Allyship (& Accomplice): The What, Why, and How

Michelle Kim
Nov 11, 2019 · 8 min read
Close Up Photography of Yellow Green Red and Brown Plastic Cones on White Lined Surface
Close Up Photography of Yellow Green Red and Brown Plastic Cones on White Lined Surface
Image Source: Pexels

A quick internet search will result in dozens of different definitions for Allyship. After a couple of years of testing different definitions in workshops and observing the types of understanding that followed, Awaken has developed our own that we believe captures the most important aspects of thoughtful Allyship.

Allyship is an active and consistent practice of using power and privilege to achieve equity and inclusion.™

This definition highlights and clarifies what constitutes allyship, and what it does not:

  • It is not an identity we get to claim (e.g., “I’m an ally!” — Mia McKenzie’s piece around ally theater is a must read)
  • It is not passive — believing in the values of diversity, inclusion, and equity is great, but it is not enough to just believe — you must actively live those values through concrete actions and behaviors
  • It is practiced consistently and renewed with each act of allyship
  • It cannot happen unless we understand what power and privileges we hold
  • It is built on the foundational understanding that our society has not distributed power and privilege equally amongst different social groups
  • Your privileges coexist with your marginalized identities
  • It is not to self-congratulate, promote, or validate one’s virtue
  • It is not about “saving” anyone — rather, it’s about working towards equity, fairness, and justice which many have yet to experience

Addressing Common Misunderstandings

  • Allyship can be practiced by many, in addition to cisgender, straight, white men. We all have multidimensional identities that provide us with both marginalized and privileged experiences. For example, while all women are subject to sexism and misogyny in the U.S., cisgender women do not face transphobia that trans or nonbinary people experience on a daily basis. In order to practice allyship, cisgender women can normalize the behavior of not making assumptions about one’s gender identity by proactively sharing their pronouns, so that trans and nonbinary people aren’t the only ones shouldering the burden. Even though all people of color face racism in the U.S., Black and Indigenous people face the highest rates of police brutality. Knowing this, white people and non-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) can practice allyship by being in closer proximity to police at events, witnessing and recording police interactions with Black people, or joining anti-police brutality demonstrations or protests, etc.
  • Having certain privileges doesn’t make you a better or superior person. We’ve all been dealt different cards in life due to no fault of our own. Being able to avoid police brutality as a non-Black person doesn’t make them a better or superior person. On the other hand, being a queer person doesn’t make them a victim who needs to be saved by straight people. No one needs to be saved, we just need to share our access and privileges to level the playing field.
  • Allyship is not self-defined. Whatever action we take, the communities we seek to be in solidarity with must recognize our actions as an act of allyship. Only they get to decide which actions qualify as “allyship.” Because of this, it is vital that we always seek out information that validates the best way for us to support the communities we seek to ally ourselves with. You can start by diversifying your news source (social media, newsletters, etc.) and leveraging your existing relationships and asking what support looks like for people in your network (e.g., friends, family, colleagues, etc.).
  • We can practice allyship without knowing all the answers. In fact, making mistakes is an inevitable part of the allyship journey. While we should always strive to minimize unintended harm and be thoughtful about how we show up as allies, we must not use the fear of making mistakes as an excuse to do nothing. It is critical to build resilience for receiving critical feedback and continue to course-correct as we hone our allyship skills.

Why do we need Allyship?

We all have a unique set of privileges that affords us special access and immunity that others may not have. Through allyship, we can begin to close that gap by strategically using our privileges.

We also need allyship because we need people who face less risks to take on more risks to disrupt harm. Studies have found that when women or people of color advocate for diversity, they face negative repercussions — they are seen as self-serving and disruptive, while the opposite is true for white men. With allyship, we ask people with privileges to take on the burden of challenging the status quo, so those without aren’t the only ones fighting the battle.

Lastly, it’s important to name that none of us — yes, including cis straight rich white men — are truly free until all of us are free. All of us are impacted by systemic oppression in one way or another, whether as folks who presently benefit from the structure or as people directly oppressed by it. Women face misogyny while men are consumed by toxic masculinity — without making false equivalencies, both are products of sexism. People of color face racism while white people grapple with white guilt, shame, and fear of being racist — these are not the same struggles or should be weighted equally — but both are products of white supremacy.

In order for us to achieve equity, justice, and freedom for everyone, we need to work in solidarity and share the burden of allying against all forms of oppression.

Allyship Dos and Don’ts

  • Do map out your privileges to understand where you can be the most useful as an ally
  • Do continue to learn about different communities’ issues and struggles
  • Do ask what support looks like for people you seek to be in solidarity with
  • Do apologize and take accountability for your mistakes (you will make many mistakes on this journey!)
  • Don’t assume you know the best solution to other communities’ struggles
  • Don’t act entitled to other people’s emotional or educational labor — while most will be open to answering your thoughtful questions, don’t behave as though they owe you the education simply because you want to learn
  • Don’t lead with your “good intention” when you make a mistake. Instead, focus on the impact and the harm you caused without explaining you “didn’t mean to hurt anyone”

Allyship vs. Accomplice

With Co-Writer, Kay Martinez

Let’s push the envelope a bit more. Some of you may have heard an emerging conversation around being an “Accomplice” rather than being an Ally. What does it mean and how are they different?

In 2014, Indigenous Action Media published, Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex. An Indigenous Perspective. Some highlights on being an accomplice:

Accomplices listen with respect for the range of cultural practices and dynamics that exist within various Indigenous communities.

Accomplices aren’t motivated by personal guilt or shame, they may have their own agenda but they are explicit.

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. As accomplices we are compelled to become accountable and responsible to each other, that is the nature of trust.

The work of an accomplice in anti-colonial struggle is to attack colonial structures & ideas.

The Accomplice framework challenges the morality of the legal system — just because a practice is legal and lawful does not mean it is moral or just. Therefore, in order to achieve equity sometimes laws must be broken. For example, segregation in the U.S. was legal and unjust. There are myriad of examples of people of all races breaking the law to integrate society and work to advance equity during segregation. The concept of Accompliceship is necessary as local and national laws and practices are still created to disenfranchise and marginalize different groups of people. Therefore, we need folks who are able to be Accomplices and take on the risks associated with breaking the law to achieve equity.

At Awaken, we appreciate the accomplice framework in tandem with allyship because we recognize we need both rather than one instead of the other. Achieving equity takes many tactics and we recognize not everyone can be accomplices in every context. What do we mean by that?

Being an accomplice in a workplace can mean going against or violating company policy or practices that may be unfair, unlawful or further marginalizing to advance equity. It may mean going against the company itself by organizing direct action and protests. Accompliceship is about dismantling systems. Put simply, if you are an accomplice in a workplace, you could lose your job or face negative repercussions.

Allyship in the workplace denotes challenging the status quo and advancing equity while working within and with the current power structures. We believe using allyship and accompliceship interchangeably can have the negative impact of distorting the original intent of the accomplice framework.

After much debate, our team has consciously chosen to stay within the frame of Allyship given our primary work within workplaces. We acknowledge that not everyone can be an accomplice given their current context and threat level they face at work. We use the term Accomplice only when we can ensure the original intent offered by the Indigenous community can be preserved and practiced without dilution. To achieve equity, we need allies and accomplices. One person can be each of these things in different scenarios and all are needed. It is also not possible for everyone to be an accomplice all the time or ever, as some are not able to risk losing employment or income in the present day, and some face a greater risk of incarceration in the U.S. That said, we look forward to seeing more and more accomplices in and outside of the workplace willing to take higher risks to achieve equity, inclusion, and justice.

Rather than giving up on the term “allyship” because of the prevalence of its diluted usage, we implore everyone to revisit the essence of allyship and continue to create new frameworks to provoke and disrupt inequities in the workplace.

We all can do our part to make our workplace and society more equitable and just. To do this effectively, map your own power and potential consequences and utilize whichever framework that best enables you to advance equity!


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About Awaken

We exist to create compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations to develop inclusive leaders and teams. We’re tired of surface level conversations around diversity and inclusion — let’s go deeper. It’s time for real conversations with real people. Check us out at www.visionawaken.com!

Awaken Blog

Creating compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations

Thanks to Ellie Chang, Liz Van Lente, and Kay Martinez

Michelle Kim

Written by

Co-Founder & CEO @ Awaken | Activist | Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Advocate | Keynote Speaker | Writer www.visionawaken.com

Awaken Blog

Creating compassionate space for uncomfortable conversations

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