Power Plays: The Intimate Intersections of Patriarchy, Sexual Identity & White Supremacy
You recognize their costumes. They are “woke,” wide-eyed activists who attended every march this year. They are white men, sometimes with long hair. They definitely talk about vulnerability. They have auto-prepared life stories that feel slightly scripted but are so deep, so intense, you can’t help but tear up. They are super sensitive; they practice setting boundaries; they ask permission before doing anything. They talk about their anti-racism work. They’re probably ethnically non-monogamous or open to that. Maybe they identify as queer or use they/them pronouns. Maybe they’re sexually fluid. They are the “militant mellow,” the newest intersection of patriarchy and white supremacy.
To me, I define “militant mellow” as white folks, predominantly men, who use appropriate language of vulnerability and boundary setting that have been created by and for BIPOC, women, LGBTQ+ folks. “Militant mellows” often utilize practices like spiritual bypassing, patriarchal mansplaining, and emotionally abusive manipulation.
The mentor of mine who introduced me to the term “militant mellow” told me it came to mind when a man she worked with years ago, during her time with a large, environmental nonprofit, claimed,
“I only date women who don’t shave their armpits or legs. They have to be natural, or else I won’t date them.”
In his mind, perhaps, he thought he was the most evolved variation of the male feminist. He preferred natural beauty, sure, and we all have our preferences. But did he realize what he was actually saying? Could he see how his preferences were simply patriarchy in disguise as new-age feminism? His demand that women not shave was just another, more insidious, creation of a standard of beauty decided by who? Him! Oh patriarchy, how you try to morph your ugly face.
Over the last year, I’ve been trying to understand how patriarchy, white supremacy, sexual identity and COVID all intersect in various power plays. For context, I am a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied woman; I identify as queer-questioning. As I write, I know I am always learning and unlearning- writing is part of my process of understanding intersectionalities (gratitude to professor and activist Kimberle Crenshaw, who also has the amazing podcast Intersectionality Matters; she defined this term back in 1989 as we use it today). I share this to name I already know there are perspectives I don’t understand, and blindspots I have, that will appear throughout this essay. Please feel free to comment, point them out, or share if you are willing.
This essay is about three case studies into three white men who all embody these intersections in different ways. It is also about white people, and able-bodied folks, and sexually-curious folks, taking on identities in an attempt to claim oppression that they do not, systemically, experience.
What I am finding is that these layers are complex. They bring up questions for me of right and wrong, who can do what, intention and impact, and internal motivation. The masks that are worn do not come off easily. The performance that is played can be so real, one might not even realize they’re in a theater.
This year I met a man who, when I explained the concept of militant mellow, laughed and said he thought he’d been seen that way at times. He, like I, had lived in foreign countries and had also worked as a facilitator, a community builder, one responsible for creating safe and brave spaces. Sometimes, the power that comes with that role creates a certain kind of aura. In those circles, at times, one might ask: Is the vulnerability real or is this all manufactured?
As we were hiking, he told me how he has started experimenting using they/them pronouns. He’s exploring his sexuality, which I believe is an important practice. He said he went by either pronoun, he or they, so I feel ok using he for this paragraph. Then he said he recently wrote “he/they” on a Zoom call and he noticed something interesting. He saw other people start changing their names, updating them with pronouns. He said he observed people seemed to be more aware of their use of pronouns in the conversation. He felt like he was creating a more inclusive space.
“Yes,” I began, trying to choose my words wisely, because something about what he said was rubbing me the wrong way. What was it? I started to try to explain,
“But just experimenting using they/them, while it is certainly important to learn how you want to identify, does not mean that you understand the struggles, the discrimination, the difficulties many genderqueer or nonbinary folks have faced. They/them is powerful; it’s a way of expressing oneself without a gender norm. And yet, in this case, I suppose I’m wary that you, a white man, are doing it for the wrong reasons.”
I kept trying to explain this theory coming up…I mean, are there right or wrong reasons for using they/them? But there was more that I was trying to understand. I continued,
“I worry you might be using they/them because you want, in some way, to experience a bit of marginalization, a moment of being outside the dominant culture, to feel what that feels like…and again, while exploring your sexuality and identity is important, just using they/them and watching others change their pronouns doesn’t mean you are outside of the power that you hold. You are still a white man. You still hold much of the systemic power. Does that make sense?”
This was one of my first times grappling with this concept, trying to explain it in real-time to a man I knew. He was open to what I was saying, and acknowledged the role his masculinity, his patriarchy, had in the situation. I was comforted a bit by his ability to step back and see the layered nature of this situation. But I have found not all men, just like not all white folks, are so adept at seeing how their patriarchy, their whiteness, their power has morphed its appearance, has taken on a new stage name, has evolved in some ways into an even more insidious creation. I began to pay more attention to what that creation might be, and a situation arose recently in my life that provided ample insight.
One of my best friends just went through a hellish time. Fracturing multiple parts of her body all at once, she was bedridden and with a partner who, after years of being together, showed some of his own inabilities to actually care for and support her. During this time, she was crawling on her hands and knees to get things. She’d ask for help and support. “Make dinner, bring me water, please.” And he would, sometimes. And other times, he’d just sit back, say he was sorry she was hurt. He’d lean into her when she said not to. He’d leave for hours to go rock climbing. He wouldn’t check on her during the night. He didn’t believe her pain was as bad as she said.
It took a friend intervention of sorts to get her to a place where she felt safe. Then, we were able to see how exhausted, hurt, and in need of healing she really was. During this time, this partner of hers started to come back into the picture. He gave her cards. Brought flowers. I saw that he was trying, and yet, the question come arriving: could he provide what she needed? Could he intuit what she needed? I felt a bristling when he came around— Could I trust him to be around her based on what she had shared about her feelings of abandonment? She was figuring out how it felt to be around him. Relationships are layered. Even when trust is broken, it is not always a clear indication that all parts of the relationship will end.
They decided to get un-engaged. She said she needed time to process. She was still on painkillers, had barely slept in a week. He ended up breaking up with her the next morning. She listened as he walked in, said he wanted it to end, and left.
Since then, in these following weeks, she has tried to understand the waves of grief that keep spilling out of her. Her body is healing; her heart is open and mending. But how does one process years of a relationship with another that ended in such a difficult, emotionally abusive way? Beyond that, the story he believes about what happened is completely different than hers. He sees himself as trying as hard as he could to help her; he sees himself as doing nothing wrong.
He recently sent her a list of his boundaries explaining that if she even tried to defend or explain her side of things, he would block her. I see that he’s trying to figure out how to navigate this time, as is she, but the weaponizing of boundary setting shocked me.
Boundaries are supposed to come, as somatics practitioner Prentis Hemphill says, from a place of shared love. “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and myself at the same time.”
I see, in this case, a man using language that’s supposed to protect people as a way of defending their actions. It’s something I’ve seen at times in the nonviolent communication community: when someone says their feelings and needs to make a demand, not a request, of another. When language and practices that are meant to be connective become weaponized, I get angry. These practices are supposed to protect those who have experienced systemic discrimination; they are not meant to be co-opted. When I’ve been with white men, in particular, who speak the language of feelings and needs, of boundaries, it makes me doubt myself, my intuition- it’s an even more insidious form of gaslighting, more difficult to spot because it’s said in the “right way.” The face of patriarchy with the language of emotional intelligence. A new costume, a new act, a new play, but the same old theme.
The recounting of what my friend just experienced makes me think back to how COVID can factor into these conversations about safety, intimacy, and trust. That was the theme of one of my relationships in 2020.
Earlier this year, I had fallen for a man who was so good and smooth with his words, who said all the “right things,” until I found myself standing in a parking lot, arms open, with him backed up against his car, hands held up, yelling,
“What are you doing? Respect my boundaries!”
To unpack this moment, I need to go back a bit. Let’s call him W. W and I had just finished a backpacking trip. It followed a tumultuous previous few weeks, to be sure. I was working in CA for 2 months, he was back home in AZ. We hadn’t communicated much during our time apart; I was leading backpacking trips. I’d started to fall for someone else, as had he. We weren’t exclusively together. And yet, we’d decided, after canceling and rescheduling, some yelling and some crying, some mistakes made and apologies said, that he would still come out to visit so we could hike the Sierra Nevada together. We would intend to, if not repair, at least see where our relationship was.
And yet, two days before he arrived, I found out I might have been exposed to COVID. I was sleeping outside of a house; inside, one of the roomies’ friends (who lived in a different house) had felt sick. A pain in his throat. Was it COVID? At the same time, this roommate’s coworker’s mother had gotten COVID…what if the roommate’s coworker had gotten it? Yes, all of these cases felt removed, and the risk felt tiny, and yet, to be cautious, I decided to get tested and delay seeing him a few days. I knew he would want that. COVID had been a huge source of conflict and communication for us as we had began dating.
This pandemic has brought up a need to discuss boundaries in a way like never before. Some partners might have a need for physical and sexual intimacy that is in conflict with the other’s need for safety and no touch due to fear of COVID. Each couple, especially if they don’t live together, has had to navigate what feels safe, right and intimate during this time, deciding who and what is worth it.
W and I were no different. We had struggled all spring with touching and not touching, especially since my parents live in the same city as me. I saw them occasionally, outside and at a distance mostly, but sometimes not. I still saw people at a distance, and he was pretty isolated in a small town. In the beginning back into March, I occasionally forgot to wear my mask. We talked, a lot, about what was right and what wasn’t. It extended to touch.
I wanted to touch, craving that intimacy; he didn’t. The safety of health was more important. After weeks of backpacking and not touching, it took a conflict erupting between us to break that barrier. He’d messed up, hurt my feelings. I was crying. He offered a hug and apology. We began to touch again. In retrospect I realize it took me calling him out on his toxic masculinity for him to acquiesce that “gift” of touch back. I felt the giving, and withholding, of touch had become a form of power more so than a practice of safety.
So I knew, when he was driving out to CA to see me, I should definitely get tested before seeing him. Before I joined W in the woods, I found out one of the people, the sick friend with a sore throat, had only had strep (still sucks) but not COVID. I hadn’t gotten my test back yet, but still decided to go. In the woods, I met with W. I told him the guy’s test came back negative but I didn’t have mine yet. The risk was minimal. Our whole group had been symptomless; we all felt safe. I said I felt comfortable touching. Touch is my dominant love language; it is a primary way I show and receive care. He responded that he didn’t want to risk it, and I didn’t want to push it. I understood the risk, and I didn’t want to dive into the conversation again of whether or not touch was being offered or withheld for safety, or for power.
So we hiked. We shared. We realized we had both fallen a bit out of lust with each other. We still cared, though. We laughed. We had silences. We talked about life goals, how we can continue to do work we love in the world. And, we didn’t really look at each other. He was falling for someone else. I had fallen for someone else. Yet we had both cared for each other deeply. We left the forest.
When we got out, I turned on my phone. Test result: COVID negative! I told him. He said, “That’s good.” And got in his car. We drove to lunch in our separate cars. While driving, my mind spiraled… ‘We’ve just had deep dive convos. I know he was quarantining. We’ve only been with each other. It’s 100% safe. Why didn’t he at least hug me?’ This was, after all, the man I’d been dating for months before all of this. I still wanted closure, or clarity, to know or to sense —was there anything intimate still between us?
We arrived at the lunch place. I got out of my car, walked towards him, opened my arms to hug him. He froze. Raised his hands. Backed up, rose his voice, and said,
“What are you doing? You need to respect my boundaries!”
He was backed up against his car. I stood in front of him, feet away, my arms still spread out. Confused.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’m COVID negative.”
“But you didn’t ask for a hug. You didn’t ask permission.”
“Ok…I guess I didn’t realize I needed to ask permission for a hug. We used to be with each other, W. We’ve been with each other intimately. We just spent days in the forest together talking and sharing. I’m COVID negative. It’s a hug…”
I trail off…confusion. I know that this man hasn’t experienced any sexual trauma or assault. For him, to state his boundaries in such a way felt like the performance of protection, but in the body of a tall, white man, what was he protecting himself from, I began to wonder.
“Well,” he tried to find a way to explain. “What if I have been exposed to COVID? You don’t know. You didn’t even ask.”
“You told me you were quarantining before you came here,” I reminded him.
“Well,” he said, trying to explain from another angle, “What if the situation was reversed? What if you were a man and I was a woman, pushed up against my truck, hands up, nowhere to go…then do you understand? You’re not respecting my boundaries.”
I was beyond confused. “Ok, we won’t hug.”
We walked to lunch. My mind was processing…
‘This is a queer, tall, white man, with no history of sexual trauma or assault. I, a queer-questioning woman, have experienced harassment and sexual trauma…he’s asking me to equate my wanting to hug him with THAT? With every time a man has stopped to compliment, blown whistles, rubbed themselves up on me; with the times men have been too rough, or haven’t stopped when I was too drunk, or have said things after sex to objectify my existence? He’s trying to equate THIS with a lifetime of THAT?’
What kind of a play was he performing?
We ate. Walked back to the parking lot. And I knew I had to share what was coming up…
“Look, I am angry and confused at what you said. You’re actually equating me, a former partner of yours, who is COVID negative with no chance of giving you this virus, trying to hug you good-bye as a parting-of-ways…you’re trying to equate THAT with being a woman, pressed up against her car, almost being attacked by a man with nowhere to go?”
I fumed. “Of course I know what it’s like to be that woman. All women know what it’s like, to varying degrees, to be that woman. And for you to even ask me that, in this situation, is ridiculous.” Tears start to swell up. Does he not get it? He can’t know what that fear feels like.
He backed off a bit, but didn’t back down. “I’m sorry you’ve had to feel that way, that women do, and well, that’s how it felt,” he said. “Like I didn’t have a choice. I felt scared for my body and for my life.”
Scared for his body. Scared for his life.
And that was when I realized how some socially woke white men, even the most liberal, activist-oriented, social-justice-minded ones, even the ones who are doing work in so many ways to acknowledge and own their privilege, can still use COVID and boundary setting as a way of exerting their patriarchal power. These men want to feel scared. They want to feel marginalized. They want to feel oppressed.
And if they’re white, able-bodied men, even in this man’s case, queer, they may not have experienced fear of death in their bodies before. COVID gives them a chance to do so. COVID is becoming co-opted as a way for healthy, able-bodied folks with minimal fear of exposure to begin to feel scared in their bodies…to begin to feel a tiny shadow of what might feel to be Black in this country, to be a woman, to be disabled, to be LGBTQ+ in an unaccepting situation, to be Muslim, to be Latinx, to be indigenous.
Yes, it is true, COVID is terrifying. Yes, it is important to set boundaries and be safe always in sex and relationships as well as within the context COVID. And yet, I was amazed at how boundary setting was being used as a way to maintain power, to subjugate another, to minimize my lifetime of experience as a woman into this one moment where he claimed he felt so much fear. It all began to unravel. The curtain of the militantly mellow, the social-justice-woke-advocate-feminist-ally guise began to show its layers. It all felt so intimate, which made it feel all the more of a betrayal.
I’ve had to talk with others about this theory as it’s unfolded over the last few months. After this situation with W, I debriefed with a friend of mine who is queer and Latina. I shared my thoughts with her about how boundary setting during COVID was being used as a way to actually oppress those who experience systemic oppression… could it be so?
She confirmed this suspicion whole-heartedly. But she extended it beyond just woke, white men. White folks in general, she shared…folks who haven’t had to experience fear living in their bodies. Many of these folks now seem to be using COVID as an experience to feel that fear, she explained to me. She shared how she and other friends of color had been noticing this.
What else was behind the curtain?
It’s not just about boundary setting; it’s not just about weaponizing language. It’s also connected to the evolution of patriarchy, the evolution of white supremacy, the evolution of bias. Michelle Alexander, in “The New Jim Crow,” shows how slavery hasn’t disappeared; it’s just evolved. Jim Crow era laws have morphed into our prison system. Slavery is redlining. Slavery is disparity in wealth, disparity in educational opportunities. It’s still racism, it’s still slavery, it’s still Jim Crow, just with a new, even more manipulative face.
Patriarchy, too, is capable of being a chameleon. Oftentimes, they go hand in hand. To see the adaptive masks, I am beginning to question many of the things I have also celebrated. I am learning to be wary of performance. Performance of emotional vulnerability. Performance of communication skills. Performance of anti-racism rhetoric. A “Social justice” sticker on your water bottle does not an ally make. To be a true co-conspirator requires a lifetime of work, unlearning and acknowledging in small and not-so-small moments day after day after day.
Just because you identify as queer does not mean you understand and know the pain that folks who grew up in repressive, unaccepting households faced when they came out. Just because you use they/them pronouns doesn’t mean you’ve experienced discrimination. Just because you are an ally to women or identify as a feminist does not excuse you from analyzing how your language can be patriarchal, demeaning, harmful. Just because you’re learning how to communicate nonviolently doesn’t mean you can use that system to get what you want or to judge and silence your partners. Just because you know how to set and uphold boundaries doesn’t mean you can make demands. Just because you are are scared about contracting COVID doesn’t mean you can equate that fear with the perpetual, systemic fear experienced by marginalized folks every day.
I continue to be scared by how easy it is to perform allyship. I’ve seen it live in me as a white person. I always have to question, Am I doing this for the right reasons? For actual change? Or just to say I was there? It’s maybe part of why, even as a writer, I haven’t written so much about racism lately. I suppose I’m not sharing it on social media because I’ve been working in small and intimate ways — in weekly meetings with group of white friends where we share how white supremacy lives in us and we create strategies; in circles of white folks where we explore our cultural heritage and learn to stop appropriating others’; in my classes with my white and white-presenting students where we read and do exercises from “This Book is Anti-Racist;” in conversations with my family where I challenge the use of stereotypes in jokes or don’t let Thanksgiving pass without time for honoring indigenous people. I do these things because they must be done. Not because they must be shared.
And yet, I am sharing because I have these same types of conversations again and again with friends, mostly women, who have experienced abuse, frustration, anger, fear and consistent doubt in oneself. I share because I am growing tired of and angry with the militant mellows. I am growing tired of and angry with the performance of justice. I am growing tired of and angry with the weaponizing of language and communication styles to gaslight the experience of others.
As I’m realizing I’m most skeptical of the men who claim they are feminists, allies, vulnerable, emotional, and woke, I realize BIPOC might think the same, or worse, of white folks who claim to be social justice warriors, woke, allies. I see the men in this militant mellow role as actually doing more harm to the fight for equity of sexes and genders. Perhaps BIPOC see some, though not all, social justice warriors as doing more harm than good as well. Perhaps many people are growing tired of, and angry with, the performance of it all.
Who are you when the curtain falls?
Who are you when the lights go out?
Who are you when there’s nobody watching?
I ask myself; I ask you.
That is what I want to see.