Being an Ally

When I was writing the review for “The Love that Split the World”, I debated on what I wanted to say about the book because I was unsure about how I felt on some elements of the book. I thought, “I’d love to know Debbie Reese’s take on the book” and I wanted to ask her some questions about the stories Henry integrated into the novel. Alas, I waited until late the night before the review was to be posted to write it and had to make my own conclusions about the stories. And what I wrote was…

“One part about this novel I do want to mention is the parables that Grandmother shares with Natalie. Henry did a great job of presenting different types of parables from different American Indian nations and even includes a Biblical parable. Like any elder, the stories Grandmother shares with Natalie not only teach her about different cultures, but also provide lessons and insights into Natalie’s situation, helping her solve the mystery of who Grandmother is and how Natalie needs to save him. Well, not all the parables add to the mystery, sometimes a story is just a story that elders tell to their children, and that is what really endeared me to many of the tories. In her acknowledgements, Henry gave credit to the nation’s stories that she used and it was clear she did proper research.”

A few days later,  Ellen Oh’s blog post “Dear White Writers” was published. On Twitter Debbie came out in support of Ellen, but also spoke on “Love that Split the World” and knowing that Debbie always has profound words, she and I had a conversation about the novel. And from her I learned that Henry didn’t actually do her research well and misrepresented the stories of the people she borrowed them from. From our conversation, I realized that I had made a mistake with my review. I felt horrible and felt like I had failed Debbie and many American Indian youth. For that I am sorry.

I did also take my conversations with Debbie as a learning moment, where I sat and listened to what she had to say and understand her point of view. To understand the hurt that books like “Love that Split the World” bring. To step outside of my own world view as an African-American woman, and to step into Debbie’s shoes and see the world as an American Indian woman. And this thought brings me to the second point of my post. Debbie and I are fighting the same battle, but our experiences, our point of view, has us fighting the battle from different perspectives. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we get it wrong. In this instance I was wrong and it was my job to shut my mouth and listen. It was my role, as an ally to Debbie’s fight, to listen to what she had to say and not to turn it around and make it about me. It was for me to take in her words, process them and then act (which is today’s post). That, my friends is the role of an ally. That when people of color are expressing their experiences, their hurt, we do not respond with “but I..”.  No, we close our mouths and open our ears. We take off our own shoes, put on the shoes of another and take a walk with their experience. When we do that, we become enlighten to experiences other than our own and with that knowledge can call out others when they make mistakes.

In the past few weeks, there have been instances where people of color have spoken out about an experience and “allies” have responded negatively. There has been hurtful words slung at people I greatly respect, and they did not deserve such vitriol thrown in their direction by people who believed they supported the cause. I say this, and will probably get words thrown at me too, that if you are unable to be empathetic to the words of a person of color who is sharing with you their pain, can you really call yourself an ally?

It is hard to say, “I’m sorry,” but it is the right thing to do. To humble yourself and own up to your mistake is hard, but again, it is the right thing to do. When you humble yourself, and actually open your mind (and your heart), you end up learning more about another person, another culture. And that, is an ally.

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4 Comments on “Being an Ally
  1. I loved your post and I love Richincolor- your blog is so important in getting out the diverse reads for ALL teens!

  2. Thank you for such an honest post. Acknowledging our mistakes and being willing to learn from them is very important.

    I appreciate, respect, and will support white allies whose stories are centered around or are inclusive of marginalized people. However, I also expect their work and intentions to be genuine and good. When a white person writes about the experiences of people of color, I’m all for it yet still hesitant because I’ve seen it executed poorly and offensively. That’s why generally, I prefer to support stories about people of color written by people of color.

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