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Being black and polyamorous in France

16 Aug 2019

Illustration by Naomi Gennery

TW:  some mention of sexual violence 

When I first started trying to learn more about polyamory, I scrolled through Facebook groups, articles and forums for guidance and support. I mostly found articles portraying young straight people, and while online polyamory groups and forums seemed more diverse in age and class, they all had one thing in common: they struck me as being very, very white. I binge-watched Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix, but beyond its problematic depiction of non-monogamy, I sought a representation closer to me, not another Hollywood production. I decided to talk to some other black folks about their experiences with polyamory.

At our first meeting on a March afternoon, Amélie* shows up right on time to the café in the centre of Paris. Later, speaking of her efforts to be punctual, she tells me, “I try not to feed the stereotype”. We sit down next to the counter; our intimacy protected by the persistent whistle of the coffee machine. We start speaking about her identification with the mainstream representation of polyamory in the media. She begins by telling me about her own non-monogamy and struggles with representation, and I feel a sense of relief. It was reassuring to know that there are, indeed, black women in France in the polyamorous community, ones that might get me, ones that could identify with my doubts and tensions that are specifically tied to my black womanhood. 

“Was my polyamory feeding into a stereotype I was trying to combat?”

My concerns were not unfounded: my own experience with polyamory brutally threw my blackness back at me. My first hookup after deciding to open up my relationship started with a young white man’s discrete fascination for black women. It ended with him spreading rumours about my “libertinage”. His projections of my behaviour cast shadows on my emancipation, and the excitement quickly turned into concern: was my polyamory feeding into a stereotype I was trying to combat? Was I fulfilling expectations of the promiscuous and libertine, savage black woman with multiple partners and a huge libido?

Sexual stereotypes have been an important domination tool throughout the history of slavery and colonisation. Black women’s alleged “promiscuity” was used to distinguish them from submissive, prude, and respectable white wives. The hypersexualisation of girls from a very early age, and the representation of black women with a primitive, untamed sexual appetite were used to justify rape. This nauseous discourse is carried into the present day under different forms – causing me, a young black woman growing up in the metropolis of the French colonial empire, to be congratulated for my “different” moves in the bedroom, called a “panther”, a “gazelle”, and now a “libertine”. Dating as a black woman was, to me, an exposure to racist and sexist violence; polyamory meant a multiplication of those. Why put the body I had so carefully shielded from stereotypes into a category that reeked of tags and fetishisation? 

I started speaking to a couple of other black women about polyamory. I found them through Facebook groups and IRL friends. We discussed definitions and perceptions of polyamory, mainstream representations of it, comfort (or lack thereof) within a poly community feminism and misogynoir. 

“Dating as a black woman was, to me, an exposure to racist and sexist violence; polyamory meant a multiplication of those”

When Amélie first read the term polyamory a couple of years ago in French ELLE, she was intrigued. She spoke to her partner and father of their two kids about it, and together they decided to “open” their relationship up. Because she and her husband actively seek out other partners through dating websites, she says polyamorous isn’t the right term. “ I am non-monogamous … I avoid saying poly or say it just for simplicity.” In Amélie’s definition, being fully poly implies to meet people by chance – which their family life and schedules don’t allow. Whenever she can, Amélie attends the poly-cafés, in which Parisian polys meet up regularly. “In this little community, of people who actually go to poly-café, there are indeed a lot of white people.” she recognises. She has trouble coming up with more than two black women active in the poly circles she knows of. 

When I asked Nina*, a black woman in her mid-twenties, to define polyamory, she mentions non-monogamy in some African cultures and jokes that it becomes “polyamory” when it is white and European — in other words, acceptable. Nina doesn’t identify as polyamorous, “I think my definition of polyamory is a result of the representation I’ve had of it in the media”, she says. “It’s always white feminists being interviewed, women with which I don’t necessarily identify. White women who love men.”

While both Nina and Amélie mention their sense of racial bias, they also share an insistence on the fact that it hadn’t initially deterred them. Nina acknowledges the importance of representation but immediately adds that if she waited for representation, she “wouldn’t do anything in life, really. Movies, books, theatre.” As a minority, she feels forced to project herself onto people who don’t look like her. 

“Non-monogamy feels like the most beautiful commitment I have made to my body. I get to interrogate the relationship between intimacy and privilege”

As for my worry of corroborating the stereotype of the “promiscuous black woman” by having multiple partners, Nina recognises that the stereotypes or fears are present, hurtful and sometimes unbearable. Her exclusive relationship with a white man ended because of what she describes as “a sudden click, or a slap, where I started thinking: aren’t you subconsciously feeding into the image that he expects from a black woman?” She was overcome by doubts as to her partner’s ability to see her for her, and not as “exotic”. 

Naturally, polyamory might increase the frequency of these situations. But fundamentally, essentialisation and aggressions are present in both monogamous and multiple relationships. For Amélie, it is her choice in men which has been shielding her from racist aggression in intimate settings. She became aware of how polyamory coincided with her discovery of the afro-feminist collective MWASI. In an interview, she heard its members speak of sexual stereotypes, including being called the nickname “gazelle”. “In that moment I thought: Oh, gosh. I don’t know what I’m stepping into here — because if I met other white men I could be confronted with this.” Her preferences and vigilance led her to date mostly liberal and political men her age.

When I met Amélie and Nina, I was still pondering on whether I would be taking better care of myself by remaining in an exclusive relationship with my trusted and safe partner. It felt like an exhausting juggle: on the one hand, the desire not to give up an act of emancipation out of fear of racial and sexist violence; on the other, a sense of guilt for purposefully putting myself out there, in danger. 

Yet my ability to still open up and get intimate with men amazes me. It isn’t unconditional — it comes with anxiety and anger and disheartening doubts and fists balled to the point of cramps. Through it all, non-monogamy feels like the most beautiful commitment I have made to my body. I get to interrogate the relationship between intimacy and privilege. I politicise my knowledge and experience of pleasure. I acknowledge that having multiple partners as a black woman is a way for me to claim my freedom and my right to my body. It’s also labour. And as Amélie tells me, it’s a “revolutionary and fundamentally feminist” practice. 

*Some names have been changed