and words can never really help you say/what you want them to anyway

I had an idea for a Women of Color Conference workshop that involves a film, followed by discussion. The film is entitled The Way Home, and I saw it over a year ago, so the details are somewhat fuzzy, but I think it just might work.

All I actually wanted was to hear feedback on my workshop design, but the program coordinator considered our circle of a dozen and said, “Some of you haven’t had to deal with a difficult workshop participant before. How would you handle a situation where someone was extremely vocal about his or her perspectives and beliefs, and didn’t want to listen to anyone else’s thoughts?”

We decided to try it out.

C, a Latina female, was designated “Maria,” the difficult workshop participant, while two others were assigned to be facilitators. The rest of us were to play regular workshop participants.

Having forgotten much of the film’s detailed dialogue, I made an unsteady attempt to start off the discussion by vaguely remarking that, as a Muslim, I felt I could identify with some of the experiences and stereotypes discussed by the Arab American women in the video. “Maria” raised her eyebrows disdainfully and said, “What stereotypes? I’ve never heard of any Arab or Muslim stereotypes.”

“Just because you’re ignorant of them doesn’t mean the stereotypes don’t exist,” I retorted.

She waved her hand dismissively and changed tactics. “I don’t feel my ethnic group was properly represented in this film. After all, the stereotypes and experiences of my people are harsher and much more hurtful than anything experienced by any of you. Any of you!” She tossed her head and stared around the circle defiantly.

I narrowed my eyes. “What makes you think you have the right to validate your experiences at the expense of negating mine?” I shot back hotly, and it all went downhill from there. For nearly two hours.

C slipped into her role so effortlessly that it was almost too easy to forget this was a practice session, that each of us was supposed to be playing a role, that each scornful remark C made in her role as “Maria” does not reflect any view she personally holds. It sounds ludicrous, but I felt betrayed, sitting across from this girl I thought I knew well enough, hearing her dismiss my experiences, thoughts, and feelings as irrelevant, imaginary, unimportant. She may have been playing a role, but the resentment I felt was very real.

I’ve been intensively trained in workshop facilitation, cross-cultural communication, leadership skills, diversity issues, all that fun stuff. I think I’m good at it, and I know I’m getting better. But for once, I was in the position of a participant and not a facilitator. It was almost exhilarating, ignoring the ground rules – especially: This is a dialogue, not a debate and Listen to others with respect – and forging ahead, making my sarcastic retorts in response to “Maria’s” sneering generalizations. I wanted to wipe that smirk off her face oh so badly, to hurt her just as much as I was feeling hurt by her sweeping statements and cold indifference, to attack her just as I was personally feeling attacked.

Simply put, I was pissed off. It’s a good thing she was sitting across the circle, otherwise I was so angry that I felt like, in the words of a colleague, “reaching over and strangling her with her own hair.”

I’m still wondering why I was so impatient at her attitude and annoyed with her comments, why it was so difficult for me to sit back and let her finish so much as a sentence without making aggressive statements of my own. Perhaps I expect my own generation, especially the university students I interact with on a daily basis, to be more open-minded and knowledgeable than other strangers I’ve come across, and this exercise made it frighteningly obvious that I can’t always trust myself to be calm and coherent in situations where others are ignorant about who I am and what I stand for.

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