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Decolonial Love: A How-To Guide

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If anyone is the poster girl for unhealthy relationships with white boys, It’s me. Luckily, they've also taught me a lot.

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I find it funny that I’m writing a how-to guide for decolonial love. If anyone is the poster girl for unhealthy relationships with white boys, It’s me. My romantic history is filled with white boys with girlfriends, white boys with racist/sexist/transphobic beliefs, white boys who date women of colour to escape their whiteness, and white boys who use intimate violence as a defense against vulnerability.

While I acknowledge my troubled relationship baggage, I will say that I’ve learned an awful lot about white masculinity in my life. Perhaps my desire for and articulation of decolonial love is a way of finding meaning in those relationships, piecing together a way to return to love.

The concept of Decolonial Love comes from author Junot Diaz. In an interview with the Boston Review, he describes it as “the only kind of love that could liberate…from that horrible legacy of colonial violence”. Anishinaabe author Leanne Simpson has also taken up the language of decolonial love in her writing, mapping out what she imagines this form of love can be. I walk within the perspectives of these authors, but bring my lens of being a Anishinaabe Métis trans woman into the mix. As children of colonization, we look for a love which affirms and re-members our bodies as sovereign, whole, and rooted within our land.

Let’s start by saying what decolonial love is not. Decolonial love is not a weapon to demonize or shame your lovers. It is not a “get out of jail” card to excuse your bad behavior in relationships nor does it allow you to step away from accountability. I’ve heard Indigenous men use the concept of traditional sexuality/love to justify cheating on their monogamous partner. I’ve also seen marginalized people within relationships use social justice frameworks as a way to excuse their abusive behavior. That is not decolonial love; it's being an immature jerk and using your culture/race/gender/trauma to justify it. At the same time, I’ve also had my white lovers accuse me of using transphobia as a weapon despite the obvious transphobic content of their comments or actions.

So as we do in ceremony, let’s start from a place of recognizing our relationships to each other and history. For white people who are dating/fucking Indigenous/racialized folks, acknowledge and accept that you derive privilege from the oppression of your lovers and their ancestors. For Indigenous/racialized folks, let’s admit that we’ve experienced violence from whiteness and that our lovers are implicated in that history. We are still bound together in this country and situated on this shared land. There are treaties, centuries of relationships, and way too much water under our collective bridges. How do we find a way to love each other across this reality?

My how-to guide for decolonial love is very straightforward, but feel free to adapt to your unique nations and cultural understandings. If you feel defensive, white or not, put it aside and reflect before sending me some angry flame mail. If you’re an ex of mine, feel free to roll your eyes and send me a detailed email listing all of my factual errors because I’m running out of things to talk to my therapist about.

a guide for the decolonized love 2
By Meky Ottawa

Learn to Recognize Love

Love is constructed by whiteness and colonial narratives to be many things, but decolonial love is not a Katie Perry song. Love does not fix you, heal your past, resolve your insecurities, or lead you to violate your boundaries. It is not obsessive, fearful, or controlling. If you are the kind of girl who checks your lovers/exes social media pages on a daily basis (I’m raising my hand), realize that this is not a function of love, but of trauma.

As much as the “love yourself first” is bullshit which ignores the lived violence of many Indigenous/racialized folks, there is some truth is understanding that love is not hard. Let me repeat this to you. Love is not hard. If you love and are loved, it’s not work. It’s leaning into something beautiful. If your partner doesn’t reciprocate your love with equal or respectful attention, walk away. If you regularly get into bad situations where your boundaries are being crossed or you are crossing your lover’s boundaries, step way the hell back. Stuck in the friendzone? Get far away, babe. You deserve more.

I’m garbage at respecting my boundaries and differentiating love from trauma. Because I grew up inside intergenerational trauma, I choose partners who abuse me and sometimes I abuse my partners. I often think because a relationship is not physically abusive, it’s alright for me to be really unhappy in them. Nope, that’s trauma talking. I spent a year trapped in a back and forth relationship with a guy who said some terrible transphobic things to me while engaging in extreme emotional intimacy. He could be very loving and protective of me, but he did not see me as a “real woman”. No matter how much work you do, you can’t build decolonial love with a partner who is racist, transphobic, sexist, ablest, homophobic, etc. That shit comes from colonization and it’s not, repeat this aloud, love.

decolonial love without logo 2
By Meky Ottawa

Learn to Practice Self Care

Most Indigenous/racialized folks I know are terrible at self care. We are taught not to care for ourselves. There are often very real barriers to self care for us, such as poverty, ongoing oppression, and trauma. Self care for Indigenous/racialized folks is not always Lush bath bombs and going to the spa (but it could be) like for White folks. It is listening to our emotions, sitting with our feelings, and applying compassion to our bodies/selves. Yeah, I’m dead serious on this one. Be compassionate to yourself.

Being compassionate to ourselves as Indigenous/racialized peoples is hard. It goes against the racist and oppressive messages we’ve been taught our entire lives. One of the responses to oppression is to push ourselves to be perfect, to work harder and harder to overcome prejudice. I feel this deeply as a trans woman. I push myself to be as feminine-presenting as possible, using makeup, clothing, heels, and pretty much everything I can. This is partly who I am (glamour girl) but also a response to male violence. The more feminine I look, the safer I am in public. The more feminine I look, the more desirable I am to the male gaze and thus worthy of love.

If I’m not in full makeup, I hate on myself hardcore. I avoid mirrors and photos. Recently, however, I had face surgery and couldn’t wear makeup. For some insane reason, I planned a date with my white lover just eight days after surgery and then spent the entire day freaking out because I did not look pretty or feminine. He didn’t care or really seem to notice, but my point is that I wasn’t practicing compassion for myself. I was replicating transphobic violence against my body, allowing the voices of colonization to tear me down. We have to cut that shit out in order to access decolonial love.

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You Are Not Your Lover

Stop it with the “we’re so connected” bullshit, ok? You are not your lover. Your lover is not you. Intimate relationships are not contracts of ownership. If you are monogamous, negotiate that with your partner but don’t assume that means they become your possession. If you are polyamorous (oohh next level), remember that love and sex are different but related concepts. Don’t fall into the jealous or controlling mind trap of hell. No one will be happy.

More importantly for decolonial love, remember that love is a gift, not a transaction. Western culture has reduced love to a product. It’s not. Support your partner from a place of genuine truth, not emotional blackmail. Don’t ask your partner to manage your emotions. Yeah, they need to respect your emotions but they are not your dad, mom, parent, dominant decision maker, etc. I have a really bad habit of picking guys that are like my father (wounded, dominant, controlling, emotionally distant, trained in some form of boxing/martial arts/physical violence). I often make them manage my emotions, decide what I’m wearing or what we’re doing, and basically become a highly emotional doormat to their needs.

This is bad news bears for decolonial love. Your lover is your lover. Period. Love is equal. Both partners need to stand on their own. In my defense, my partners often choose me because they want to be the white knight, the good guy, or the hero who saves the princess. If your self esteem is wrapped up in your partner’s attention, get out. If you regularly feel guilt or shame around your partner (unless you are being abusive and feeling actual real remorse), walk away. If your partner lets you hurt them/cross boundaries or if they’re hurting you/crossing your boundaries, go smudge yourself and break up.

Grow Up and Listen

We need to learn in order to grow as human beings. If being vulnerable with your partner freaks you out, get therapy (no, really). If intimacy makes you bail, get help (no, really). If you can’t handle feedback or criticism from your partner, don’t talk to your friends about it but really reflect on what they’ve said. If you are white and your lover tells you that you were racist/transphobic/homophobic/sexist, you need to take that shit really deadly serious. If you have ghosted, “taken space”, or whatever language you’ve used about your emotional withdrawal from intimacy, check yourself.
Being inside a decolonial love means being present. It requires you to listen to your lover. You don’t have to agree with them but you have to listen to them. If you are the white dude with three girls on cycle (true story) while dating a racialized girl, you can’t be present in any of those relationships. If you are the Indigenous trans girl dating two white cis boys who don’t know about each other (true story), you probably need to consider how willing you are to be vulnerable with anyone. Face yourself, show up, and listen.
If you ghost or withdraw from intimacy, there is something wrong. I’m sorry, but honestly, there is something wounded and it’s worth your time to explore that. Intimacy is only scary if you’ve learned that intimacy is scary through abuse, trauma, or unhealthy relationships. Start the work of being present and showing up. I regularly dissociate from sex, especially if I’m emotionally connected to my partner. I’ve had to learn to check in with myself during sex (horrible but needed) but to also ask my partners to check in with me during sex (hand squeezing is a good trick).

Know the History 

If you are dating an Indigenous/racialized person, you need to know the history. Don’t force your partner to be an educator for the basic stuff (google shit), but you can ask them about the complicated parts. Decolonial love requires you to know the history of your lover, including their ancestors. If you are dating a trans girl like me, you should probably google that shit first. One of the things I really loved about a recent partner was that he didn’t ask me any questions about being trans. Despite never having hooked up with a trans girl, he did his own research, made up his mind before meeting me, and didn’t feel the need to ask me the basic of transsexualism. When we got intimate, he did check in carefully about genital touch and how I orgasm, but didn’t make it about my transness (huge bonus points for him).

More importantly, be mindful of the history. Knowing the facts is one thing, but applying them to your partner is a more critical step. When you see your Indigenous/racialized partner get freaked out by cops, understand where that is coming from. If your trans girlfriend is nervous of PDA on the subway, respect that she’s probably gone through some shit in public from strangers. If your white lover makes you go to a shitty Indie concert or drink craft beer, realize that’s part of their history as well. Be aware, be educated, and always try to learn more about your partner, their history and culture, and use it.

Remember that Love is a Loop

Look, everything moves in circles (the seasons, our lives, water, air flow, smoke, etc). We are interwoven together with all life. Everyone has a place and role. Understand that love is no exception. You will fuck up your attempts at decolonial love. You will tell your lover that you embrace them and then shame the fuck out of them via text message (guilty of this one). You will say you are not a transphobic asshole and then misgender your trans girl in the next sentence without noticing. You will fuck this shit up constantly.

a guide for the decolonized love
By Meky Ottawa

Love is about compassion. Compassion for your mistakes, compassion for your lover’s mistakes, and a return to an active loving practice. I’m not talking about abusive relationships. You can’t heal a relationship with a major power imbalance. I’m talking about real love in a loving bond where both parties are in it, step up, and are willing to face their place in society. In this instance, you need to be compassionate.

You will come together and fall apart. You will get into fights about dishes. You will have great sex and really mediocre sex. You will probably end up doing some weird shit with your partner, like going through their phone, hacking their email, checking their garbage bins, meeting their ex girlfriend for drinks, or just generally being an anxious basket case (I’ve done all of these things), but as long as you come back to respecting, loving, and moving the fuck forward with your bullshit, it’s ok. Most of your relationships will not work out. Some of them may be short term, some of them may be a long time. It’s a learning process.

Decolonial love is about freedom. Let your lovers come and let them leave. Know when to go and when to return. Embrace vulnerability. Look for messages from spirit in their eyes. Fuck like you are both holy. Unlearn oppression. Walk together without needing to lock them to your body. Try hard but accept mistakes. Don’t try to find a lover who heals you but work to build a love that heals everyone.

I could say so much more about decolonial love. At its heart, decolonial love is actively creating a space for our histories as Indigenous/racialized survivors of colonization (we’re all survivors, babe) to be acknowledged within our relationships. Decolonial love is an accountable love that reciprocates our beauty and wholeness as Indigenous/racialized peoples. Decolonial love steps out of western heterosexuality, homosexuality, and queerness to form unique bonds between two people, regardless of gender or sexuality. Decolonial love also affirms our partner’s gender and spirit. It embraces our bodies as they are, whether this is brown or white, larger or smaller, and cis or trans. Decolonial love is simply love as we are, broken and figuring it out together.

Gwen Benaway is a trans woman of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. Her first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published in 2013, her second collection of poetry, Passage, was released in 2016 from Kegedonce Press and her third collection of poetry, What I Want is Not What I Hope For, is forthcoming from Bookthug in 2018. In 2015, she was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author and in 2016 she received a Dayne Ogilvie Honour of Distinction for Emerging Queer Authors from the Writer’s Trust of Canada.

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