Interviewing Dakota Peterson for the Unmascing series was a logical choice for me, and one that was both personal and political. Dakota—Tika for short—is one of my best friends. I’ve witnessed some sticky situations in her romantic life; Tika often has to navigate the effects of white masculinity on her relationships as a queer woman of color. I’ve been continuously in awe of her self-analysis and her honesty. Here, Tika offers her thoughts on hook-up culture and relationship politics on Vassar’s campus, as well as in other aspects of her life. The audio recording of this interview is provided below, as well as an edited transcription.
SASKIA GLOBIG: Could you start by introducing yourself, however you want to?
DAKOTA PETERSON: Okay. I’m Tika; I’m a sophomore. I think you’ve heard from me before… Here I am again! …I’m an American Studies Major, with Studio [Art] and English concentrations.
SG: So I guess the first question is: Have you ever felt let down by a boy you were involved with in college?
DP: Yes! Every time, every day! Every day I feel let down. [Laughs.]
SG: Why do you think that happens?
DP: I think a lot of the time it’s a communication barrier, where men are not taught to communicate well. It’s like they’re not aware that something that they do might be affecting another person. For example, leaving abruptly is kind of rude, but guys just do that a lot. They think more often, “What do I want out of this?” I never really think about that.
SG: You’re not thinking about yourself?
DP: Yeah, I’m not really thinking, ‘What can I get out of it?’ I would like to spend time with you, you know? …At least from what I’ve observed—maybe it’s just the boys I’ve been with—it’s like, “I need to take care of myself and make sure this person doesn’t impact my life in a way that’s gonna distract from the work I’m trying to do on myself.”
SG: So that’s interesting, because I was going to ask if the people you’ve been with show traditional values of masculinity, and to me that’s something that isn’t what people would think of in terms of “what it means to be a man.”
DP: I think it’s less about, “I’m gonna do work on myself as a human being,” and more like, “I have this idea of myself that I want to be. I want to become this thing, and this person could distract me from being that thing.”
SG: Do you ever feel like an accessory to that thing?
SG: So do you think that comes out of stuff they learned when they were little and they can perpetuate that in your relationship?
DP: Yeah, for sure. I think little boys… I mean, girls are taught that there’s an ideal, but they’re also taught to accommodate other people, and boys are not taught that as much. And so I think when they start accommodating people, they’re like, “What if the way that I’m accommodating this person is distracting from this person that I have to be? Then I can’t be with them.”
SG: So have you ever pushed against that, that “being the man” in the relationship?
DP: Well I think a lot of the time it’s just taking up a lot of space in the relationship and not being there for me, or sort of not being aware that I have feelings, too. That so much I don’t really push against because I don’t know how to. I don’t know really how to navigate it.
…I will call people out if they say something that’s degrading or unaware [and say] that that’s kind of a messed up thing. Yeah, I’ve had people say some pretty interesting things. It’s so funny—I feel like when you correct someone, it’s like, “Woah, I never thought about it that way before!” And it’s like, “Really?” [Laughs.]
SG: Because they’re not living in the body that you have… Do you feel safe in your relationships? At college, on this campus, in general?
DP: Not really. I don’t feel like my body is in danger… although, I feel like every guy I’ve been with at Vassar has done at least one thing that’s kind of shady. I think that also goes for most people I’ve talked to. Sometimes there’s this thing that’s not necessarily not okay with you, but it’s like, “I don’t know how to react to this thing that you did, and I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” so it ends up being like, “It’s fine.”
…I don’t feel comfortable saying the things that I want. I have a really difficult time telling people when I’m angry at them, too, because I think the biggest fear is scaring people away by my feelings. I feel very much not like a feminist for not being able to voice the way that I’m feeling towards guys, because people are like, “Well why don’t you just do it? Why do you care so much? Just don’t care about them.”
SG: My question that would come out of that is, okay, so it’s so hard and weird sometimes for you to deal with these people, and you don’t consider yourself straight, right?
SG: So then the question is, why are you still with these people? Why do you put in the effort to deal with these guys who do questionable things?
DP: Well, I think it’s this really bad pattern of approval that I get into. I feel more worthy as a person if a guy likes me, which is really fucked up, but that’s the truth. And I think that’s the truth for a lot of people. My friend Zoë, who’s predominantly interested in women, was like, “Yeah, even though I’m not really into guys, if I feel like a guy is into me, it makes me feel better almost than if a girl is into me.”
SG: Because they’re the authority.
DP: They’re the authority and it feels like more of a compliment…A lot of the problems that I have are problems navigating masculinity, and feeling really lost and confused. And I know that they [her male partners] do too. But they can’t express that because they don’t have the skills, because they haven’t been taught that. So I kind of have always wished that there were guys that just got together and were like, “Hey, how can we be better to girls?” Figure it out! Be an ally!
SG: I’ve heard that, that men are trapped by their own masculinity because they don’t know how to talk about it.
DP: Right, so they can’t talk to other guys about it.
SG: So do you think that guys at Vassar are different from other people that you know from other colleges, or is there a liberal arts phenomenon of masculinity that you’ve heard about from your friends, or seen? Is there something unique to where we are, that they’re acting this way?
DP: Everyone always talks about how at Vassar there’s a shortage of straight men, so they just pretty much end up with all of these girls who are interested in them. And so they have… The ratio is just really off. The hookup scene in general is really competitive, and toxic, and people end up getting recycled a lot. Straight white guys in general tend to have a lot of luck getting with girls. [Laughs.] I think that’s something that’s shown here, too, a lot. I don’t think it’s necessarily worse than other places. You know, it’s the whole “mediocre white boy” thing: You’re just a very average person, but because you’re a white man, you can do whatever you want.
SG: Well I think that’s such an interesting question, because it’s not luck. They’re in a place that is supposed to support and bring in people of other identities, and be a space for people to express their ideas and be themselves, and feel safe, so they’re like the tokens of the actual world, the actual patriarchy coming in.
DP: I think what it is is that they’re the people who can give the most assuring validation, because they’re the top of the food chain. At least for me, being with a straight white guy must have some effect on my subconscious of making me feel like a better person, making me feel like I’m accepted in the world as a whole.
SG: Does that annoy you?
DP: Yeah, it annoys me. It also just—I think more than it annoys me, it makes me sad. Why do they get everything? And then me perpetuating it by being part of it, and acting like everything they’re doing is fine, just makes them feel like, “I am doing a good thing!”
SG: But also if that’s what you feel, it’s hard because you care about them.
DP: Yeah, that’s also true.
SG: Because they’re still people that you can love. That’s hard.
SG: So if you could put your boyfriends, hookups, partners, whatever, in categories, like the Alt Bro, Soft Boi categories, what would they be? And what do you think that says about them, and about yourself?
DP: Every boy I’ve ever been with has been… a lot of emotional labor. [Laughs.] But that’s just because I think… whatever, they always are. But, let’s see… so in high school, I dated someone who was pretty much a Smug Nerd. And the guys I’ve been with here… I think they’re pretty much all Smug Nerds, with a bit of Sad Boi, and a bit of Golden Boy.
SG: You can have hybrids.
DP: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think I’m generally a Golden Boy-Soft Boi-Smug Nerd hybrid. A lot of boys at Vassar are Smug Nerds, which makes sense because they’re at a pretty good liberal arts school, and so automatically they feel entitled.
SG: And do you think that’s a valid way of categorizing people? Do you think it reflects the ways that they actually act? Is it accurate?
DP: I think it’s hilarious! Especially the whole Soft Boi thing, because it’s so true. They know that they’re doing something bad when they’re doing it, but they’ll continue to do it!
SG: It’s like, “I won’t text you for a week, but I’ll feel really bad about it.”
DP: Yeah! And then it’s like, “I’m so sorry! Gosh!” [Laughs.]