This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.
In the first post in this series, I talked a bit about how some societal norms around the relationship escalator have pushed me into an inadequate framework for looking at relationships, particularly in the practice of polyamory. In this post, I’d like to dig more into those societal norms, and particularly into how we can practice polyamory in a healthy way while healing from the wounds a capitalist society constantly and pervasively inflicts on us. I’ll note by way of introduction that I have some privileges particularly relevant here: I’m white, college-educated, and benefit financially from the capitalist economic system in the United States. While I’m ideologically opposed to capitalism, it’s important to note that I also materially benefit from it (and often allow my 9-to-5 work to get in the way of active resistance). I imagine that many of these points apply even more starkly to working class people and people of color.
So to start, I think it’s no surprise that a capitalist, data-driven culture can affect our romantic relationships. I talked in the last post about the dangers of a framework of equality in relationships, and I think it’s this culture that creates the myth that equality is possible. The bootstrap mentality encourages us not only in work but in our relationships to focus on competition, rather than on community: when we allow this poisoned economic model of relating to gain a foothold in our lives, our romantic relationships become tainted by a feeling of scarcity.
I frequently hear poly folks talking about their struggles with a fear of scarcity, whether the scarce resource is time, energy, or even love. We often forget to talk directly about that fear, though, and are afraid to ask for what we actually need from our partners or our metamours in this perceived scarce environment where naming a need means acknowledging that a scarce resource may not be available to us. Instead, we expect that our needs will be met and feel hurt if they are not. This is no surprise, given how most of us spend most of our time at work in environments with limited resources and no salary transparency. We become accustomed to a culture of hoping that if we do our best (in work or in love) we will get what we need without any direct negotiation.
It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.
I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)
Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.
Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.
Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.
The other day I found myself buying a $23 cookbook in order to get free shipping on a DVD that costs $4.99, and it got me thinking about the absolute brilliance of Amazon’s business model. Let’s consider:
- Lots of stuff, relatively cheap. When I started using Amazon, they were only selling books, music, and DVDs. Now, of course, they have everything under the sun, and though about 70% of what I buy is books, their prices (and their free shipping – we’ll get to that, it’s a devious little cycle) make me check Amazon first for almost anything before I consider comparison shopping. I’ve purchased tea, cooking supplies, DVDs, and even the plastic wrap to weatherproof my windows from Amazon.
- The free shipping model. Okay, so once you have a shitload of stuff that people will want to buy, at reasonable prices for the most part, you start offering free shipping on orders over $25. We don’t really think about this, because it’s so ingrained now, but it’s freaking brilliant. With other stores, I’ll see a free shipping deal for orders over $40 or $50 and think it’s silly, too much money, and not buy anything at all (partly because of what I’ve come to expect from Amazon). But $25 isn’t bad. What’s more, for a lot of books, it’s more than the price of a book, but not much more, so you think “hey, if I buy just one more book, I’ll get free shipping!” Over time, you get hooked on this system, and you come to expect free shipping. So you do things like buy a $23 book to get free shipping on a $4.99 DVD. And what’s more, you stop comparison shopping, because other stores don’t offer the free shipping.
- Personalization. This is the nail in the coffin, and I admit that it’s been killing me lately. Amazon now has all these features – wishlists, listmania, personalized deals, recommendations, etc., that make you want more stuff, and then conveniently keep track of the stuff you want so that it’s available when you want to add an item to get that free shipping. Whenever I’m shopping and come up short of the $25, I go immediately to my wishlist, and find something to add, which usually brings me up to $30 or $35. Everybody wins. On top of that, when I get bored in class I start playing with recommendations, and end up clicking the fatal deals link, which gives me not only gold box deals (the culprit that made me pay $115 for seven seasons of the West Wing – but so worth it), but also personalized deals. I don’t think they actually cut much off the price, but they usually are pretty good, and I often find myself saying “ooh, 15% off? Gimmee.”
So good job, Amazon. You’ve converted a nice freebie into what’s practically an internationally recognized right. (You have no idea how painful it was to live in Ireland and be ineligible for free shipping on Amazon.co.uk.) I salute you.