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Auntie SparkNotes: The Privileges of Postmodern Crushing

Auntie SparkNotes: The Privileges of Postmodern Crushing

Kat Rosenfield

Hi Auntie,

I'm a working-class brown queer ciswoman in a predominantly rich white school. I've only been physically intimate with and dated men of color before, and then a white guy showed interest in me for the first time, in November. He's rural poor and has anxiety and separated parents, so in some ways, like class and family structure, I have more privilege than him. But my privilege is less visual than his (race, gender identity). He asked me to get coffee and get to know me, and we were friends so I said yes, even though I had no interest in him at the time. After that, I wondered if I liked that he liked me, or if I actually liked him. After the hangout I was unsure, but not in a rush to be involved in anything, especially since I was trying to deconstruct the idea of romantic love, and explore what relationships could look like without cismen in them. But then I thought I would give him another chance, and I didn't want to lead him on so my intention was to figure out my feelings as quickly as possible and then let him know ASAP if this was going to happen or not. We made plans to meet the next week, and over the course of our next conversation, I realized I was feeling more and more drawn to him, and that I felt safe around him - a feeling I hadn't had in a long time. I told him I liked him, and we kissed that night before parting ways. It was very sweet.

We hung out the week after a couple of times, and I started thinking a lot about emotional labor and masculinity. I'm used to and usually prefer soft men, men that are connected to their emotions that I can be mushy with. He is highly rational and masculine. He talks a lot and I don't and I wonder if that's because of the power dynamic. I want to be more comfortable in my opinions and willing to speak them, but that's been hard. He says things like "I'm everyone's existential crisis guy" and "I don't want to just be the problem guy" and that's because I've gone to him for help when I was reporting sexual assault (he was the one who indirectly inspired me to report) and he was incredibly supportive through it. I gave him a lot to carry emotionally in the first couple of weeks, and he carried it, but there's a lot more to carry, and when he says things like that it makes me not want to open up.

He says he doesn't feel a lot of emotions, and of course he knows himself best and I don't want to impose my own opinions onto his, but deep down I know I don't really believe him. He also says things like "I'm a lot to handle" and I wonder if that's a red flag? It feels like a defense mechanism, like he wants to push people away before they even get a chance to get close. And then I, like a fool, want to take on the "challenge," but that's probably not healthy for me. I think I'm activating a lot of defense mechanisms too. After my last long term relationship, I had an abusive rebound in which I felt trapped, and I'm worried that I'm so afraid of getting hurt that I don't want to fall completely in love, and also partially because I don't want to become dependent on one person for my emotional needs (mumbles something about capitalism). So I've been keeping myself detached, in a whatever happens, happens kind of way, instead of being fully committed. I don't want to give up the power, and it feels like being vulnerable like that (being more committed/invested than the other) is giving up power.

But whenever I see him my heart beats faster, and he makes me smile and laugh a lot, and I miss him. Trying to reconcile the physiological reactions with the emotional/rational ones has been weird.

I swing back and forth between "wow he does a lot for me" and "wow he is so masculine and ergh." I'm worried that it can turn into another manipulative relationship, especially with the weird power balance. How do I pick up on signs of abuse, and imbalanced emotional labor? How do I have those conversations with him in a way that isn't sucky? I don't know if those are the right questions to ask right now and they are super hard questions. I worry about losing my sense of independence if I get too invested in a relationship, and that scares me. How do I maintain who I am while also being a partner? Should I be a partner, or are those red flags bigger than I'm letting myself believe?

The thing is, Sparkler, that all depends on how you look at it.

Case in point: A guy who says "I'm a lot to handle" could be speaking from a position of patriarchal power and fragile/toxic masculinity, sending you a coded message about all the emotional labor he expects you, as a working-class queer woman of color, to perform on behalf of the relationship... that is, assuming you see him first and foremost as an apex predator in the hierarchy of oppression, and assuming that this is how he views himself, too.

Whereas if you assume that the guy in question is speaking as an individual, rather than as a representative of various identity groups, then voila: suddenly he's just a person, with his own flaws and struggles, admitting to the girl he likes that he can sometimes be difficult.

Funny how that works, isn't it?

Unfortunately, this leaves Auntie SparkNotes with a conundrum: you seem to be looking at this situation from the former perspective (or something close to it, anyway). And maybe that perspective is one that typically works out well for you. The practice of organizing, segregating, and ranking people according to their various levels of privilege is obviously useful in certain contexts — like, say, when you're writing an intersectional feminist analysis of Game of Thrones for your Gender Politics of Peak TV class. But I must tell you: it can be awfully toxic when it comes to creating an intimate, honest, caring, individual connection with another human being.

And in your case, it's already doing some pretty poisonous stuff to your thinking vis-a-vis how romantic relationships work. You sneer at this guy for being ("ergh") masculine at the same time as you rely on him to be your emotional rock. When he does open up, confessing to you that he fears being used by friends who only come to him in a crisis, you completely ignore his vulnerability and spin it into a complaint about power dynamics and how he needs to carry more weight. And you are so fearful already that your crush might abuse and manipulate you, purely because he's white and male and conventionally masculine, that you're treading dangerously close to manipulating and gaslighting him so that you can keep the upper hand.

So while I know this isn't what you intended, I must tell you: the way you're approaching this relationship is really unhealthy, sweet pea, and most of the red flags I see are the ones you're sending up yourself. In fact, if your crush were the one writing to me, I'd be deeply concerned and urging him to be extremely cautious about getting involved with someone who seems to view him as an anthropological study rather than a human being.

Which brings me to this: I think it might be time for you to ask yourself how and why you decided to make this sort of abstract postmodern privilege theory the lens through which you view the entire world, including your intimate connections with individual people, and how much you're using it as a shield to keep yourself from getting close to people — particularly to someone who might make you feel something big and deep and scary, something you can't deconstruct or intellectualize. Because you're right: Opening your heart to someone does make you vulnerable. You don't get to fall in love and keep your distance at the same time. And I know that frightens you, but you must realize: your fear is one that a lot of people share, regardless of where they fall on the various axes of the wheel of oppression. All the privilege in the world won't protect you from a broken heart, and heartbreak hurts the same way no matter who you are. Your cis, white, straight, able-bodied, masculine friend is a person with feelings, and he's risking just as much potential anguish by falling in love with you as you are by falling in love with him — which is something you seem to have missed entirely amid obsessing over your relative positions of power and privilege.

That's why I want you to ask yourself first and foremost whether your current perspective is serving you, particularly when you seem to be on the verge of falling for someone who doesn't share it (unless your crush is an ultra-woke progressive whose worldview is wholly informed by critical race and gender theory, but that seems unlikely under the circumstances). All your other questions — about maintaining your independence, about spotting the warning signs of abuse, about the power that comes with being the least-invested party in a romantic relationship — come down to trust, either in your partner or in yourself, and they're things you'll have to wrestle with in any relationship, not just this one. But they're also moot unless you can find a way to see this man as a person rather than a collection of labels — and to let him connect with you, not as a queer working-class ciswoman of color, but as a human being with a heart.

With that said, if your conclusion after all this is that you can't or won't connect with people outside the framework of the progressive stack — and as long as that's a view you've come to earnestly and thoughtfully, rather than as a means of avoiding the messy, difficult, vulnerable business of falling in love with someone one-to-one — then that's your prerogative. But if that ends up being the case for you, then you would be wise to limit your romantic prospects to partners who share that worldview. If your crush sees you as a person, while you see him as an ambassador of cishet white masculinity and all its attendant evils, getting involved with him wouldn't be fair to either one of you. So grab a beverage, take a comfortable seat, and give it some thought.

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Topics: Life, Advice
Tags: auntie sparknotes, relationships, dating, identity, privilege, patriarchy, queer identity

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About the Author

Kat Rosenfield is a writer, illustrator, advice columnist, YA author, and enthusiastic licker of that plastic liner that comes inside a box of Cheez-Its. She loves zombies and cats. She hates zombie cats. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr @katrosenfield.

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