The uprisings of last summer against police murder and anti-Blackness led to quite a few folks loudly proclaiming themselves allies. You can buy a digital print-at-home poster declaring “I am an ally” over a clenched Black fist (Etsy) or a shirt with a similar fist and the word “ally” in capital letters underneath (Etsy). You can write an article expounding on all of your social positionalities and personal privileges, announce that you take yourself seriously as an ally, and close the piece with the sentence “let’s promise to listen” (HuffPost).
In her piece on white feminism, Nicole wrote of the need for “white women [to] decenter their own narrative and elevate others instead” (Anti-Racism Daily). Some of the language around allyship does the opposite: instead of highlighting the voices and needs of those most impacted by racism, sexism, or queerphobia, it singles out white, male, or straight and cis allies for praise and adulation. Self-centered allyship in the struggle for racial justice can veer dangerously close to white saviorism (MSN). They can divert radical movements into “a self-help book for white people” as more attention is paid to processing white guilt than stopping Black death (Wear Your Voice).
Another problem with centering allyship is that self-declared allies get to decide what allyship entails and whether to engage in it. Support for Black Lives Matter crested before the shooting of Jacob Blake last August as people and brands rushed to announce their status as allies publicly. After that, white support for the movement “grew soft, like a rotting spot on a piece of fruit” (New York Times). For a moment, allyship was in fashion. When the moment passed, many of those allies slunk back to the sidelines.
To center and celebrate allies as exceptionally interesting and virtuous often goes hand-in-hand with the belief that the alternative to allyship is neutrality. We might think that white supporters of Black Lives Matter are especially noble because their other white peers are instead neutral bystanders.
Indigenous Action forcefully critiqued this understanding in their influential zine “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex” (Indigenous Action). Being an ally to indigenous people, they wrote, has become “currency,” “an identity, disembodied from any real mutual understanding of support,” a term “rendered ineffective and meaningless.”
To move beyond allyship means recognizing that the starting point isn’t neutrality. Citizens actively, materially benefit from anti-immigrant policies. Non-Black people benefit from anti-Blackness. The starting point for settlers is benefitting from settler-colonialism. As the zine puts it, non-indigenous people need to begin “to articulate your relationship to Indigenous Peoples whose lands you are occupying.”
If the starting position is not neutrality but complicity, we’re called to do more than declare ourselves allies, change our Twitter bios, or buy social justice ally wall art. Whereas allies center themselves, “accomplices are realized through mutual consent and build trust. They don’t just have our backs; they are at our side, or in their own spaces confronting and unsettling colonialism.” This isn’t just a semantic difference. It’s a different way to think about and practice solidarity: through centering those most directly affected and joining in the struggle, through direct action and confrontation, to dismantle systems that oppress them even as they benefit us.
An accomplice is, of course, someone who aids another in committing a crime as defined by the criminal justice system. As Code Pink puts it, “liberation requires being accomplices in resisting the legitimized forces of social control” (Code Pink). There are many roles that people can take to support social movements, from being at the front lines in the street to doing jail support or media work or a thousand other things. But self-identified allies should remember that dozens of people have already been arrested in Minneapolis following the police murder of Daunte Wright (ABC). Those people, many of them people of color, put their bodies, their freedom, and their lives on the line. Some may face legal repercussions for years to come because of these arrests. The way to honor that struggle isn’t by taking the easy way but deepening our commitments to listen, o learn, and to fight to uproot a system that kills and oppresses some while enriching and protecting others. In the words of Angela Davis, “When one commits oneself to the struggle, it must be for a lifetime” (American Public Media).
It’s time to go beyond allyship.
We should shift attention from the struggle against oppression to the virtues or guilt of allies.
Those who choose not to be allies aren’t neutral bystanders but rather beneficiaries of systems of oppression.
Benefitting from oppression calls us to engage deeply with communities in struggle and realize that we are personally implicated in the destruction of unjust systems.
To be an accomplice is to listen, learn, and take personal risks in the fight to dismantle systems of social control and racial injustice.