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Finding my way without role models gave me room to be

When Terese Mailhot's book became a bestseller, a reader contemplated whether she was a good role model for indigenous people. But Mailhot says, “I hope that if people look up to me they understand that sometimes a role model’s job is to disappoint.” Mailhot shares her humble opinion on why it’s time to retire the notion.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, writer Terese Marie Mailhot shares her Humble Opinion of why it's time to retire the notion of role models.

  • Terese Marie Mailhot:

    My book reached critical mass when the actress Emma Watson posted a selfie with it to Instagram.

    I panicked. I wasn't ready for that kind of attention. The book became a New York Times bestseller shortly after.

    This is anomalous for a Native woman writer. The conversations surrounding me were changing. A major newspaper called me the voice of a generation.

    An interviewer asked me if I felt like a role model for indigenous women. I didn't want to be the voice of anyone but myself. I didn't want to be looked up to.

    My book is about survival and transgression. I narrowly survived my circumstances. I come from a broken home. I dropped out of school when I was a kid. I was a single mother on welfare.

    And I don't want people to emulate my journey or look up to how I evolved away from dysfunction and stigma. I reached a semblance of success people might want, but it doesn't mean I should be looked up to.

    Invented by a sociologist in the '50s, the term role model feels antiquated. It's a slogan made for cereal boxes and self-help gurus who are selling success or reaching goals without compromise, things we know by now don't exist, not purely.

    Up close, the guru cheats on his wife, or worse. The athlete will disappoint. So will the leaders, the actors and the singers. When they fail us, we're either judge and jury or all too forgiving.

    I have seen women who aspire to be good role models criticized for what they wear, who they marry and how much money they can make because they because too capitalistic and not feminist enough.

    A woman wrote that my book was a manifesto for Native American girls. Indigenous people are not a monolith. And my text could limit the way we're seen if it's lauded as representative.

    We don't need examples for what we aspire to be. We don't need to be inundated with possibilities. We should have original objectives that reach beyond comparisons.

    I question the idea of imitation and its necessity, when I'm the first where I'm from to do what I have done. And not having models to emulate gave me room to be.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Writer Terese Marie Mailhot.

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