Allyship, schmallyship. It’s a term we see in every twitter bio these days and we’re not so sure we believe it. Or, at least, that’s how today’s discussion started, with Keighlagh Donovan on one end of a video call at her place, and me on the line at mine.
“Sometimes, I’ll see it on someone’s profile, and I’ll think, but are you though?,” she asks, sipping casually from her water bottle like it’s the hot new tea. We both giggle, as is our way before we dive into seriousness. That’s the beauty of a long and good friendship: you can always tell when the ‘goss’ is going to be good.
“Right?” I begin. “It’s sort of having to ask yourself, are these people just virtue signalling? Are they for real?”
Keighlagh nods, and allows her lovely cat Clover up on her lap. While she pets her absently, I can see the clockworks turning, the years and years of her late-night M.A. research brimming to the surface. (Have I mentioned she’s a PhD fellow at the University of Alberta?)
“But then, that’s when I know it’s me in that moment who is not being a good ally. These self-declared allies are still people with good intent. And they are people who I want to be on my side, so, I never want to gatekeep that. Especially since I think allyship involves not just generosity and compassion, but also some seriously hard self-interrogation.”
I get a bit too close to the screen, squinting my eyes accusingly. “You don’t fool me one bit. Why’d you bring up allyship? Are you working on something right now? You wanna talk about?”
She allows Clover a few more scritches before booping the cat off her lap and readjusting herself closer to the wall behind her, the sun shining there and marking the shadow of a cross-sectioned window pane. I know from experience that from her office she can see out toward my tiny apartment in the distance—that she can see out and across the whole of Edmonton (amiskwaciy-wâskahikan), all the way to where the treeline stops and the prairie begins again.
“Well, I don’t want to bore you.”
“Right now?” she asks, her eyes both nervous and excited. I can tell she’s already said yes in her mind, and pull up the voice recorder on my computer screen.
“Let’s do it,” she says.
And that, dear readers, is how two CIS-gender, hetero-normative white girls got to talking about allyship (and its boundaries) late one sunny Friday afternoon in August.
“Go off!” I say, settling in for the long haul with my actual tea (double-spiced chai, if you were wondering) and motioning for her to start.
“In Spite of Discomfort”: A Consideration of Allyship on Treaty Six Territory with Keighlagh Donovan
J: Wait, wait, wait, wait, let me start with some introductions. You’ve been studying at the University of Alberta since 2016, and you’re a PhD fellow with…
K: Yes! With the Department of English and Film Studies. That’s where I was telling you I worked with the Writing Revolution in Place collective, where we were aligning our studies of poetry theory through a course that had us studying with and about writers and peoples from all walks of life and backgrounds from across Edmonton, who aren’t necessarily on campus or already working with the Uni. That’s when I first came to Leanne Simpson, or I should say her full name,Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who is a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar and activist from Toronto.
J: Oh yes! You’ve mentioned her before!
K: Yeah, so she has this great book called As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, which I began reading on my own time, and even though she made it very clear in her work that she was not speaking to white people or settlers in her text, there was a phrase that just jumped out at me which said something like, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘our white allies will show up in solidarity anyway’.
And for some reason, that just hit me; that was when the word ally really began to take on a real form for me. I began focusing on the word in my work, all while we [WRiP] were focusing on visions of Indigenous knowing through other important writers like Sylvia McAdam and Sharon Venne, which spans and consciously considers seven generations into the future and seven generations into the past.
And honestly, this word just kept coming up in my work, I kept using that quote in essays and articles, and my supervisor at the time [Dr. Christine Stewart] asked me straight-up, ‘what is an ally?’ And in that moment, I realized that, you know, just like those twitter bios, I was using the word but that I didn’t actually know what an ally was, or who was defining it, or even who had the right to define it. So, for the first time I asked myself, ‘If I am just calling myself an ally, does that mean it’s true?’
And then the really big question came to me:
How do I know that I’m a safe space for other people?
J: Right, because we can’t go around with our unearned advantages* saying we’re allies when really it’s those with unearned disadvantages* who might be in a better position to tell us when we’re being good allies, and when we’re not.
*Terms from “The coin model of privilege and critical allyship: implications for health” by Dr. Stephanie Nixon.
K: Yes, exactly, it’s more of a de-centering of ourselves as settlers of this land, and learning a bit of humility when accepting that new knowledge. It was only two and a half years ago now that I really started reading and realizing just how many conceptualizations of allyship had formed my own ideas on how to move through the world and relate to other people, and how I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of allyship or being an ally. Then of course, here I am pursuing this intense literary study of Indigenous land rights and of being on Treaty Six territory, which had me concerned with having good relations as a settler with members of the Indigenous community here-
J: Actually, I’m glad you brought that up (sorry to interrupt). I know that a lot of what we talk about when we get into these chats is about your studies on Indigenous texts, works, and learning, and I can see now that as we’re discussing allyship, just how closely you tie those two concepts together. Did you want to explain a little more about that relationship there?
K: Well, I will say that my awakening to settler colonial history started around the time when the TRC was gaining traction, during a surge of what I’ve heard Marilyn Dumont refer to as a sort of ‘Indigenous Renaissance’ of just so much literary production by Indigenous writers and creators. So it was a combination of that and a very specific graduate course called Treaty Poetics, led by Dr. Christine Stewart and nehiyaw (Cree) language instructor Reuben Quinn, where I suddenly got a fuller picture of treaty history in general, and the treaty agreements that were made on this land. I began to realize that by being here as a settler, that, if I continue to remain here as a settler, I have treaty responsibilities that I must honour, and,so, I really began paying attention to what those are.
So, to answer your question, and to bring it back to allyship, I would say that for any of these communities, non-Indigenous or otherwise, that they are entirely included in that whole mindfulness aspect of allyship I see, in various ways. And at the very root of all of this is this deep sense of responsibility to Treaty, and what I am learning from elders through literature, and how to be-
-Well, that brings me to another point: while looking at allyship in my study, I began to realize in this context that I might not even be so eager now to use the phrase allyship at all, since there are so many alternatives that seem to be better suited to the cause and action involved with what the practice of allyship can mean…
J: Actually, that’s an interesting point. It reminds me of my own experiences using the term intersectionality, which I’ve now learned has a very explicit context and meaning—that there’s a technical aspect to the term which, like grammar, has a proper use. So, I think you and I can both agree that allyship has a bit of a similar element to it, where it has an origin, and an action attached to it, and that we need to pay homage to that when we use the word, since it can be used very emptily—on Twitter, say. (haha).
K: Right! Like, I’ve been testing out the word ‘relative’ or, asking myself, ‘how can I be a good relative?’, instead of just an ally. It’s all about how we frame that relationship. We have to frame in it in a way that is genuine to us.
J: I like that! Very cool. And not that you’re asking, but for me, allyship has always meant sort of: solidarity. Working with.
K: Interesting. Yeah, absolutely.
J: Okay, so next question then, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, so bear with me if you disagree with the framework of the question, but: we are a couple of CIS-gender, hetero-normative white females. Why do you think it’s important for our demographic to talk ‘amongst ourselves’ about allyship?
K: Like…what do you mean?
J: Sorry, that was a bit leading. I’ve just been thinking, and reading this great book by Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race, where she talks about how settler populations and non-POC populations (and to me that includes non-queer or abled populations), need to confront each other on these issues. And I’m paraphrasing (probably badly), but she talks about a burden that can sometimes be put on non-white individuals to sort of ‘answer all the racism questions’ for white persons or, as a friend in my anti-racism book club calls it, ‘white-adjacent’ persons. In that work, she talks about how that can be a burden.
So, I guess with my question I meant to ask: why do people like us, who benefit from what Dr. Stephanie Nixon calls in her article-um-The Coin Model of Privilege and Critical Allyship ‘unearned advantage’, need to keep talking about allyship…or being a good relative, without necessarily burdening the populations we want to be allies with? And then also doing that while still learning from those voices?
K: Wow. Okay. Well, now that you say that, and because, you know, I am a literary scholar and student, so I think about everything through that lens, I’m thinking of two quotes. One, I learned from Reuben Quinn, who introduced me to Sharon Venne, an Indigenous Rights Attorney from Muskeg Lake Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, who has done a lot of work in terms of recording what Elders have had to say surrounding the signing of treaties, and what she says is that we are all treaty people.
“This shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”
J: Boom. Wow. I’m speechless.
K: So was I. And it was those key quotes that really hit me off the bat because it’s like: even though, you know, because we are CIS-white hetero women, and even though at the time I was learning all of this I was trying to be conscious of being a good relative—and am still trying to—I was actually living in certain ways that I didn’t think were harmful, which actually were harmful to me and to the people I wanted to be allies with. But then, all of these notions were subverted when I started listening and learning from different communities that weren’t made up of just people like me.
And now of course I’m thinking of another quote, from Toni Morrison’s book of theory called Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, which has this line that says something like, “Eddie is white, and we know this because no one says so.”
When I read that, it suddenly made me think about how many times in my life I’ve referenced someone’s skin colour, for whatever reason, in a conversation and then realized that I’d never (until recently) been like…’and, he was white!’ It was honestly an awakening. Like an ‘aha!’ moment. It was just so simply stated that it made me reel back very fast through everything I’d ever read, or consumed, and I was just like, oh god: they never had to specify for me that anyone was white. I just assumed.
And that was the break moment. I suddenly started seeing every billboard and commercial, and that I really did expect to see myself represented there. Then I forced myself to see it as if I were in another place, not seeing myself reflected, and how disconcerting that could be. I realized just how ‘not from there’ someone could feel, even though it was in this really privileged way that, you know, others don’t have the benefit of experiencing.
But, of course, that was because I was suddenly reading and recognizing the conversations of people who weren’t me. So, then it became really inherently important for me to honour the humans and relationships I choose to cultivate in this context. So, I’m not sure if that answers the question exactly, but what I mean is that it’s important for everyone to do the work, but especially us.
Or, the important qualifier is that we do this work in spite of discomfort.
Like I said earlier, it has a lot to do with sitting with really uncomfortable confrontations with yourself and those close to you; with a lot of self-interrogation, self-honesty, and unlearnings. And also listening to those who are willing to give you their knowledge, and to respect that gift. We just have to be able to keep moving through being called out, and not give up. It’s just a lifelong pursuit.
[Author’s note: A follow-up from Keighlagh states: “I wanted to share with you directly and personally something I think I missed in your initial questioning. You were asking why it was important for white persons to talk amongst ourselves, and I didn’t think to add another great resource for the topic, which is called Unsettling the Settler Within, by Paulette Regan. There, she refers to the fact that it is not, or it should not, be a non-white person’s responsibility to suffer our decolonizing struggle (along with their own) as we move through it. Just wanted to add that since it’s a really important resource for this question!]
J: So, you would say it’s important for us to make mistakes, to be the buzzkill, as long as we keep working on it?
K: Yeah, the killjoy! And also recognizing that it’s a privilege in itself that we have the choice to show up. It’s great to recognize that.
J: For sure. And actually, I think you did answer my next question there as well, which was how you define allyship, and how that concept comes into practice in your own life in a way that’s not overt. It’s like, when I am talking to people, being conscious of those who helped me get to that point. I’ve found you’re always really good at that—at giving people credit for their words.
K: Thank you! Yeah, I guess…it is important for me to honour that knowledge, and give that sort of…lip service. For lack of a better phrase.
J: Haha, no I get it. What really sticks out for me with your view too, and I think it brings us back to what you said in the beginning about humility, which is that allyship is about not being the kind of person who pretends they’ve known everything since they came out of the womb; of being aware and open to making mistakes, and just doing that work.
K: Yes, I am really trying to work toward that, because sometimes I can fall into that trap where there is this ‘ideal’ ally that I want to be, who aligns with my ideal morals and values, but then, there is this righteous person that comes out more when I try to be perfect, like in the posts I share, or even in writing. I’ll share them in the moment, and I can see that my wording doesn’t rely on the morals and allyship concepts I hold close.
And it’s hard because there is this place of rage. So, for example, if I were to share something that had maybe a shaming undertone—‘if you don’t know this, don’t talk to me’ kind of thing. In the past, and sometimes even now, I’ll see myself making people feel bad for not already knowing. So, being a good ally is catching myself, and remembering that it’s a constant push, trying to be a good ally—for everyone, not just me.
J: Right, right.
K: So, it’s like I’m trying to find this balance. And I think there is a place for rage and anger, like I said, and especially as a woman and a trauma survivor and sexual assault survivor; there’s a lot of place for rage. And of course, in this capitalistic society where so many people are being hurt, it’s just…
I think part of what I’m understanding about allyship, or what I am trying to refer to as good relations in the context of Treaty, I think it requires me (and those like me) to be more generous. Because like I said, the people I am feeling more angry or ragey toward and having less patience with are actually the people I want (and need) to take along with me. I was in the same pools of these people, but for whatever reason I was able to learn the things that I’ve learned, and I want to be able to afford others the same opportunity.
I think, then, when I think of the word ally or allyship, or how I am trying to be an ally, it’s that I care which is actually so important. And I’m really trying to…learn I am not an authority on certain topics. Or any of the topics I’m addressing through allyship, or relational work. I am trying to be open to that. And compassionate and respectful and responsible. And honouring my relationship with my community.
J: So, I’m getting the sense that you’ve made some pretty big leaps in learning from where you were just two and a half years ago, which is super positive I think, by the way. But now the drama queen in me has to know: What’s the cringiest attempt at allyship you’ve ever witnessed or experienced?
K: Oh, definitely my own! I’ll tell you one. I shared it with you before I’m sure.
J: is this for public record?
K: Oh yeah. Especially since it’s mortifying because of my own interpretations of the event. No one ever told me I did anything wrong or anything. Like I said, I was part of the Treaty Poetics course in my master’s program, which involved us working with Nehiyaw syllabics, and doing a lot of treaty research on the different treaties across Canada, and at the end of the year there was a big treaty poetics performance involving this collaboration, and there was a big drum walking circle, and different people went up and spoke poetry and made different contributions; we were all asked to participate. And I think because I was a part of a graduate course, I felt pressure to perform something to get grades…or to contribute something by way of a performance at all. I think I misunderstood that I had other options.
And so, other classmates of mine did other things like cook certain food or create little cards or someone volunteered to paint the syllabics out on a deer hide. But come presentation day these people are all sitting down in the audience having contributed, and I’m standing up there to present my poetry alongside many others, but I was maybe one of three? white people. And a lot of people showed up from the community, like Cree Elder Bob Cardinal was there, and I found out later that Turtle Island’s sweetheart Billy-Ray Belcourt was in the audience, and so I got up and I read this poem that I had written in this midnight graduate student haze of thinking I had to get this assignment done, and part of that was to…um…yeah…it was to sing a verse of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman”.
J: I mean…
And so. I just like sang. And in the context of…it was just. And I got a lot of good feedback and everyone was so nice, some smiles, but I think about it later and I’m like: oh my gosh. You silly white girl. I tried to set it up like… I was sharing an act of vulnerability. But I was mortified later.
J: Honestly that’s not even that bad, but I definitely see what you mean, and how you maybe needed to feel that to like, see it for what it was? Or that seeing that was a mark of your progress toward being a good relative/ ally?
K: Yeah. And what it is, is this…it’s this sense of de-centering myself, how through that I would likely approach the whole thing differently, with an evolved sort of understanding of what being a good relative is.
J: So, what do you think ‘perfect ally Keighlagh’ would have done?
K: Oh gosh, there’s no way to be perfect! That’s what I mean. It’s about knowing that perfection can ruin our attempts to be allies. Or for me, to know that as specifically a CIS-gender, hetero-normative white person.
But you know what?
That was a key moment for me, because I did close off a lot after that. And though I was more scared to share because, at the time, there were a lot of different experiences that discouraged me from speaking out or making mistakes, I began learning over time that that kind of behaviour (silence/non-participation) in itself can be a kind of racism; that it ran counter to my allyship work.
J: I’m not sure I’ve thought about it that way exactly, though it makes me think about how you hear that ‘silence is assent’ or ‘silence is racism’ in other circles or discussions.
K: Right, exactly. And thinking about it…I guess maybe ideal allyship was with me that day, because I do think it involves allowing yourself to make mistakes. It’s important to take risks if we are going to really learn how to be good relatives in the context of treaty, or in any context. And it’s always important to take risks in learning. I think that situation was a kind of risk that was okay. I’ve learned that intent and impact matters (impact more than intent), and I think If we were to weigh the impacts of that action, it was a risk that was worth taking considering what I learned from it.
J: Absolutely! So I guess what I’m getting from you is that allyship is something that comes from a process of learning and falling down, but also of getting back up and trying again, while being conscious that we aren’t hurting the populations we’re trying to be in solidarity with.
I mean. That’s…
Well, that’s a whole hell of a lot more than just putting ‘ally’ on your twitter bio. And I enjoy this perspective of imperfection, because I think we can get pretty lost in trying to be the best, and then being put down (or putting ourselves down) if we fail.
J: So, alright, last question then: if we’re trying to be good allies, who would you say are good people to look to for guidance across the board? Or better yet, who are your allyship idols?
K: Well, I know someone not to look up to!
K: J.K. Rowling!
J: Agggghhhh I knoooooow. So hurtful!
K: But seriously, anything by sara ahmed and her blog Feministkilljoys.com is a must-read, specifically her one blog post, “Self-Care as Warfare”. She provided me another one of those aha moments, just when I was really beginning to learn how the dynamics of capitalism and classism affected my own life, and how they had played roles in the context of my own upbringing, and now in broader society. And then this blog just talked about considerations of self-care as survival, and as a means of surviving.
It made me confront this idea of self-care, of what I had thought it meant on a base level. Like, taking baths and doing yoga. So, she really forced me to push that further and consider what kind of self-care I need most. Which for me is recognizing community and my attachment to the land, but for others (and myself though, too), it can be just caring for their/ our own self as resistance. Knowing that it’s not easy for everyone, and that for some it’s (self-care) not even something that’s accessible, since some are not even acknowledged as worthy of self-care under capitalism. So…sara ahmed for sure.
And then, if I can throw out a celeb—I mean, my own idols are people close to me, the women and men I learn from every day online, in community, and on campus—but I also love Johnathan Van Ness!
J: Yessss Hentyyyyy!
K: (Haha)! I just see him doing so many great things. He shares so much information on trans concerns, nonbinary knowledge, politics, diversity…and he does it all with grace and love and patience, and with such self-awareness! He also has that positivity that I really admire, which I mean, he’s totally my ally idol.
J: And why look to idols, you think? Why does that help you, or why might it help others?
K: Well, it’s definitely important to see what’s possible. Because seeing other people getting it right or making mistakes and bouncing back, it makes me feel like, okay, I can do this. I completely respect the people who want to figure this out.
That’s what it is to be an ally. I really think that’s what it boils down to: Caring.
J: Well, Keighlagh. I couldn’t agree more.
Keighlagh Theresa Donovan (she/her) has been a member of Writing Revolution in Place (WRiP) since 2016 and a Ph.D. student and is currently an English Instructor with the University of Alberta English and Film Studies Department. She collaborates on research creation toward adult education and Indigenous LANDBACK initiatives across Treaty 6. In her down time, Keighlagh can be found snuggled up with some fiction, her hubs & two kitty kids Luna Lovegood & Clover.