Don’t Be an Ally, Be an Accomplice

Real advocacy and comfort rarely go hand in hand

Willie Jackson
Published in
6 min readNov 13, 2019


An illustration of a character wall-papering a yellow happy face decal over a blue sad face icon.
Illustration: Karen Yoojin

I sometimes introduce myself as a “professional African American” when I travel the country to give ally skills workshops — often while looking out at a sea of white faces.

It’s a joke, of course, but the point is serious. I’m using humor to disarm my audience, and to make some difficult and personal topics more accessible.

I recognize that every person walks into the room with a different set of experiences and point of view. Many folks have had uncomfortable and even traumatizing experiences talking about race, gender, sexuality, and other forms of marginalization. And many of the companies I work with have had conversations about bias go sideways. So a part of the learning experience in my workshops is making it safe for people to be present, both physically and emotionally.

Of course, most of the people who sign up for an ally skills workshop already consider themselves an “ally.” Which is what exactly? An ally, in this context, is simply someone who isn’t part of a marginalized group but who supports that group actively.

Given the pervasive experiences of bias that many numerically underrepresented minorities report at work, the impulse toward allyship by majority group folks is encouraging. But putting this impulse into action can get tricky. As I caution folks, the very notion of allyship is rejected on its face by some folks who have been harmed by the ham-fisted efforts of well-intentioned, self-proclaimed “allies.”

The ally skills framework that I developed in partnership with Dr. Kim Tran, and I teach as a consultant at the diversity strategy firm ReadySet, asks a provocative question: It’s great that you see yourself as an ally, but what does putting that into action look like?

Be an accomplice, not an ally

It comes as a surprise to some of my ally skills workshop attendees, but I encourage folks to move from the frame of “ally” to “accomplice.” Here’s why I prefer this term.

What I’m hoping to impress upon folks is that this work — the work of being an accomplice — might cost you…