Ask Cam: Navigating Emotional Labor and Anti-Blackness in Relationships

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Welcome to #AskCam, a column where sex and intersectionality are not divided but welcomed together.

Dear Cam,

I’m not quite sure how to navigate this. I have a white partner (we’re polyam) and I feel like he gives his white partners more space, patience, and consideration to feel insecure or needing validation to feel safe in a polyamorous relationship than he gives me. Am I imagining how big of a problem this is? Why is empathy something that’s used so often against Black folks in relationships? How do I talk about this?  

-Deserving of Empathy


Whew, this question has been on my mind for a while and I’m glad that you brought it up. By no means is this a unique problem to your relationship. In fact, I’ve heard this question raised over and over by the BIPOC in my life, no matter what kind of romantic relationship they have.

I believe that in every relationship — romantic or not — everyone involved has to commit to performing labor for the betterment of the relationship. But when it’s done evenly (i.e., both parties commit to doing labor for each other and themselves), the relationship itself is healthy and balanced. It’s when this labor falls unfairly on one party that this balance is thrown out of whack. And because nothing exists in a vacuum, we can’t separate the fact that this imbalance of labor almost always falls on the shoulders of marginalized people.

There’s a rising interest in non-monogamy, which is great, but I think a lot of people who are first learning about or are new to non-monogamy often forget that there’s work that goes into these relationship structures as well. We’re still interacting with other people, and that means that we still have to take care in treating them with respect, love, and understanding and not just project our own assertions and demand they fulfill our needs without considering what effect that will have on them. So much of this creates violence and unnecessary hardship — especially when we take identities like race into account.

There’s also an assumption here, it seems, that your partner thinks that there is an equal dividing of care he gives to you and his other partners. Care and work that goes into a relationship doesn’t come with an on/off switch; it isn’t neatly divided between “yes” or “no”, “all” or “nothing”. It’s highly unfair of him to assume — not even ask — that you would need “less” support in the relationship with no evidence other than the assumptions he’s making on your identity as a POC.


What you’re describing here sounds to me like definite gaslighting and unconscious anti-Blackness. It sounds very much like your partner still has a lot of work to do with unpacking his own assumptions about what being a partner means and the labor that he committed to you by doing so. I’ve been in and have seen romantic relationships create a setting of harm on POC, because assumptions are being made that they don’t need care or support in the same ways as a white partner would.

That is violence. That is anti-Blackness. And that is wholly unfair to you, a person who is deserving of the love, support, and understanding that comes with being in a romantic relationship with someone.

The tricky thing about anti-Blackness and oppression is that it’s often the covert ways that they exist that make it hard to address directly. It’s hard for non-Black people to directly confront their unconscious biases against Black people because it’s so ingrained into their unconscious, their culture, their way of being that to disconnect creates additional labor expectations, defensiveness, and possible violence towards the people who are affected the most by anti-Blackness: Black folks themselves.

It would be in ill taste for me to say that the solution would simply be to break up with your partner. But I will urge you to examine if your partner is willing to address his anti-Blackness and harmful assumptions (and possible gaslighting) of what you deserve in this relationship. I would also consider whether you’re willing to commit to doing that labor yourself of teaching him — whether this is in the form of sitting down and explaining all of this yourself, or sending him outside resources, this is all labor that will most likely have to be done on your part.


If your partner truly cares about you, he will do these things to be a better partner for you.

Also know that in times like this, it’s ok to rely on your community outside of this partner for support when dealing with this. Other POC, especially other Black folks, deal with this kind of violence on a regular basis — they can help you to find peace and self-love while trying to navigate how to balance this and think what may need to be shifted in your relationship.

You are worthy and deserving of love in your romantic relationships. Never doubt that.




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