“Forgiving” Men and Other Oppressors, Part I

Stern metal sign featuring a skull and crossbones composed of electricity, German wording underneath, photo by Tuncay Demir
Dara Burwell, Coffee Shop

Dara Burwell

Not long ago I shared tea with a friend of mine who is deeply concerned about what he believes to be his beloved’s painful and overly contentious relationship to white people.  My friend (who we will dub “Jay”) talked about how deeply his beloved (“Cam” for today’s purposes) carries the wounds of racism, and how these wounds wield a tidal force over Cam’s life.  Cam, it seems, is unable to trust any white person, does not want to ask for or accept help from anyone white, wishes no personal or close relationships with white people, and has deep difficulties confronting whites about their racism. Jay detailed some of his own struggles with racism and white people, but also said that he had been able to come to some sense of peace, and has several close relationships with whites who he regards as strong allies.  Ultimately Jay thinks that it is contrary to Cam’s own values to carry so much anger and resistance into all of his interactions with whites.  After all, who can build the alliances and solidarity necessary to advance social justice work across that depth of woundedness, desired separation (for protection), and rage?

I could not fidget enough to relieve my discomfort during that conversation.  So many things are true all at the same time.  I understand Jay’s perspective well.  Can agree with it.

And there are healing stages that most any oppressed person must pass through in order to synthesize the experiences of their oppression.  To have relationships with people in the oppressor group in which they get to bring their whole selves.

There is some expectation that any targeted person will somehow be able to take in everything they experience, and miraculously be fine.  That they should be able to endure any outrage, and still recognize the humanity of their oppressor.  Achieving this, or the perception of it, theoretically elevates one to a saint-like status (some of the most amplified examples being mass perceptions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, or Gandhi).  And, on the flip side, one is judged harshly for daring to be visibly upset (dare I say enraged?) about their mistreatment and the mistreatment of their communities.

And there is so much more.  But, I had places to be, and left the discussion concentrated on my next steps.  Little did I realize that directly from tea and conversation I was on a fast track collision course with my own brick wall.  The same basic wall as Cam’s, just a different (though certainly related) system of oppression.

You see, that was the first of three and a half days I had committed to watching a young man- a beloved one of mine- while his mother was out of town.  I had no idea that three and a half days could trigger me so profoundly.

He and I came up against gender roles and sexism over, and over, and over again.  And, each time we did, I came up against the larger picture of what I know of him and his relationship to women, young women, and girls.

It is now clear to me that this young man was quite psychologically abusive to his ex-girlfriend, and may have been sexually abusive, as well.  He talks about young women he is attracted to as objects, and surrounds himself with an aura and culture of misogyny.  This point, alone, enrages me.  I do not know if he is capable of having a constructive relationship with young women his age.  At this point, I doubt it.  While he is blatantly disrespectful to many adult women who are close to him, he shows no such proclivity for disrespecting the adult men in his life.  None of these things, unfortunately, make him all that unusual.  He, however, will not discuss it.  He will not engage around these topics, at least not for now, leaving me breathless and frustrated about my seeming lack of influence, and the possibility that my beloved one may shortly grow up to be yet another man who has little genuine respect for women, and regularly navigates the lines of misogyny.

The thing that catches me is both the intensity of this experience, and how “normal” he is as it comes to men.  How typical.  Which is chilling.  And, all of this I set next to the fact that I know he has a remarkable heart.  He is, in so many ways, a deeply loving person. But these considerations around women are some very serious impediments, and I cannot help but retract.  I have no grace for any adult man who occupies these characteristics.  I especially have no grace for men who commit sexual violence (which I view as a group agreement, conscious or unconscious, to terrorize women and other groups of people), and my general opinion is that they offer nothing to the planet.

Had I met my beloved as an adult man, he would have been exiled from my life long ago.  The older he gets, the starker this reality becomes, and the greater my expectations of him.  We will not continue, indefinitely, to have a relationship in which he cannot think well about me- much of that for specifically gendered reasons.

But something is not sitting correctly within me, and I can feel it.  There is an accountability that he is held to, and also a hardness within my being that continues to turn on in ways that feel out of alignment to me.  For, he is shifting out of the realm of multifaceted human being, and into a designation of “likely predator.”  I have to fight very hard for the beauty of him.  To remember his sweetness and his goodness sitting next to these things that are disgusting.  I do not want to switch into absolution, and I also see that this hardness signals limits within me.

It is not news to me that I have a deep distrust of and anger toward men in general – particularly cisgender (a.k.a. non-transgender, click here for more information), heterosexual men.  I am able to strike a sort of internal balance and flexibility with white people and heterosexuals that I can rarely touch with men.  I am outraged and overwhelmed by the intense horror of sexism and misogyny.  Astounded and left uncomprehending by the intensely personal psychological, sexual, and physical violence that female identified and female bodied people experience by way of cisgender men.  The physical and sexual violence alone directly implicates at least 25% of the male population, and depending on the circumstances, this percentage can be dramatically higher.  That many men traverse the world while personally brutalizing their female partners, daughters, sisters, mothers, aunties, cousins, neighbors, students, and so on.  And, from my perspective, the majority of those not directly active in the brutalization are wholly complicit in their resounding silence and inaction.  Sitting fully and presumptively in their privilege.

On top of the rampant interpersonal violence, sexism is then reinforced through our ideologies, institutions, and internalized practices and beliefs.  It is enormous.

I have many more thoughts on the subject, but suffice it to say that when I am around men- especially cisgender, heterosexual men- my self-protective mechanisms are almost always active, and I do not assume that any man will be genuinely thoughtful or have my back in a real way. Precious few women in my world have not been subjected to gender motivated physical and sexual violence. And, I hardly know a woman in a heterosexual relationship whose daily life does not revolve around the glories of sexism (which they often seem to regard as normal- a tribute to the effectiveness and power of this system of oppression).

I resent going to meetings with men who take up untold space without recognizing it, who think about themselves first and foremost, and don’t seem to know how to think about or be in effective relationship with others.

I am tired of cleaning up after the messes of men, carrying their loads, and putting up with their insufferable, invisibilized sexism.  When these things show up as internalized oppression in the queer communities I am apart of, it makes me see red.

And I am wholly provoked by men who examine gender roles only to notice the consequences to their own lives- the impact of gender rigidity on themselves and other men. Men who are fascinated by their own experiences, and somehow astounded that being in an oppressor role might come with some consequences.  It is not, after all, a nice form of power.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that when a group derives the wealth of their privilege from the heavy suffering of others that it will cost them something?  That doesn’t change one’s role as an oppressor.  It means that one has a remarkably personal investment, beyond being “magnanimous” toward another group, in dismantling the system.

I am not a person who has done a great deal of thinking about forgiveness.  And honestly, it’s not something that I’ve been particularly personally invested in. Forgiveness has always seemed to me to be a nice theoretical idea so long as it doesn’t mean that one has to pretend like certain transgressions haven’t meant anything in the spirit of “forgive and forget.”  I am very much invested in remembering what has gone on, and using a series of incidents or actions to help guide my behavior in the future.  To guide my understanding of how to relate with different people.  I have never truly understood what it means when people say, “forgive for yourself, to release yourself- not for the other person.”  Mostly, I cannot imagine what advantages such forgiveness would offer me. The opportunity to have relationships with people I don’t want in my life?  The increased opportunity to be re-victimized?  Not appealing.

I am enraged and indignant at a world that supports sexism and other forms of oppression.  This rage has offered me many protections in the midst of inhumane experiences.  Has been required as a source of strength, and a means by which I fight for change. A means by which I fight for transformation.

And now, noticing the texture and energy of the hardness within me as I stand at an increasing distance from my beloved one, I am finally ready to ask what more might be available to me.  Because with all of the ferocity that it comes with, I know all too well the terror, fear, and heartache that form too many of the roots of my rage.

To read part two, please click here.

14 Comments on ““Forgiving” Men and Other Oppressors, Part I

  1. Wow. Thanks for your powerful words and your honesty. I have much to say tomorrow at writing circle. Much love.

    • Thank you very much, Stephanie. I look forward to seeing you tomorrow, and to hearing your feedback. I truly appreciate you reading this post.

  2. My Dear,

    I am once again impressed and delighted by the depth of your insight and your willingness to mine your own experience for wisdom and inspiration. And of course, doing so requires vulnerability. Which can be so painful, and also so truthful and powerful as you demonstrate here.

    What does it mean to reject all manifestations of sexism and simultaneously cultivate the potential in relationships with (cisgender, straight) men?

    I don’t always know…but I am grateful to be able to navigate this with you and all the wonderful resource you bring to the project.

    Thank you!

    • Leah, thank you for reading and responding! Your comment is so thoughtful, and also beautifully written. I appreciate you very much. I look forward to continuing the discussion with you, and hearing what you think about part two. Have a beautiful week, Leah.

  3. Dara, This is so powerful. Thanks for taking the time to write this up and share it! Joanne

    • I know that you are very busy, so thank you for reading this post! I will be sure to send you the second installment. Sending you my best.

  4. Oh my dear Dara, I am so grateful to have you in my life! What great writing. In reading it, I recognize in myself SO much a similar rage against corporations for the massive evil they do to us as consumers and workers on every level. I also recognize the hatred I feel towards right-wing idealogues and anti-gay people.

    I also really enjoyed your quote: Doesn’t it stand to reason that when a group derives the wealth of their privilege from the heavy suffering of others that it will cost them something?

    I so often so strongly feel that way in my musings on corporate abuses. DRAG the CEO out in the street and let the masses have their justice many on one! No Justice, No Peace! But sadly I’m not just as rich, powerful, and able to transgress laws violating kidnapping, etc. just for my perceived global benefit, as rewarding as it might seem initially.

    Therefore I am SO GLAD to see Occupy Denver and Occupy Wall Street strengthening, growing, swelling as the legitimate voice of the people against corporate evil, and march with them, and wish them the best, for something substantive, real, sustainable and lasting. I marched with them a few Saturdays ago, what a great experience!

    I was also particularly struck by your reflection on forgiveness. I am one who has often quoted and suggested to others about forgiveness setting YOU free (versus the other person, but often them as well).

    And I think back on my life, all the wasted years of anger and those who did me wrong, decades of icy silence that ruled and imprisoned me, and THEY the oppressor had probably no clue about. So yes, here in this reply, I just want to focus on and recount the cost of non-forgiveness. While it may seem environmentally understandable when we recount the horrors of what led us to the forgiveness question, and it may harden our hearts reliving our suffering, in the end, the question is, do we DESERVE a happy life, a productive life, being able to be our best, spiritually and emotionally? Of course, the answer is yes (unless we have some serious heavy duty karma to work out where we haven’t forgiven ourselves for something). From that aspect alone, forgiveness, with the serious intention to COMPLETELY let go of the hurt-attachment and move on, is very powerful if you can swing it. The trick is, it won’t work if you don’t mean it, right? If you can’t consciously decide you don’t deserve the drama-ness any more, and you are over it, for your own benefit, and you are really ready to give up the up-until-now justified hate at the oppressor, no dice.

    We also have to get past the initial stinging rage at the fact we should have to be in this position in the first place. THEY hurt us, those bastages! How DARE they! WHY should I have to forgive, right? I SHOULD fight them! I SHOULDN’T put up with this!!!!

    But once you get to that point of readiness to let go, and can get on the phone or face to face, or in the press, clean and clear, and say what you are forgiving, and it’s forgiven, and then GET their reaction (there is power in this too, maybe for closure, maybe for a new opening) and then move on free of it all, well, this is just one great way to reclaim your positive power.

    And further, I want to point out I believe it hinders our effectiveness if we do activism mostly or totally from anger. It’s a turn off to others who would otherwise support us. It is a red hot indicator of bias, and lack of objectivity. What a fine line, expert tightrope it is to walk with the conviction of our experiences, passionately wanting a better world for those others we share the hurt with and care about, but without letting that hurt compromise our effectiveness, or their results.

    I write this as a person who spent years in gay activism, only to feel jaded and cynical when “not enough gays” got it, appreciated our efforts, went shopping instead, or wouldn’t lend a hand (or even be aware) at those big critical moments of our fights. Ultimately I had to just forgive them and realize not everyone (sadly) is a fighter by nature, and especially not all at the same time, or the right time and place. If we are lucky, we build toward and witness moments of great global growth, change, transformation and enlightenment. They can’t be every day, every minute, but Occupy Wall Street is one prime current example that eventually these things CAN and DO happen. The dedication of the Washington DC memorial to Dr. King, decades late as it is, is another.

    So, bottom line, forgiveness is a powerful healer, restorer if we can start practicing it more and master it. The risk if we don’t is that those we help may not really be helped that well, those watching us will avoid our anger and bias, and those who oppress will just harden in their opposition toward us and refuse to listen or be open to change.

    Easier said than done to understand your oppressors humanity, forgive them while challenging the wrong behavior and positively challenging them to change? You bet! But it’s worth it if we can manage it. In spades.

    If you’re still not convinced, go to a statue, painting or pictures of your favorite spiritual hero, be it King, Ghandhi, Parks, Lincoln, none of whom were perfect in their lives to begin with, or maybe even your childhood superhero (mine was Wonder Woman) and ask your hero what they would do, then quitely listen to their wisdom, and your own, to heal and then move on to fight, create, excel, achieve, assist, heal, whatever it is that calls you forth.


    • Scott, thank you for your long, thoughtful reply. You raise so many good points. And, you offer some great elaborations.

      First of all, I agree. It’s very exciting that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Denver, and all sorts of other Occupy movements are happening all over the country. The classism that defines everyday life is remarkable, and the number and intensity of classist policies has been astounding this year. This certainly is not new, but we are facing a strong push for an end to social programs (which has been happening since the 1980’s, and is culminating now), very definite limits on access to resources for the vast majority of people, and the extreme and unending consolidation of worldwide power and resources to a tiny group of people. The links of this to multinational corporations, and large corporations in general, are undeniable, and globally rooted in ways that undermine and obliterate human rights and human welfare. The influence is so broad that people in the ruling class are not even bound to the considerations of any one country.

      I also think that it is important to note that there is also a deep and profound irony to the fact that people in the middle class in the United States are amongst the super elite in a worldwide economy, and that they hold less than 10% of the national financial resources in comparison to the top 10% of this country. The levels of disparity in the distribution of resources worldwide are incomprehensible. I hope that this economic justice movement will also take on a global lens because we must devise a system that honors the rights and humanity of all people.

      Thank you for your work in consumer advocacy and addressing the role of corporate power in our lives.

      As for your reflections on healing, I think that they are very instructive. It is indeed like walking a tightrope. The line between honoring self and community, recognizing (without varnishing) the impact of oppression, demanding accountability, not living in a state of torment, and being able to proceed powerfully are thin indeed. I think you describe these contradictions well, and they add a range of description and consideration to the post.

      I appreciate your time in devising this response, Scott. Thank you. Sending you my best wishes for a beautiful week.

  5. Oh and I hope Cam is able to meet some white advocates working for minorities and social justice that might assist him in working through / resolving his issues with white folks. There is good and bad in each of us, in each color, shape and size. It’s also such a beautiful thing when inter-racial, inter-gender, inter-orientation, inter-language, inter-class and otherwise diverse friendships and relationships happen and succeed. Sadly much more rare than I would like, but they are growing and increasing, and the world is better off for each one.



  6. heya love,
    this is beautifully raw and honest. i appreciate the vulnerability you share, it’s really a huge gift. i can’t wait to read the next one, i think i will right now.
    there isn’t a damn thing that isn’t complicated in life, but one thing i think about after reading this is how i always want and hope that my organizing can come from a place of love. whether organizing as an ally to the immigrant communities that allow me to share their struggle or organizing queer and trans folks of color for our own liberation, i just want it to come from a place of fierce love.
    so, here’s why. i don’t know much about forgiveness, i feel like i’m learning everyday, but i do know that for me, when i have found myself able to forgive, it’s always been because i at some point i was able to stop fighting for my survival, stop fighting for my life only when i had the privilege of taking a step back and drawing on the love of my friends and family and essentially the luxury of feeling safe enough was i able to forgive.
    so, if we wanted to use my logic, then there is good argument for getting people to places where they are safe and showing love to people as best we can. eh?
    xoxo jordan t

    • Jordan, I am so pleased that you read this blog piece! Thank you. And, thank you for commenting. I agree with you about how complicated life can be. It seems that the simple things are some of the most complicated to achieve. And, I so appreciate your fierce dedication to coming from a place of love. Love is not something that I mention too much in this piece, and it’s certainly not something I lay out a a place to draw strength from. But I certainly value it- even though I often find myself regarding love with some cynicism (mostly for self protective reasons). These feelings exist within me as a contradiction. And, I also agree that forgiveness, coming to balance, or any other process of resolution requires at least some level of distance/perspective and safety. I the combination you propose, and think that loving people well on this journey is a sweet and critical component. Thank you…

  7. Dara,

    Thank you for the brave and thoughtful post.

    I’m often struck by my inability to balance both a systemic and individual-focused reflection. Yes, we are responsible for our internal struggles…and yes, we are products of a white, male-centric, heterosexual construct that rewards the physically able and violence-prone.

    Similarly, I have found brief moments of peace (though not quite forgiveness) in my flawed attempts to hold both anger and non judgement toward men in my life like the Cam in your post. In holding both anger and non judgement, I neither romantisize a purely structural analysis nor demonize a shared piece of humanity, a brother. I’m not great at this at all, and certainly have not been taught or shown how to hold conflicting parts of truth equal. It’s just how I’ve struggled to move forward without creating a false forgiveness that is neither accurate nor deserved.

    Thank you again for the post and for this forum,

    • Adrienne,thank you very much for your reflections here. I appreciate you raising the point about holding things in contradiction. For, I think that this is both an important skill, and something that we as humans are able to do in ways that are both constructive and hypocritical. I think, in this case, the ability to hold such contradictions is almost demanded by the contradictory realities we face. And, I think it can be an essential element of moving toward “balance” or a sense of resolution. In holding the truths that you refer to. Thank you for your thoughts. Sending you my best.

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