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Ask a Sex Goddess
Dear Sex Goddess~I am a brown-skinned woman of color, and I have been dating a white man for almost 8 years. Our different ethnicities have never really been a problem, but lately I have been noticing a disparity in the way we see each other that really bothers me. We went to college together, and after we graduated, I worked really hard, long hours with a number of different non-profits, and because of that I now have a successful career as a consultant. My partner, on the other hand, worked as a bartender for 2 years. When he decided he did want to work at a non-profit, he got the first job he applied for, and within a year he received a promotion.
And yet, when we argue, he accuses me of always getting what I want. He says that everything comes so easily to me, that I don't have to try. And yet he clearly has more social privilege than I do. He doesn't see how hard I work because he doesn't have to work hard. And because I feel that this is very much about our backgrounds, I don't know how to address the issue. How do I have this conversation with him? How do I help him see this disparity?
Feeling the Difference
Dear Feeling the Difference~If identity is a journey, then understanding identity is like a fantastical, confusing map that shifts and changes with your every step. If you have been dating this man for 8 years and the difference between your identities in terms of ethnicity and upbringing (the latter of which, I would warrant a guess, is also a major factor here) has not been a major problem, then it is likely that both of you are relatively self-aware and sensitive. This is a good thing.
But there is always room to grow in awareness. One of the more difficult aspects of engaging with social privileges is that they are hardest to see and understand when you have them. In an excellent book that deals with this subject, Sitting in the Fire, Arnold Mindell talks about social privilege and rank. Privilege is defined as the space 'to be' - all of the ways in which you are able to just be yourself without fear of being emotionally or physically harmed (i.e. the ability to go shopping in a store and not be followed around for fear that you will steal something). Rank is defined as the sum of privileges that you have (i.e. in a family, the parents have more rank than the children) and it is likened to a drug. The more rank you have, the less aware of it you are.
What does this mean for your relationship? Your partner sees your successes and he is jealous of them. Perhaps something is lacking in his own professional life - he is receiving promotions but his work is not fulfilling. He misses the flexibility of a bartender's life when he feels caught up in the extreme stress of working at a non-profit. He sees your life - the career you have built - and he wants it for himself. But because he can only understand your life through the lens of his own experience, his jealousy is acted out as resentment of the ease with which you do your thing. If his life of relative ease, because of his social privilege, has brought him only an unfulfilling job, how could your life of relative ease bring you an awesome career?
What he does not realize is that because you have less social privilege, you do not have a life of relative ease! Maybe he assumes that because you are partners, you experience the world in a similar way. But two people could hardly experience the world more differently than a white man and a woman of color. This is undoubtedly part of why your relationship is so strong - intimate relationships that bridge cultures are extremely rich. However, there is also a baseline of mutual understanding and respect that must be maintained. You have worked hard, and you need him to recognize this. He is unhappy, and he needs you to recognize this.
I recommend setting aside some time to speak openly and honestly with each other about your identities. But instead of framing it as an argument, you can frame it as deepening your awareness of each other. Talk about how you understand your own identity, and what formative experiences in your life have helped you develop this awareness. Speak honestly about how your identity impacts how you treat each other. The answers you hear from each other may surprise you.
Open dialogue is the first step in building understanding around issues of rank and privilege. And I believe the best place to begin these conversations is in your most intimate relationships.
Do you have a question? Email SG at SexAndRelationships@WireTapMag.org.
1. I hate rules!
2. There are no stupid questions, only stupid hang-ups.
3. Pleasure came before political correctness, and so should you!
4. Love yourself first.
Who: Who I am is unimportant. I do, however, enjoy sex, dally in various relationships, and on top of that I am an organizer by trade, or perhaps faith. I declare here and now that I know as much as anyone about sex and relationships -- which is roughly nothing and everything.
Why: Organizers, activists, change makers, closet progressives -- people trying to save the world often have a hard time figuring out how to ... do it. Whatever it might be at the moment -- love, dominate, submit, indulge, deny, give, take, fight, let go, wonder, know. I secretly suspect that if everyone were able to find the freedom to really love and please themselves (not to mention each other), the world would be a much more peaceful place.