The right side of history: How white allies can support people of color

“I haven't always had an open heart for others who don't look like me. I didn't take the time to care or understand their differences, their struggles, their true history. For that, I am sorry. No apology can fix it. No grand gesture can mend the list of unjustices. Just one next step in the right direction.”

This is a quote from Alysun Ogilby’s Facebook page on May 29, four days after George Floyd was killed when officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Ogilby, a paraprofessional at Pleasant Ridge Montessori, attended the march that started at Inwood Park in Over-the-Rhine and a rally hosted by some of her friends at the lesser-known United American Cemetery on Duck Creek Road, the oldest African-American cemetery in Ohio.

Soapbox talked to Ogilby about her past, her present, and her goals for the future. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You mention that you haven’t always had an open heart for others who don’t look like you. Can you elaborate on that?

A: Sure. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in St. Bernard, then moved to Lakota, which had a little more diversity. Not a lot that I was witness to or a part of. Then in college I lived in a ministry house on Clifton Avenue with five white girls.

I have always loved everyone. There was one person of color in my elementary school and she was my best friend until she moved. So there was never an aversion to people of color, but because of my upbringing, I didn’t understand racial issues. I would use terms like reverse racism if I felt like a person of color was being unkind to white people.

I remember in high school — I think I was even younger, maybe 6th or 7th grade — watching BET [Black Entertainment Television], and I was like, “They would throw a fit if there was a white-only television.” I just didn’t even comprehend that it’s all white television. Everything is white.

I was just very ignorant. I loved everybody but I also had racial biases.

Q: You also said on Facebook that you thought it was enough to just be kind. I believe lots of well-meaning white people believe that as well. What changed your mind and what have you chosen to do about it?

A: My dear friend Natalie [Lundstrom] brought me into some conversations about race. (She also has a race resources guide for white learners.) We read I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown and had a discussion with Chuck Mingo, an African-American pastor at Crossroads, and his wife Maria, who is Puerto Rican. She brought an interesting voice to the discussion about what we can actively be doing. So, Natalie speaks at adoptions seminars and she’ll say, “I’ll only speak if I can bring a woman of color to speak or the next speaker you have is a woman of color.” She really stands up for equality. She has been my mentor through all of this over the past few years. We’re reading Be the Bridge by Lee Allen Jenkins together.

Something that Natalie said was that she likes to imagine herself back in history. She would be a freedom fighter, she would be one of the ones helping on the underground railroad — that’s personally how I see myself, too — but she says that if you look at our ancestors, and you look at our families, it’s very likely we wouldn’t have been one of those people. We’ll never know, but she says that she can’t look at herself on the other side of history because she wasn’t there and most likely wouldn’t have been.

That has given me the freedom to say the things I do say. I want to imagine that I’ve always been this person, but if I’m really looking at my heart, I’m not. And I’m learning. And I’m still learning.

Q: What other resources do you recommend for people who want to broaden their perspective?

A: We’re reading through the 1619 project — it’s a special New York Times addition — and it’s been so eye opening. It’s like un-whitewashed history. There’s so many things that stem back to slavery — good and bad — they came up with a lot of the systems we use today that’s not credited to slaves.

Q: You attended the march that started in Inwood Park and a rally at the United American Cemetery on Duck Creek Road. What were they like?

A: About 50-75 people showed up at the United American Cemetery rally, hosted by two of my friends. We all wore white tape over our mouths in silence that also had a word on there of what we were praying for. We prayed over the land, we spoke about what we want to see for that space and Cincinnati. It was incredibly powerful.

I also went to the Inwood Park event. The whole time, it was incredibly peaceful. We marched, the police stood their ground, they didn’t say a word. There were people in their cars that got out and stood with us as we marched past them. It felt very uniting. We all met back up at Inwood Park and everyone was hanging out, sitting in the shade, talking. It wasn’t like people were riled up.

So to hear that 20 minutes later, people were throwing water bottles at police and they shot rubber bullets, those weren’t the same people we were marching with. There was a woman who brought her golden retriever and the dog was carrying a sign in his mouth and everyone was laughing and clapping for the dog. It was so peaceful, everybody was chill and probably exhausted that I just cannot imagine them doing something violent.

Q: Let’s switch gears and talk about trauma for a bit. Pre-pandemic, you worked with many kids who have already been through trauma. What are you doing to help your students?

A: I decided for my classroom to take turns calling half the class for the week and to run a “sharing meeting” on Fridays where the kids don’t do work but they can show a toy or something. I’m going to continue calling students through the summer, probably once every other week, just because there’s a lot to do. But I think it’s important to continue, especially for the kids who you know need that extra call. We also dropped off goodie bags each week that included a loaf of homemade bread. 

I think this virus has bubbled up all the things that are really hard to see and that we sometimes try to ignore, like kids in trauma. [Normally] I have them for eight hours, I’m going to do the best that I can in that time and love them, but that’s stripped away, and I can’t ignore it. They’re no longer in my control for eight hours, and I can’t love on them and do all the things that make me feel better about their situation.

All the racial disparities are coming out of how many of our friends of color, how many more are getting COVID-19 because of lack of health care and lack of all the things we just have access to. It’s all the disparities arising to the surface. And I think that’s just what’s taken me over my boiling point.

It’s like a shaken bottle of pop: What do you expect when you take off the lid? This is more than just a 15-minute conversation. I have been reading and researching and watching shows that are factual. I want to just start introducing [people] to those things just a little at a time so you can see, this isn’t just that my heart beats for the underdog. This is real.

Q: How do you talk to your kids about race?

A: I keep it short and simple and honest. It’s hard because my kids are very different from me. They’re internal processors. They’re very quiet but they’re always watching, so I think more important than anything I’ll ever say to them is how they watch me treat people and how they hear me speak of people. Kids see more of what you do than hear what you say.

[But] I also make sure that our books have kids of all different colors in them. I think that’s important, especially for littler kids.

And I make it a point to show them how we are kind to all races. I talk to my kids about how we help people if we can but we also want to be fair. This is something Chuck Mingo said because he actually did a Facebook Live about how to talk to your kids about race. He says to watch your friends of color and follow what they do. So if they’re not speaking up, then you just stand beside them. Let them talk first, and always ask your friends “How are you feeling and what do you need?” And if we can provide it, we do.

The kids (a 10-year-old girl and 7-year-old twin boys) and I had a really good conversation [after watching Maleficent and Maleficent 2] about how sometimes we can think something for so long and then we hear the other side of the story. I talked to them about what I’m learning about history. I was taught a certain history my whole life and now I’m reading these books and realizing I didn’t see the whole story. And now my opinion and my heart are changing. Something as simple as including race in things that aren’t even about race can help them relate and make that connection than a book about race.

Our hearts can change and our minds can change. And the story looks totally different.


Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.