreciate the particular weight of that devaluation from men of our own hue. Indeed, it often seems like the ones most proud of their participation and success within the interracial dating market are usually the loudest. True to form, they point out the ways in which we, as black women, are not submissive enough, not grateful enough, not quiet enough, not beautiful enough.  We are, in short, lacking. They never fail to remind us that they have left for greener pastures.

It is hard not to internalize these messages, try hard as one might.  It is especially difficult if there is no one there to tell you or show you otherwise.  I don’t presume to be that example for you or to have the problem of insecurity figured out.  In fact, the insecurities we carry specifically as black women are not so easily disbanded. They are rooted, deep.  They trouble the line between self and society, leaving little space for an “I” to keep safe and to nourish. But cultivating the self and defining a black femininity on your own terms is entirely possible. 

I know we haven’t always been close.  The twelve-year age gap has been difficult terrain for me to navigate. If I’m completely honest, I also haven’t tried very hard to do so. I’m sorry about that.  But I’d like to make amends for that, and share with you some of the details of how polyamory, or the practice of loving multiple people openly and simultaneously, has helped me cultivate a fuller self.  It hasn’t always been the easiest, especially since this journey into polyamory has also been accompanied by a foray into the politics of interracial dating. But whoever said that self-actualization would be easy? 

When I first began my journey into polyamory, I had a hard time accepting that I took pleasure in the fact that dozens of men found me attractive and desirable.  I so desperately wanted to be the woman that didn’t need the attention, that didn’t derive validation from it. When your brother-in-law and I first opened our relationship, I was genuinely surprised that men found me beautiful. But night after night, the universe offered me proof that the narrative I constructed for myself – that I was lucky even one person found me tolerable – was completely and utterly untrue.  I felt “seen” in an entirely different way, newly convinced that my physical person could be sexy and desirable and enticing. The cognitive dissonance was intoxicating.

Given that I had already been in the throes of a deep romance with your brother-in-law for nearly four years at the time, this sentiment probably seems surprising or ridiculous to you.  It is. I suppose after some years, I forgot about the initial spark we shared, a comparable and familiar feeling of surprise that he, too, wanted me. I fondly recall our budding relationship, how we spent hours silently and diligently studying together on campus; how bursts of passion typically followed thereafter, with our black and brown flesh finding new ways to contort itself on those extra long twin beds in our dorms.  Ironically, it was only through years of getting lost in each other that we were able to find ourselves, to embrace with courage rather than fear the sexual and romantic curiosity that others sparked within us. But he was, unbeknownst to me in those early days, the first mirror through which I could see an undistorted version of myself.      

But back to the story: We “opened” up. I was living in Buenos Aires at the time, and I practiced my newfound sexual freedom primarily with white men.  It would be disingenuous of me to downplay the erotic charge of the novelty of that experience. Although I have navigated white spaces for years, I have always done so with a kind of invisibility.  It simply never occurred to me that white people could ever be interested in me romantically or sexually.

My excitement and intrigue around attracting the attention of white men is not particularly something I’m proud of, and in hindsight, I have questioned my own hypocrisy in that regard.  What made me any different from the black men I so resented, from those who sought women outside of our community? Was I too susceptible to the lure of whiteness, enamored by its recognition, its validation?  I quickly discovered that no, I was not. While I’m still riding the high of shedding the limitations of monogamy, the rush of those new lovers quickly wore off and the hang-over they left me with was exceptionally harsh.  Those moments of physical connection that were tainted with the discomfort of racial fetishization remain etched, perhaps permanently, in the recesses of my memory. I wonder: did my white lovers have the same fascination with my natural curls as I did with their straight tresses?  Were those tender caresses, in fact, transgressive? Were they the spark, the charge that animated our fleeting connections? Yes, to all the above. 

Juggling those particular lovers – there were about four of them, if I remember correctly – was like walking through a funhouse of mirrors. At first, I thought these various iterations of myself could simply be emerging facets of my developing personality.  We are, after all, always in flux, always becoming. Maybe I could be hypersexual, a vixen of sorts, in the way that these men thought I must be given my complexion. Maybe I could make manifest their fantasies of what it might be like to be kissed and touched by brown lips and by brown hands. After all, they, too, wanted the novelty of the experience. I cannot definitely point out the moment I recognized my own distortion through these encounters. I only remember desperately missing the peace I felt with your brother-in-law, and with him the ability to grow and change unencumbered by the bounds of a stereotypically racist black femininity. 

I can recognize the perversity of those early moments because I now have a point of contrast.  You have met my other partner. You have seen that he, too, is white. The fact of his whiteness is not something I ignore.  It appears often, especially in conversation. I plead for him to understand, to hold emotional space for my racial and gendered baggage.  He rises to the challenge more often than not, and I have grown to love him precisely because he does not reflect back a distorted view of who I am.  I feel absolute freedom when he touches me, when he plays in my curls, when he holds me and deeply inhales the back of my neck. In fact, much like your brother-in-law, he challenges me to let go of the distortions of myself that I have internalized. 

Not surprisingly, these distortions are deeply racist and misogynistic.  They encourage me to be the worst version of myself: a woman who compares herself to other women, and can only derive her self-worth from a sense of superiority.  But these distortions also whisper to me all the ways in which I do not and will never compare to the thin white women that my white partner points out as beautiful and attractive.  These women and I are not in the same league, they tell me. I know that he and I are polyamorous, that we have agreed to love multiple people, and that our agreement carries with it an exceptional degree of transparency about our desires for and fantasies about others.  But how do I put into the words the sinking feeling of hearing about his attraction to white women? How can I uncouple it from the inescapable and persistent societal reminders of the desirability of white women above all others? I lack answers to these questions, but I suspect that it all boils down to this: the more he affirms his love for me, the more he assures me that he does not conflate whiteness with beauty, the more I, in turn, must accept that these are my own insecurities, my own deeply held beliefs.  

The task of loving multiple people, therefore, has put into sharp relief all the ways in which I have failed to love myself.  But doing so has also invited me to look into the best parts of myself, the parts my partners love, and to abandon those distortions that have convinced me –and many others who have been racialized like me, like us– that I am unlovable.  I have taken this lesson and run with it. It is nice to be affirmed by both my partners, but it is nicer still to make those affirmations a luxury and not a necessity. They have helped me carve out that precious space to nourish and protect my own “I.”  I am still discovering what I hope to do with that “I.” As I mentioned before, we are always in flux, always changing. The “I” that I possess today will be drastically different from the one that will emerge five years from now. Fortunately, I have good mirrors to help me weather the inescapable reality of that change.  

You also are in the midst of a dramatic life transformation. Some folk call that high school.  I hope some of this resonated with you now. But my hope is that it will resonate with you still at later points in your life.  You are entirely capable of crafting your own version of black femininity, one decidedly divorced from those stereotypes that aim to flatten us.  Surround yourself with those who will facilitate that journey. Surround yourself with good mirrors.  

Keyanah Nurse is a femme intellectual queen on a mission to change the way we think about love, intimacy, and connection.  Follow her on Twitter @KeyanahNurse.

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