Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 13: Accomplices Rather Than Allies

WEEK 13 – AUGUST 28, 2020

Hi friends,

This email is delayed for a few reasons: (1) there was another viral video of a brutal act of police violence toward a Black man (Jacob Blake) and we just needed to take a breath, feel the collective grief of our Black friends and neighbors as they navigate another traumatic experience, and kind of host a moment of silence in your inboxes to the degree that we can. And (2) We are taking it easy this week as we contemplate what this community is going to look like long-term. We won’t be hosting a dialogue this Sunday or next (Labor Day) but do have some great ideas in store so thank you for your patience with us – we can’t wait to touch base in real-time soon.

The start of the school year gives us a great opportunity to sort of “lesson plan” for our role in your inboxes, our zoom chat rooms, and in our personal roles for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. We think we have some framework laid out (we’ll start with history lessons and deep dives into the structure of modern systems that perpetuate oppression this coming Monday) but we are ALWAYS open to feedback and ideas from all of you! Please don’t hesitate to reply to this email and give us your thoughts (and thank you to all of you that have and continue to!).

Also, we keep forgetting to plug this but: here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone has forwarded them to you. 

This week, in light of the third month of uprisings, the RNC’s absolute vitriol, and calls for a general strike, we’re answering a question we should have answered earlier: why do we say we want to be accomplices to communities of color, rather than allies?


A few years ago, I (Emily) was sitting at a panel of speakers who had protested in Ferguson. It was powerful for a lot of reasons (the Ferguson protests lasted for months and feel like this generation’s first major demonstrations, off of which we’re basing a lot of our current tactics). I remember a well-meaning white person asking how to be a better ally and Johnetta Elzie, a St. Louis native and lead organizer in Ferguson, gently but firmly stating something like this:

I don’t want white allies in this fight. I don’t want white people showing up to protests, taking up space with questions and just trying to figure out their own feelings in that space. What I want is people who are there on purpose. What I want is accomplices. I want people who are coming and leaning into risks, standing on the front lines with conviction, going home and doing the same. I want white accomplices and I want white co-conspirators, who are actively resisting white supremacy everywhere. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings but we don’t need allies, we need accomplices who can put themselves on the line for us. When you show up, show up ready to sacrifice for us. 

I have been shook ever since. In this newsletter and in our dialogues, we regularly talk about the disconnect between our intent and our impact, and this distinction, between seeing ourselves as allies and seeing ourselves as accomplices or even co-conspirators, is another extension of a small disconnect. 

Allyship is great. We are absolutely not knocking allyship. In fact, when we started this newsletter we had a whole conversation about whether we were asking all of you to opt-in to becoming allies or accomplies. But ultimately, we want to hold ourselves to a deeper commitment to anti-racism and we are asking all of our readers to do the same.

So what’s the difference?

In our first conversations about being “accomplices” vs. “allies,” we read a quote that said “allies take up space. Accomplices take up risk.” (thank you Brittany Packnett-Cunningham). That feels like a fair way to frame this. Over the past few months, we have seen social media absolutely teeming with takes on “how to be an ally” and counterarguments about “performative activism.” We don’t have all the answers about what that means but since we first read that quote, here are some thoughts we’ve had:

Allyship is not self-defining. We don’t just get to decide that we are allies merely because we believe in equality. “Being an ally” isn’t something that we just are. It is a verb, not a noun. This is great. This is all of our starting point. And, we want to push ourselves to lean more into accomplice territory. 

Accomplice literally means someone who helps someone else commit a crime. We want to be so embedded in this fight for justice that we are willing to take up real risks for it. (Is “crime” triggering for you? If so, take a breath and think about some crimes that you might commit regularly – speeding, jaywalking, etc. Crime is a social construct, so yes, sometimes we do think that the fight for an anti-racist world will require lawbreaking). 

Accomplices are directly implicated in the wellbeing of the group with whom they partner. While allies are aware that they can walk away from anti-racist work when they are uncomfortable or feel threatened, accomplices know that in that moment, they are called to only lean in more. While allies want to provide resources for communities affected by racism,  accomplices directly challenge the institutions that perpetuate racism, colonization, and White supremacy by blocking or impeding those racist people, policies, and structures.

While allies often work with the resources that are available to them and make sense from their angle, accomplices seek to inform themselves by the practices of people at the center. As accomplices, we want our actions to be informed by, directed and often coordinated with leaders who are Black, Brown First Nations/Indigenous Peoples, and/or People of Color.

As accomplices, we know that our experiences and norms aren’t inherently “right,” and we aim to actively listen with respect, and understand that people who experience oppression are not monolithic in their tactics and beliefs. As accomplices, we understand that not everyone affected by a particular “-ism” is going to share the same view of how to combat that “-ism” and that’s okay. 

As accomplices, we work against our own personal guilt and shame. We want to build resilience to criticism of the majority groups we are a part of (white people, straight people, Christians, etc.) while seeking to be a window between other members of these majority groups and systems of oppression that we all perpetuate. We want to educate, not to alienate.

As accomplices, we aim to build trust through consent and being accountable. We welcome feedback and make changes to our own behavior. We strive to be transparent with our past shortcomings, especially when we attempt to bring others in. 

The ‘work’ is not about the definition of what we think the ‘work’ is. The work is in what’s asked of us by the communities most close to the center of the oppressive forces we are fighting against (racism, xenophobia, colonialism, classism, homophobia, ableism, etc.). The work is in centering individuals and groups who have been marginalized and doing what’s necessary to dismantle the systems that are at play in their oppression. The work is liberation.


On Sunday, August 23 in Kenosha, WI, Jacob Blake, father of three, was breaking up a fight between two white women when the cops were called regarding the fight. The officers saw Blake’s black body, ran for him as he tried to get in his vehicle, tased him, and held him by his clothing while shooting him in the back seven times. His fiancée says that police knew his three sons, ages 8, 5, and 3 were in the car. It was his 8-year-old son’s birthday.

Miraculously, Blake has survived (so far) and is in intensive care. His father told doctors that he is likely paralyzed from the waist down. In addition to the trauma of being so brutalized by the police, he will likely face high medical bills (and his children’s need for therapy) upon release from the hospital. You can donate to his family here

The Double Standard of Jacob Blake and Kyle Rittenhouse

Speaking of Jacob Blake, we would be remiss not to mention the blatant double standard that occurred in Kenosha, Wisconsin this week. Two males in the same city under the same general law enforcement were treated extremely differently by police officers. In Jacob Blake’s case, he was a Black man reaching into his vehicle for what the police suspected to be a weapon, so they ultimately jumped to the all-too-familiar conclusion that “this Black man is going to kill us if we don’t kill him first.” In Kyle Rittenhouse’s case, he was a White teen proudly brandishing an AR-15 AND killing two people with it, yet was given the benefit of the doubt and not even apprehended until the next day. Seriously. He walked away unscathed after killing two people point-blank in the middle of the street. Compliance or non-compliance aside, the hypocrisy and the double standards of the treatment Blake and Rittenhouse received is so apparent. We have talked about double standards before in recent Newsletters, so we urge you to engage in the difficult discourse and highlight this tangible example to peers or family members who are choosing to bring up Jacob Blake’s noncompliance as rationale for brutality.

We also feel that it is important to mention a white accomplice who died in the face of racist violence this week. Anthony Huber, a father protesting in Kenosha this week, was shot by Kyle Rittenhouse when he took his skateboard and charged Rittenhouse to act as a physical barrier between the bullets and his fellow protestors. There are no words to aptly describe how we feel about this, but we do encourage all of you to reflect on his sacrifice this week. If you feel inclined, you can donate to his family’s funeral fund or to the Milwaukee Freedom Fund in his honor.


Nick Tilsen—one of 20 land defenders who protested Trump’s visit to Mt. Rushmore—is facing up to 15 years in prison. Nick was detained for three days before being bailed out by a local bail project and released this statement. Per Nones and Nuns’ newsletter this month, “Nick’s statement is all at once a sharp telling of exactly how white supremacy shows up in our country, an invitation to be accomplices – not allies –  in dismantling it, and a goosebump-inducing vision of what could come after.”

“A commitment here, one of the primary reasons that we did this…was that Mt. Rushmore is an international symbol of white supremacy and injustice. When you have the faces of four white men carved into our sacred land, and those white men were responsible for some of the biggest mass murders of Indigenous Peoples, for us that is a system of injustice that we are trying to dismantle…This is a fight that we can win, especially at this moment in history.”

We are asking our readers to sign this petition to drop charges against Nick and the land defenders here. We also encourage everyone to check out NDN’s new Landback initiative.

Nones and Nuns is Emily’s favorite community-she’s-not-a-part-of-but-desperately-wants-to-be. You can read about their initiative in the New York Times from a few years ago here, read their new Zine about Course Correction here (cue Emily crying at her laptop screen), or check out their website here


Primary Resource

Supplemental Resource

  • WhiteAccomplices.org – a super helpful archive of best practices for white and white-passing people in the fight for an anti-racist world. The homepage discusses the core differences between an actor, an ally, and an accomplice and why we want to lean as far into “accomplice” territory as we can, if we are committed to true justice. 

Other Resources We Loved

  • Toni Morrison – On Racism and Fascism – This is our first time seeing this list, an excerpt from a commencement address given by Toni Morrison at Howard University in 1996, but it sure does feel timely. Recommended reading for everyone, but especially those who might be more inclined to think today’s political landscape of oppression starts and ends with Donald Trump’s influence. 
  • Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and the Limits of Representation – a candid, kind of intense read by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, as she discusses the shortcomings of this ticket. We’re not putting this here to discourage voting for this ticket (we said it last week and we’ll say it again: we both endorse Biden-Harris), but rather because we know that we are all capable of holding multiple truths at once. We can feel excited about a new administration, representation, and the hope that they bring comparatively, AND we can want more from this administration than Black people, Latinx people, poor people, disabled people, queer people, Indigenous people, survivors of violence, and truly all of us have ever gotten before. 


A few of you have asked for more resources for kids about anti-racism and we are so excited to share with you a new initiative Netflix has debuted this week for your youngsters (okay and the rest of us, too!).

Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices includes Karamo, Lupita N’yongo, Tiffany Haddish, Common, Misty Copeland, and more as they read stories by Black authors from children’s books that feature Black children. So good. Some books featured will be N’yongo’s own Sulwe, Natasha Anastasia Tarpley’s I Love My Hair, and Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester. The show will premiere September 1!

Okay friends, we’ll see you in your inboxes on Monday (for real this time) and until then, we hope you have a safe, healthy, and connected weekend. 

In solidarity, Ellie and Emily

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