Accomplices versus allies

(Photo by Tima Leggio via Flickr, republished under a Creative Commons license)
(Photo by Tima Leggio via Flickr, republished under a Creative Commons license)

This story originally appeared on the South Seattle Emerald.

Living in the self-congratulatory liberal bubble of Seattle, I find myself surrounded by white allies. Allyship here is a common concept that I used to believe meant being willing to acknowledge and stand up for someone else’s humanity.

Recently I came across a blog post by Indigenous Action Media that challenged my thinking and introduced me to a concept that I am intimately acquainted with yet didn’t have a name for, the Allyship Industrial Complex.

This term describes the lucrative industry of social justice self-help that has arisen from the mix of well-intentioned people wanting to do better with our capitalist culture.

Starting in high school and through my graduate program, I took several courses on social justice and have since participated in workshops either as mandated for professional development or as a facilitator. Mostly we have the same conversation. Power and privilege exist.  Tears ensue, sometimes there are heated arguments, sometimes there is heated silence, sometimes we all tiptoe around the minefields and pretend we are more evolved than we actually are.

This was interesting when I was 16 and having that moment of discovery that white people legitimately didn’t believe that racism still happened or that systemic oppression was actually at thing. At 36, it’s old and I am constantly left to wonder, “OK. Now what?”

I am surrounded by allies and yet the systems of oppression remain unchanged. It’s nice that white people want to talk about race and make their kids watch “Eyes on the Prize.” I greatly prefer this to cross burnings, lynchings and slavery. Despite the daily evidence to the contrary, something in me thinks that we have the capacity to do better.

Last week, Town Hall hosted a conversation between Mychal Denzel Smith, author of “Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching” and Marcus Harrison Green, YES! Magazine Reporting Fellow and founder of the South Seattle Emerald. Smith’s book is an exploration of black masculinity, but also of intersectional oppression and the myriad of contradictory roles we play in one another’s lives. During the discussio,n Smith spoke candidly about the ways in which patriarchy has weakened the struggle for black liberation by black men, sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently, perpetuating supremacist culture against black women.

Smith encouraged us all to examine our beliefs and our behaviors and to be honest about the ways in which we are all complicit in the systems we claim to abhor.

“Because you should look back on your own behavior, and you should be appalled,” he said outing his own shortcomings. “The next thing you do is say how do I get better? And its a learning process continually and an unlearning process because so much is indoctrinated in you as a means of replicating these systems.”

Often we resonate the most with a specific part of our identity, but we are all intersectional beings that experience an ever-evolving level of power, privilege, or oppression depending on circumstance.

When I think about allyship, my first instinct is to examine it through the lens of race.  But truthfully, while I may experience oppression as a black woman, there are other ways in which I hold privilege, for example, by being born in the U.S. to a middle-class family. As someone cisgendered, I have had the privilege to choose whether or not to acknowledge or learn about what it means to identify as non-binary or transgender.

Simply taking the time to be self-aware and willing to see the sometimes unflattering truths about the beliefs we hold in our hearts and minds has been and will probably always be a part of “the work” we must do to evolve in our humanity. But that is just the beginning.

“So once you’ve gotten uncomfortable, and someone has unseated you from the comfort of privilege, what are you willing to do to change that, what are you willing to let go of, what are you willing to lose?” asked Smith.

Rick Williams, brother of John T. Williams shows solidarity with other family members of police victims. (Photo by Chloe Collyer.)
Rick Williams, brother of John T. Williams shows solidarity with other family members of police victims. (Photo by Chloe Collyer.)

In trying to answer that question for myself I first had to delve deeper into the idea Smith posed as accompliceship: transforming an ally into the ride-or-die getaway driver in the heist we planned together.

The Indigenous Action Media writes: “The risks of an ally who provides support or solidarity (usually on a temporary basis) in a fight are much different than that of an accomplice. When we fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation, we are accomplices.”

Their thesis is a great deal more radical than what Smith had to say in that it involves a decolonization and repatriation of native lands that would leave the majority of us homeless. However, they both align on a simple truth that something has to give.

“And that’s part of the problem is that so many of us are not willing to lose anything, and we’re not willing to stand up and we’re not willing to tell that truth in the difficult situation, and we have to recognize that’s where change happens.”

“… so many of us are not willing to lose anytyhing … and we have to recognize that’s where change happens.”

Many of us have given something to be considered an ally, whether it is suffering through arguments with family and friends or sacrificing some modicum of privilege to align yourself with the struggle. Now the collection basket is coming around a second time. What will it take to move forward from here? What are we willing to give?

During a recent sermon about commitment, my friend Reverend Allen Mosely shared some southern wisdom in the form of this analogy. When you make eggs and ham, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. Similarly, I think the greatest distinction between allyship and being an accomplice is the amount of skin in the game.

There may be some effort involved, even perhaps some discomfort, but in general the chicken gets to go on about its business whereas the pig is forever and irrevocable changed by it’s commitment. Given the toxic political climate and the blatant disregard for black lives, queer lives, women’s bodies and so much more, it’s time for allyship to be recognized not as the end goal, but as a step in a process leading towards something deeper. But what’s next and how do we get there?

As I began to grapple with these questions, I was given an unexpected gift from a young woman I met recently. She is an alumna of Young Women Empowered and someone also seeking to transition her allyship into something more tangible. She began by talking with her family, and has been doing what she can to get them to acknowledge their privilege. It was through our processing conversations that she reminded me of how much she has gained from deepening her understanding of power and privilege, how she has formed bonds and turned acquaintances into family by being willing to see them and meet them where they are.

It can be scary to face the loss of privilege, to risk jeopardizing your primary relationships and support systems to stand in solidarity with people you may or may not have anything in common with. But rather than clinging to what we must sacrifice, we must remember that ultimately we are regaining our humanity. We are regaining our sanity, that our liberation is intrinsically intertwined with that of every other person on the planet. If one of us isn’t free, none of us truly can be.

“Our role is producing sanity,” explained Smith.

What that sanity looks like remains to be determined, but is something we must co-create with one another. Like it or not we are already accomplices, the question becomes, to what end? Are we partners in the crime of continuing to perpetuate the systems that dehumanize and oppress us or are we partners in co-creating something new?