Intimate with the sound of my own pain
Learning from bell hooks, my same-race relationship, passions, and art
I devoured bell hooks’s 1997 memoir, Wounds of Passion: a writing life, on writing, love, and sexuality in under a week — an admittedly incredible feat for this slow reader and avid notetaker. I’d purchased it a few years ago from Spartacus Books and previously tried starting it but conditions weren’t right. This time, having recently committed myself to growing my art practice full-time (an act which encompasses writing as well) and being on the cusp of marrying an incredible human (who played a key role in helping me make that aforementioned decision, and who continues to help foster that career choice), hooks’s views on language, suffering, and women writers/writers of colour; navigating white supremacy and racial politics; and sustaining nurturing relationships resonated so deeply with me.
From the start of our friendship, my partner Leo and I talked openly about our Chinese(-Canadian) identities and family histories — the certain ways our upbringings were structured; racialization and its impacts on interactions and relationships with others including past white partners; questioning societal norms and all the small and significant times we benefit from and are let down by them. Over the last two years, the frankness has been refreshing for us both, and particularly for me as I have never dated within my race. I want to believe that it’s not that I did not want to, but… white supremacy.
Beginning as a child and a new immigrant to Canada, I had developed the impression that Asian males did not consider me to be authentically or attractively Asian enough. I did have crushes on Asian males in school but they only ever ended up with white girls. In the one middle school instance I can recall, the petite Asian girl with only white friends ended up with the white boy I liked. Envy abounded. As well, seeing how my older sister idolized American culture and which males she found attractive — and by extension and exposure I did too — also meant that a certain kind of ideal significant other who looked like George Clooney/Noah Wyle/Brad Pitt had been ingrained in me from a young age.
hooks: “Having been involved in relationships with white partners we could both see the differences it made when we were two bright black folks together… It was evident to us that our bonding was seen as political, some aberrant admiration of blackness in a world where so many folks just assumed that the goal of our lives was to assimilate into the white mainstream as smoothly and as swiftly as possible. Having white partners was one way to make that transition.” (74)
I was brought to a standstill when reading hooks (a black woman) recount her relationship with Mack (a black man), delving into his desires to assimilate into writing and academia (both predominantly white spaces) and how something in him was affirmed by being selected from among other black people as an exception. hooks herself experienced isolation as a black, female, perceived-to-be-angry writer in those same circles in 1970s California.
It abhorred me to reflect how when I was in my last two long term relationships — with an Ojibway/English and a white man, respectively — I felt an implicit superiority thinking that this was the ultimate acceptance into white culture, even though I often felt moments of discomfort at their predominantly-white family gatherings (however welcome I was made to feel). Still, acceptance, and what a privilege I thought it was.
It has been a number of years now, but I look back on those two particular, toxic relationships now and think of how those partners would continually exotify elements of my Asian/Chinese-ness in jokingly, seemingly harmless ways. I remember many instances of how their male/white privilege loomed over me. One of them would argue how I was more privileged as an Asian woman with affirmative action than he, a poverty-stricken white male, was. The other — despite teaching me much about questioning white supremacy through an Indigenous/Other-ed lens — both sexualized and infantilized women and Asian women in ways I sorely wished I had called out.
I am grateful that Leo and I can have discussions where he understands my racial frustrations, such as working in jarringly-white environments, and brings his own similar accounts to the table to unpack. “Never does [Mack] try to pretend that there is no reason for rage,” (99) hooks wrote. I appreciate my partner’s openness in not just commiserating with my experiences but also trying to learn and understand them. However, that being said, Leo will never be able to comprehend the double-bind of being Chinese and a woman. Just as sisterhood is not global, shared race ≠ shared intimacy (50).
Anger, grief, and sadness have all simmered in me, even before I knew of or understood their presence.
It is partly my personality, my upbringing, my cultural background, and my femininity that finds me frequently silenced, unable to make waves, doing as I’m told, time and again — in both self-imposed and systematic ways.
“They listen to me but they don’t hear. They don’t have to hear. This is what it means to be among the colonizers, you don’t have to listen to what the colonized have to say, especially if their ideas come from experience and not from books.” (98)
I am constantly reminded of how the skin I am in disturbs the interactions I have.
On Twitter, white men I was once in a small meeting with before showed up in my feed. I called to mind being given zero eye contact by either of them who spoke in the direction of my white female colleague the entire meeting. Or flipping through a sketchbook recently, I remembered the white male friend of a friend who met me for the first time in my studio almost 10 years ago. He wanted some of my hair from an art piece I made (I declined), then later that night proceeded to touch me in the small of my back in a crowded room (I recoiled), not before also asking inappropriate questions about my fertility (I recoiled some more). Last year, when I approached a white colleague and asked her to spell my name properly after multiple instances of letting the misspelling slide, she said she would try to spell it correctly and apologized, but got defensive, saying she was experiencing trauma. A few months later, this same colleague was part of a two-person team who produced a department-wide appreciation slideshow butchering my name as “Clair Yao”. It was humiliating.
hooks puts it this way:
Language is a body of suffering and when you take up language you take up suffering too…. Words have been the source of pain and the way to heal. (208)
This is why I am finding that the words of others have been so crucial in enabling me to unpack experiences and also articulate my own thoughts; why Wounds of Passion has been such a significant work of art/writing for me. “The word passion comes from the root word patior, meaning to suffer. To feel deeply we cannot avoid pain,” hooks declares (xxiii). When I reminisce about instances of microaggressions, a dull pang inevitably sprouts in my chest.
“She has been troubled for so long about what it means to want to be devoted to the artistic life and at the same time have intense committed relationships. Seeing [poet Robert Duncan and his partner Jess] together gives her hope. They represent for her the ideal — mutual partnership, closeness yet autonomy, differentiation of status without subordination. That their love can open up to include friendships, lovers, an array of people not like themselves. Their gayness is both significant and not solely defining. This is how she wants to feel about blackness, that it can always be significant without being the only aspect of her identity that matters. The same is true of being a woman.” (237)
These last few months has found me completely shifting focus career-wise and also in the midst of planning for our marriage. They are two very distinct works-in-progress, but threads undoubtedly run through them both. I mentioned before that Leo was instrumental in my shift in careers and in her memoir, hooks mentions how Mack’s support gave her the confidence to write her first book even though women were critical that she gave so much credit to a man.
“I wanted to give public testimony about this gesture of support because I believed it was important to give concrete examples of men supporting the feminist movement… His suggestion was a gift I cherished and took to heart.” (xv)
A friend asked me a short time ago if it really was Leo who gave me the push to leave my fulltime job. Like hooks, I want to keep recognizing Leo for his own gesture of support because before he first brought up the possibility of me devoting myself to my art practice and us subsisting on a single income, the thought always remained a fleeting glint. It will enrich both our lives, he assured, just as he’s also reminded me to be gentle with myself despite my current rumblings of feeling I am in a creative block.
With 52 days left before we wed, I am thinking more and more about what it means to enter into this new phase of our partnership. bell hooks has helped me delve into that orbit.
From maintaining intimacy together and autonomously;
being unafraid to ask for consent and what we desire;
having our Chinese-ness matter and sharing wholeheartedly in it;
joining in a commitment to beauty, art and social justice;
and loving tenderly/generously/expansively: these are all elements of a relationship I honestly never could have imagined wanting before and now with them, I don’t ever want to comprehend their lack.
The title of this piece references a line from bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: a writing life (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997), 257.