“Forgiving” Men and Other Oppressors, Part I
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.