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Are You an Ally or an Accomplice?

Photo by Anna Shvets:

The continuing conversations about racism and movements to eliminate it in all its ugly forms have always involved the participation of whites or those who don’t identify as people of colour (POCs).

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Black folks and other POCs who are actively involved in challenging the status quo — that is, taking concrete actions to dismantle age-old institutions that help perpetuate racism or systemic inequalities based on skin colour or ethnicity— have always been aware that race and social justice work requires the support of allies who are white or non-POCs.

This is where the concept of allyship comes in. Simply put, an ally is someone who comes from a place of privilege but lends their voice or support to the causes of oppressed or marginalized groups.

While it may seem that anyone can be an ally, the journey to becoming one can be long and difficult. Becoming an ally involves unlearning and re-evaluating social constructs regarding race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and so on.

One’s transformation into an ally can lead one to feel alienated from friends, family members and other people who hold traditional views on such. In fact, one’s worldview would undergo drastic changes and cause one to question and go against the way things have always been.

However, to achieve real change in the race and social justice arena, allyship is not enough. There’s a real need for allies who grow into accomplices willing to go above and beyond to effect genuine and lasting societal transformation.

What Is an Example of an Accomplice?

In the criminology and justice field, the term “accomplice” has a negative legal denotation. An accomplice is someone who intentionally helps another person commit a crime.

However, in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, an accomplice is not only an ally but also a person who will go out on a limb or risk their career, reputation and even their life in showing their support for the oppressed.

Photo by August de Richelieu:

What’s the Difference Between an Ally and an Accomplice?

An ally may be a columnist or news commentator who expresses their disapproval of social inequalities, discrimination, and all forms of prejudice. They could be a co-worker who signs a petition in the office asking the management to consider qualified candidates for leadership posts from minority groups, such as women and POCs. They could be teachers who make a conscious effort to include children of Blacks and other POCs in activities in white-dominated schools.

Meanwhile, an accomplice will take to the streets, go to congress and even take a bullet in their fight for the oppressed. That doesn't mean you have to be willing to take a bullet for someone else, because that's hard to come by in most people. However, accomplices take action in order to achieve the goals they support. So, being an accomplice comes with more risk yet more reward.

Some great examples of allyship in history are actually those of accomplices, even when such terms were not in use during those times:

Viola Luzzio – a Michigan wife and mother who was killed while driving fellow activists during the historic Selma to Montgomery marches.

  • Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – these young Jewish white men and their Black friend James Chaney were volunteers of the Congress of Racial Equality. All three were slain by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

  • James Reeb – a Unitarian Universalist minister who supported granting voting rights to Black Americans in 1965, was beaten savagely along with two other ministers and eventually passed away from his injuries.

  • Ann Braden – a Southern-born civil rights activist who dedicated her life to the cause of racial equality. White neighbours burned white crosses in front of her house and then bombed the home. She was also charged with sedition during the rise of McCarthyism in the United States.

  • Jane Elliott - an anti-racism educator who in 1966 started running experiments in her classrooms that proved racism is taught and learned and has lasting psychological effects. She herself says, "If I were Black and saying the things I said, I wouldn't be alive."

If you’re already an ally, you might find yourself asking about the ally vs advocate vs accomplice comparison. While labels are important in identifying what stage you’re at relative to your own anti-racist journey, what’s essential is the journey you’re making equips you with the understanding, tools and preparation to act on what you believe and maintain your integrity in moments of personal danger.

How Do You Become an Accomplice?

People don’t usually become accomplices overnight and typically start as allies. But how do you change from simply existing and being a bystander into someone who will stand up for others or a belief despite personal risk?

  • Go outside of your “bubble.” People start out living in their own bubble of existence, interacting mostly with people who are like themselves. To break out of this bubble, one needs to develop a keen awareness of oneself and others — those who are perceived as different and not part of one’s world. Leaving your bubble of existence will involve some discomfort and raise certain questions about others living outside of that bubble. Why are they different? Who made them different? Are they really so different?

  • Acknowledge your privilege. Being privileged does not necessarily mean you’re wealthy or that life is easy. It simply means that because you are who you are, there are (negative) experiences you will never be subjected to or need to be concerned about. And while being in a position of privilege is not your fault, you should care that others are mistreated and targeted, and realize that you can your privilege to change discriminatory attitudes and practices.

  • Educate yourself. In race and social justice work, educating yourself means asking more questions and finding answers. You’ll learn concepts and theories about race, the history of social inequality, how Blacks and other POCs have been relegated to their currently disadvantageous positions throughout history. And most importantly, you will realize the same atrocities we think happened only in history continue to happen today, such as lynchings cloaked as suicides, modern day Tuskegee experiment cloaked as helpful vaccines, and modern day eugenics cloaked as planned parenting that benefit women.

  • Take action: In everything, people’s actions and inactions can have either a positive or negative impact, and the act of doing might be the most challenging step. It’s up to you to ensure that your influence is constructive, significant, and game-changing.

Next steps to becoming an accomplice start by recognizing your own power to influence change.

Let’s schedule a talk and help plot out your path.


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