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Being an Ally v. Being an Accomplice: What’s The Difference?

A few years ago, the idea of being an ally to marginalized groups entered mainstream discourse as a way of expressing support for social justice movements. Now, however, many in the trenches of those movements wonder whether “ally” has devolved into a meaningless buzzword, a way for privileged people to claim a progressive identity without putting in the work to dismantle the structures that enable oppression. 

Maybe it’s time to re-think what solidarity means, and what it will take to end the systemic racism and misogyny so often at the root of violence and inequality. Maybe it’s time to become an accomplice in that work. Where an ally is someone from outside the community who lends a hand, an accomplice is involved at the core of the work. Maybe it’s time to do more.

Allies Offer Support and Solidarity; Accomplices Tend To Have a Personal Stake

An ally is a helper, someone who sees another person struggling and pitches in to get them back on their feet. The struggle isn’t the ally’s own, though they sympathize and do what they can to assist. Allies come together in a crisis or for strategic purposes, but they remain fundamentally separate; to the extent they form a team, it is a temporary one.

An accomplice, on the other hand, is a partner in crime—that is, in disrupting the status quo and creating a more equitable world. An accomplice takes up the struggle as their own, and stands shoulder to shoulder with others in the marginalized or oppressed community. 

Allies Focus on Individuals; Accomplices Focuses on Structural Change

A vital difference between being an ally and being an accomplice is that accomplices often work towards dismantling structures of oppression rather than supporting or showing solidarity with individual members of a community. 

Accomplices tend to be vocal and strong advocates, willing to leverage their power and privilege to bring about structural change. This can take the form of refusing to be on a “manel” (an all-male panel), or a panel with mostly white people, or refusing to be associated with brands with problematic internal policies or actions—even if it comes at real personal cost.

Allies Help; Accomplices Share the Burden of Responsibility and Risk 

By definition, an accomplice is ”complicit” in the fight—meaning that accomplices often take on personal risk to help the community and move the cause forward. An ally might speak up in support of a coworker of color, but an accomplice is willing to stake their professional standing on the abolition of racist or misogynist workplace policies.

An accomplice is a real partner, so deeply involved that they don’t speak up only when something happens. Instead, they are always there. 

Being an accomplice isn’t a tag or an identity you can claim for yourself, as many have with the term “ally.” It requires constant work, and letting yourself be led by the people you are hoping to serve. It requires taking on the burden of responsibility, and using your own power to speak up, even when there’s professional, social, or personal risk. 

Indigenous Murri artist and scholar Lilla Watson famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

At Ebony Marketing Systems, we are experts at designing and conducting multicultural research—and turning that research into actionable ideas. We develop a unique strategy that best suits you, while meeting the needs of the communities you serve and those you want to serve. For more information, call us at (718)742-0006 or send us a message today.


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