When I first started identifying as polyamorous at the age of 22, my friends and family looked at me weird. “What the hell is that?” they asked. This is probably because polyamory—simultaneously being in multiple, loving relationships in which every partner has consented to and is knowledgeable of each other—has been largely stigmatized as a thing for Mormons, orgy cults, and hippie-dippy white folks.
Even as polyamory has become more mainstream, the polyamorous people we see on TV and online are still mostly white: Sister Wives, Big Love, You Me and Her, the web series Unicornland—all of these shows have white main characters. The hip, “real-life” image of polyamory is no different. As Mic put it a few years ago, polyamory is “sexy, youthful—and for the rich and the white.” Wired also noted Silicon Valley’s current obsession with polyamory, calling it a trend amongst the elitist and the affluent, aka something new for white people to try out.
However, by portraying the polyamorous community as white, affluent, and even trendy, polyamory is treated as a joke and the experiences of polyamorous people of color are completely excluded. And polyamorous people of color exist—we often just don’t know where to go to feel safe and accepted to meet other poly folks.
When I started identifying as polyamorous, I had to search hard to find groups on Facebook that were specifically created for Black polyamorous people before I found a space that I felt comfortable and open in. In more general polyamorous “meeting” spaces—whether on dating apps, in online groups, or IRL meetups—white people seem to not know how to handle seeing or approaching a Black poly woman, which is a cyclical problem only amplified by the fact there has been very little visibility for poly people of color in the first place. Instead of giving us the space to express our identities and sexualities freely, poly women of color feel often pushed out. The message of “you don’t belong” is received.
A Black woman we’ll call Grace for anonymity, who started identifying as polyamorous when she was a teenager, stated that most of the racism she experiences comes from other cisgender white people in the community. “If I go to events in my town, usually I’m the only Black person there. The racism looks and feels bad, as most of the racism comes from cisgender, monogamous folks, mostly white, who are perpetuating their negativity onto you because you don’t fit their expectations.”
“Kelly,” a 28-year-old pansexual who started identifying as polyamorous eight months ago, said that while she may not be fully immersed in the polyamorous community, she knows others who’ve been demonized and outcast for being Black. She also speaks to a binary I too am familiar with: If you aren’t the victim of sexual racism as a Black poly woman, then you’re the subject of racist fetishism. You’re seen as the hypersexual Black woman who is down for anything. This is not only racist but trivializes polyamory, which isn’t just about sex and is not to be confused with “swinging”; polyamory is about finding and being in loving relationships.
“As a Black woman, you are viewed as sexually deviant; being a Black woman you get people automatically thinking you’re a hoe, whereas if you’re a white woman who identifies as polyamorous, you’re viewed as being free or sexually liberated,” Kelly told the Daily Dot.
Once I started going to events, meetups, and dating other couples and singles, I quickly realized my sexuality (I’m also pansexual) was constantly used against as a way to get me to engage in sexual acts with predominantly white people who wanted to know what it was like to be with a Black woman. If I refused or chose not to date a certain couple, I was deemed the racist because, as a pansexual, I should “love” everyone. I once had a white guy I was talking to ask me if I was OK with being called a n****r during sex. On dating sites, I’ve received numerous messages from white couples looking for their “ebony” unicorn.
In polyamorous spaces with predominantly white people, I have to watch how I talk, what issues I discuss, or what stereotypes I may adhere to so I’m not dehumanized. I spend most of my time in these spaces code-switching to keep myself safe and mentally healthy.
While I have not found a polyamorous community where I truly feel open to be me, I have built a personal support system of friends and partners—many of whom I have met through dating apps such as OkCupid, but also through work and mutual friends. With them, romantically or not, I don’t have to conform to others’ expectations or cut out certain parts of my personality to make others comfortable.
Because the thing is, exclusion in the polyamorous community is unnecessary in 2018. Queer polyamorous Black people have even been recently represented in the media (Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It) and on social media, where they are out and proud. Twitter and Tumblr have both become a hub for Black queer people expressing themselves. Queerwoc, woclovingwoc, fuck yeah queer people of color, and askpolyamory are a few of the blogs I first followed that either discussed the ins and outs of polyamory or showed Black queer people identifying freely.
For polyamorous communities to become more accepting, organizers need to look to the inclusivity and discussions created on these blogs. They need to create groups and meetups without the idea of what the polyamorous community “should” or “is expected” to look like. The idea that polyamory is a “white thing” has been ingrained in our culture for so long that group creators, intentionally or not, might not think about what rules and word choices make people of color feel ostracized.
The good news is an accepting and open polyamorous community can be built to include Black people, especially Black women. Casting aside stereotypes, preconceived notions, and the idea of treating Black people as “other” shouldn’t be a hard first step.