.Owning It

Buckle up, lean in and move forward

One of the most important lessons I learned in life came from my college thesis adviser. It didn’t come in the classroom—instead it came in the form of somewhat unsolicited yet necessary advice. “If you’ve never had a conflict (or worked through one), you’ve never had a meaningful relationship,” she told me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was planting the seed for something that would take well over a decade (until last week) to sprout.

At the time, I was a graduate assistant in a Women’s Center and a member of the belly dancing group on campus. My advisor, a Lebanese-American Muslim woman, shined light on the fact that belly dancing as it was (and often still is) performed in the United States risked perpetuating or appropriating certain cultural stereotypes. 

She reached out to my boss at the Women’s Center, and an important dialogue between a multicultural, body positive dance troupe that included women from around the world and the socio-political intersectional issues of gender, religion and representation began. 

Navigating the tension and the dualities between the art of the dance and the passions of the dancers, and the real perspective that in some way the dance, as it was performed with tasseled bras, exposed midsections and other stereotype-inducing props like swords, added fuel to what felt like an already Islamophobia-fueled fire in the post 9-11 era. 

Each side clung tightly to their position at first, and I remember feeling somewhat caught in the middle—I wanted the dancers to be able to do what they were most passionate about in a way that didn’t harm either in a microaggressive or overt way, and I wanted the Women’s Center collective to think beyond canceling or calling on members to quit.

After months of difficult conversations and reflections, we found a happy-ish landing place. The dancers changed our group name away from the stereotype inducing Pink Camels to the Global Dancers, and broadened the genres of music and dance to add in regions of the world represented by the troupe members’ identities. We changed our costumes to something slightly more modest, with fitted shirts that covered our midsections and long pants and omitted unnecessary props. 

It was and likely still is a work in progress—as in the roots of many types of dance is some form of oppressive system and in the world we live in, music and dance are also connectors of people and bridges of understanding. 

I think back to that experience—as I cover incidents of Islamophobia, racial bias, xenophobia, acts of violence against women and the presence of a small but verbose population of trans-phobic anti-LGBTQ+ folks who appear with signs or sometimes behind a computer with dangerous messages of hate with fear mongering overtures. I think of them as I try to navigate conversations or attempt to illuminate the intersectionality of literally any issue.

And I spoke with a woman who seemed to be making a mockery of DEIB (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) with signs saying, “Deliberate Extinction of Innocence,” who I learned was genuinely afraid of the school’s acknowledgement of Transgender Day of Visibility by displaying the Transgender Pride Flag. When I asked what prompted her to stand outside of the Contra Costa county school each Friday afternoon, she rhetorically asked when cis-gender boys and girls would get the recognition they deserved. 

The answer is, of course, all the time as instructors tend to say. “Boys and girls, line up,” and school restrooms are for the most part divided into two categories—boys and girls, sports are structured that way and the list goes on. I asked what she’d say to children or community members who might feel hated by her signs and messages, and she shared only that she too felt hated, as a number of drivers had shown her their middle fingers. As I walked away, I thanked her for sharing her perspective, and I genuinely meant that. 

Recently, I was heartened by the presence of a burly straight bearded white guy and his two kids who stood beside the anti-DEIB, anti-trans inclusion protesters carrying the Progress Pride Flag—which includes symbols of support for Black Lives Matter and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

He explained that he’d been moved by a bumper sticker that had the message that allowing someone else to have access to basic human rights doesn’t detract from yours or harm you. Rights aren’t like cookies, he explained. They’re intangible things that allow us to recognize the humanity in each other. 

As a journalist, I do my best to breathe deeply, frame the issue from a lens of humanity and tell a story in a way that might have the capacity to disarm fear or at least introduce another perspective. In my personal life, I tend to stick out or at least observe the conversations on social media (even when I disagree). And for the most part, I leave my Facebook, Instagram and real life friendships and connections intact. 

Still, I’ve watched people cancel each other from time to time. Maybe, it’s by applying a blanket statement about marginalization and privilege without recognizing that we can be marginalized by one aspect of our identity such as gender (particularly if one happens to be straight and male) and privileged by another or vice versa. Along with our intersectional and nuanced identities comes an arsenal of life stories and experiences. What doesn’t come with us is an instruction manual telling us what to say, how to say it, and what will or won’t trigger someone else. 

When I’m hurt by someone’s words or actions or when my words cause harm—I circle back to the old lesson of my college professor—that to have a meaningful relationship, there must, at times, be conflict (that can be healthily worked through). 

I recently hurt someone, a super gifted artist who was also significant other-ish to me, when I suggested that his giftedness spoke for itself, so perhaps he didn’t need to spell it out. And I talked about how some of the most gifted musicians, writers and people I’ve interviewed are among the most humble. I stopped short of sharing the metaphor that my former Iranian-American colleague shared with the students he cared for in his health center—that if one taps a can full of something, it makes relatively little sound, but if one taps an empty can, it makes a lot of noise and people sometimes tune it out. 

The truth is that my friend’s work is brilliant and becomes relatable and accessible to almost any audience with the stories he tells along with it. Nevertheless, my comment was not well received and neither was my apology. I learned through a series of voice memos and emails that we had very different philosophies. Most importantly, I learned that I caused harm. I owned that and apologized for the impact of my words. It wasn’t enough. 

I likened the art of communication and working through conflict to co-creating a painting and blending and working through the textures as a team. It might not be pretty while it’s in the making, but ultimately it will be something beautiful in the end. He said, in response, that I should have asked permission before putting such a radical stroke of paint on the canvas in the first place. There was no redemption. He canceled his friendship with me. I know because he proclaimed it in his podcast. 

And I don’t regret not asking for permission before offering a “food for thought” perspective, in a world where women are already walking on eggshells. What I do regret is the misunderstanding of hopes and intentions, the lack of an opportunity to repair and the premature punctuation of a blossoming friendship or a painting in progress. 

If you’re like me, you’re imperfect, spread too thin, and will make mistakes or even speak them, but you’ll also own them. You’ll also be on the receiving end of harm at times. When these struggles arise, talk about them if you can. Since we can only move forward and not backward, we can’t change how or when we apply a brush stroke to the canvas (no matter how much we ruminate over it), but we can ask for forgiveness or even grant it. We can also, of course, leave. 

But, as my wise college professor taught me many years ago, the path to meaningful relationships necessarily includes bumps and conflict. Yet, on the other side, there’s often a beautiful rainbow awaiting us.

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