To stray away from my usual point of view, bringing you tales from my Galesburg experience and intertwining them with my experience at Knox, I want to respond to Eden Sarkisian’s column last week. Specifically, I wanted to talk about gender and race from the point of view of a non-female, white individual.
I’d like to preface this by saying this is a very personal account of my past and my evolution as an individual. The topic is very touchy and emotional so read at your own pace.
I recognize that I have a lot of privilege being born who I am. This is unfortunately one aspect of myself that I can not change. I have been given opportunities that I might not have been given had I been born someone different. This thought alone has been enough for me to retreat into my mind and think of the “what if’s.” I remember days where I sat and wished that I was born a woman, because then, I could truly understand what they have to go through on a daily basis.
I grew up in a house with just my mother and my sister so I was faced with their struggles often. Being the only male figure in their life, I felt obligated to protect them, befriend them, be something that they could be proud of. I was constantly reminded that I was the man of the house by my mother’s friends and they didn’t realize the immense burden that came with those words. I had no stable male figure in my life to give me a semblance of what a “real man” even was. Anytime a male figure entered my mother’s life, I always felt they weren’t good enough and that I was being replaced. As I got older I realized that the qualities I saw in the men in my mother’s life were present within myself as well.
My first serious relationship in high school marked my departure from the matriarchal point of view in my life. The more serious our relationship got, the more I was confronted with the ideas of who I was and how it related to the idea of what a man was supposed to be like in this situation. I started believing that soon, I would become the very thing I thought I was not. I remember my then-girlfriend saying at one point that I would become just like my father and that felt like a gut punch. On one hand, I saw my dad as a sincere individual, one who simply was misunderstood and afraid. Someone who conformed to the ideas of what society said he was, an oppressor, a criminal, institutionalized from his time spent in prison. But on the other hand, I could see where she was coming from — him sleeping all day, his alcoholism and drug use, emotional issues, all things that I could become if I didn’t learn to love myself and accept the evil I inherited when I took my first breath.
That relationship eventually ended and I spent a lot of time reflecting on what had transpired. I had realized that I had taken advantage of her at times. I had realized that I had never verbally asked her consent when we slept together. Being in a relationship, I never stopped to think to ask if I could kiss her or ask if she was in the mood. The absence of a no does not always mean a yes. I realized that I was again, the very thing that I desperately did not want to be. It took about two years for me to get to the point where I could forgive myself for what I had done and move on.
Learning to live with the fact that sometimes you are going to hurt other people is not an easy thing to do, especially when it involved my interactions with women. I’m reminded of my interactions with my mother and sister and how they would feel if they saw or heard the things that I have said. Just this past year at Knox I found myself rubbing someone’s leg without their consent after previously communicating their need for space. It wasn’t until I had a nightmare, that took that encounter and put me into the mind of a deviant committing a terrible act that framed the encounter as oppressive that I truly felt guilty.
I felt the need to apologize, but apologizing for every self-realized act of oppression that I have committed would take an enormous effort and does nothing but give me some sense of peace knowing that the individual is aware of my guilt. I cannot simply apologize and somehow wipe away thousands of years of institutionalized sexism, if only this was the case we could end the patriarchy with one collective “Sorry.”
I found that I must continue to stay mindful of my actions but still live in the moment. Consent is extremely important too. Asking before you invade someone’s personal space isn’t difficult, hearing a “no” doesn’t have to make things awkward and if you find yourself not even capable of talking to them afterward then that should tell you how you really think about them.
I am still learning what it means to be a “man,” in fact I’m not even sure I am one. They/them pronouns is something that I have tried with some friends and that feels really good. But until then, I will continue to analyze my actions. Sometimes I may make a bigger deal out of a simple gesture than others might perceive it, but if it has sexist, misogynist undertones and someone else doesn’t make a big deal about it how am I supposed to remember that behavior is wrong?
I am thankfully a lot different now than I was then. Each day I have to put my past to bed and start a new one, without hate and oppression. I’ve also learned the importance of communication. This column should be evidence enough to show that I see importance in communicating where I’ve been, where I want to go and how I plan to get there. I know that I will thankfully never put myself in a situation where I could be misinterpreting people’s actions again as the importance of CCOW (clear, coherent, ongoing, willing) has been drilled into me by my peers and myself.
I may still have slight hiccups, as the leg rubbing incident showed, but being aware of my errors helps to make sure other errors never happen. If you’ve been taken advantage of and you’re reading this, don’t be afraid to communicate your boundaries, people who respect you will respect them. And for those reading who have taken advantage of someone, never assume, sometimes your actions represent something bigger than yourself and if you want to change that you need to listen and use that guilt as a motivator and not a damnation.
If anyone has any questions, as I understand there is a lot I could further address, feel free to reach out to me through email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Facebook.