Two weeks ago I attended an event at MTSO (Methodist Theological School in Ohio) on Mass Incarceration. An African American woman deeply involved on the scene in Ferguson and other racial justice work voiced something I hadn’t heard before: A critique of the word “ally.” She felt that along with being a military term (many of us have probably had reservations about that…), “ally” implies too much distance, too much otherness, too much coming alongside for a specific cause and then going back to separateness. She adamantly stated: “I’m not looking for allies.”
Her alternative term was “kin” or “kinship,” calling on people to fully identify with the struggle and put their own well-being on the line. I responded to her that I had always seen ally as a respectful acknowledgement of “otherness,” hopefully using that term in its best sense, not pretending that I’m a part of the oppressed group. I bring a different kind of social reality and story to the relationship. But she wasn’t having it! She told stories about white pastors and leaders suffering right alongside black folks.
In reflecting on this now, it has me thinking about “ally” being on a continuum, and “kinship” being further along toward what we might call “the beloved community.” I posted these thoughts on the Pink Menno Facebook page, as “ally” is a common term used in that struggle as well. One helpful comment was that “kin” works best as a conferred name rather than a chosen name. In other words, if people of color, or queen folks, are ready to call someone “kin,” or even “ally,” then that holds more integrity than one choosing that title for themselves. Or, as Ruth Massey helpfully pointed out in yesterday’s reflection, sometimes we actually are kin, even if others don’t recognize it as such.