Module 14: Allies & Antiracism

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Module 13: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion
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Module 14: Allies and Antiracism
Module 15: (In)Equity in the Educational System

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Define the term “ally” and describe the characteristics of allyship.
  • Describe alternatives to the term “ally” and summarize the dialogue around these terms.
  • Distinguish between non-racist and anti-racist, and describe ways to engage in anti-racist work.

In previous modules, we have explored how racism has developed over several centuries and is now woven into every major system that structures daily life in the United States. Similarly, whiteness and white norms underlie major systems in our nation (see Module 10). Historically, it has been people of color who have pushed back most strongly against racism, racial injustice, and white privilege. However, for radical systemic change to occur, white people – who still hold the majority of institutional power within those systems – must join with people of color to demand change. In this module, we will explore two related concepts – allyship and anti-racism – that can help white people effectively and respectfully work for racial justice. We will also explore how recent discussion has advocated for moving beyond the “ally” language toward “accomplices” and “co-conspirators.”


The term ally is frequently used by people discussing social justice issues. However, not everyone uses this term in the same way. Some common areas of confusion around the concept include:

  • What is allyship? Is ally a noun or a verb?
  • Who gets to decide whether someone is an ally?
  • What does allyship actually look like in practice?
  • What does it look like in a learning environment?

Explore the resources below to answer these questions.


What is allyship? Is ally a noun or a verb – or both? Read “Why ‘Ally’ is a Verb, Not a Noun” by Invictus Animus. Note – this post was written mainly about allyship to the LGBTQ+ community, but the ideas still apply to allyship in the racial justice arena.

Who gets to decide whether someone is an ally? Rachel Rosen, a former teacher and founder of Spark4Community, wrote an article titled “Why I Don’t Call Myself an Ally” about her experiences as a white woman who is passionate about racial justice.

What does allyship look like in practice? Paul Kivel, author of Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice, has published a set of guidelines for being a strong white ally [PDF]. Read these guidelines and ask yourself how they might be translated into daily practice.

What does it look like in a learning environment? Read the Learning for Justice article “Anatomy of an Ally” to explore what allyship might look like in the classroom or library.


Racial justice activist and organizer Kayla Reed summarized her understanding of the term “Ally” in a 2016 tweet:

After reading the articles linked above and reflecting on Kayla Reed’s tweet, come up with your own short list of key characteristics or behaviors for allies.


In Module 10 (But Wait! section), we introduced the concept of being a “sidekick” instead of the “hero” when it comes to racial justice work. Professor Shawn Humphrey at the University of Mary Washington developed the sidekick concept and the accompanying manifesto as part of the IMAGINE U Curriculum project in the context of economic justice work. As Dr. Humphrey describes it, being a sidekick is similar to being an ally. Review the Racial Equity Sidekick Pledge (click the image below for a PDF version). This pledge was adapted by Project READY staff from Dr. Humphrey’s original work. Then, below, share concrete examples of how these commitments may play out for you in your own work, or ways in which you’ve seen others enact these commitments.

Racial Equity Sidekick Pledge

From Allies to Accomplices and Co-Conspirators

Recently, some racial justice advocates have argued that what marginalized communities need is not allies so much as “accomplices” or “co-conspirators.” The argument in favor of this shift in language is based on the idea that “ally” can imply passively standing alongside someone or simply being generally supportive of their cause, where terms like accomplice and co-conspirator indicate a more active role in disrupting systems of inequality. In an article for Learning for Justice, Dr. Colleen Clemens summarizes the difference between ally and accomplice as follows:

“An ally will mostly engage in activism by standing with an individual or group in a marginalized community. An accomplice will focus more on dismantling the structures that oppress that individual or group—and such work will be directed by the stakeholders in the marginalized group. Simply, ally work focuses on individuals, and accomplice work focuses on the structures of decision-making agency.” (para. 4)

Explore the resources below, which offer additional perspectives on this terminology issue:

  • Ally or co-conspirator: The third in a five part series, this video is a talk featuring Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, exploring some of the shortcomings of “allyship” and suggesting alternatives.
  • Making The Transition from Ally to Co-conspirator: In this Medium article written “for white people, from a white person,” MJ Knittel discusses why and how white people who care about social justice should aim to be co-conspirators instead of allies.
  • Feminista Jones doesn’t think you’re an ally: In this story from CBC Radio, activist and social worker Feminista Jones speaks frankly about why she doesn’t like the term “ally.” You can listen to the story or read the transcript.
  • From Unaware to Accomplice: The Ally Continuum: In this episode of The Will to Change podcast series, Jennifer Brown presents an “ally continuum” that moves from unaware to accomplice and describes each step along the way. You can listen to the episode or read a transcript.

Many of the people advocating for a shift in language away from allyship note that the problem with “ally” is not so much in the original definition of the word, but rather in how its meaning has been diluted and misused by people who want to label themselves supportive of marginalized people without actually putting in the work to disrupt inequity. In other words, just like the term “racism,” the critical difference is in how these terms are defined and applied in our work. Reflect on this debate and ask yourself, which term do you prefer – ally, accomplice, co-conspirator, or some other term – and why?


Earlier in this curriculum, we explored the history of race and racism (Module 2) and how racism operates systemically (Module 5) to constrain the choices and opportunities of people of color in the United States. We’ve also discussed the idea that because racism operates systemically, no direct action is needed on the part of individual people to maintain it – a phenomenon that sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “racism without racists.”

To visualize this, imagine racism as a moving walkway (like those found in airports). The endpoint of this walkway is racial inequity and injustice. Some people consciously desire this endpoint and expend energy moving in the same direction as the walkway: they are actively racist.

Most people are non-racist: they do not consciously desire racial injustice and do not seek to rush toward it. However, because our systems operate in ways that maintain racial inequality, non-racist people are still being carried along the same path as actively racist people, which will continue to lead to inequity and injustice.

Anti-racist people see where the walkway is headed and actively work against the systems that lead to injustice. Being anti-racist is not passive, but instead requires constant effort. Because anti-racism works against the prevailing “current,” progress can seem slow or even nonexistent at times.


In the video below, author Marlon James describes the differences between non-racism and anti-racism in frank terms.

The transcript for this video can be located here.


In his powerful memoir, How to be an AntiracistIbram X. Kendi asks readers to “think about what an antiracist society might look like, and how we can play an active role in building it.”

‘We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be antiracist.’

Ibram X. Kendi


Based in part on Marlon James’s video, racial equity trainer Rina Campbell created a diagram [PDF], pictured below, which shows how various forms of non-racism, from the individual to the systemic level, can be transformed into anti-racism:

Spectrum: From Non-Racist to Anti-Racist Advocate. For full text of diagram, visit original PDF at, linked in the paragraph above.

In your journal, identify two non-racist beliefs or behaviors that you currently hold or practice. Following Campbell’s example, how might you transform those non-racist beliefs/behaviors into anti-racist behaviors, action, and advocacy?

Engaging with Others

One of the key characteristics of an anti-racist ally is a willingness to confront racist ideas and behaviors. However, for many people, this is also the most difficult aspect of anti-racist work. You may find this particularly challenging if you consider yourself to be non-confrontational. If a friend, coworker, student, or family member says or does something racist, it can be difficult to know how to respond constructively. It can also be challenging to know how to respond to more pervasive forms of racism that you may notice, for example, disparate suspension rates for your Latinx students compared to your white students.

Dr. David Campt and his colleagues at the White Ally Toolkit project have developed a framework that allies can use to engage in productive conversation with people they call “racism skeptics.” Their framework involves four steps: Reflect, Ask, Connect, and Expand (RACE).

    • Prepare to truly listen
    • Reflect on your own experiences related to the issue at hand
  • ASK
    •  Probe the person about their beliefs and the experiences that drive them
    • Share your own experiences
    • Raise questions that open possibilities for a broader view
    • Encourage the person to consider a broader view and more conversation
    • Highlight data, facts, or illustrations that support a broader view (perhaps in a subsequent conversation)

Visit this page for a more detailed explanation of the RACE framework. For an extended explanation of what the RACE framework might look like in practice, listen to Dr. Campt’s appearance on the NPR show The State of Things.

Images of Practice - Icon by Adrien Coquet from Noun ProjectImages of Practice

Elementary school librarian Josh Jenkins participated in the face-to-face phase of Project READY during the 2017-2018 school year. As part of that experience, Josh and his two Project READY teammates at his school were asked to lead professional development for their building-level colleagues. Josh’s school is located in a rural area, and the faculty is predominantly white and conservative. Still, Josh embraced his role as an anti-racist ally and was able to effectively communicate with his colleagues about race and racism. Below, he explains how he approached this task.

But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

Being an ally is something I'm proud of; shouldn't I be able to share that with people, for example by putting it in my Twitter bio?
“Ally” is a term that may be applied to some white people by BIPOC. It is a title that is conferred, not claimed. Furthermore, anti-racist work is not about centering yourself or advertising to others how “woke” you are. Calling yourself an ally, even if BIPOC consider you to be one, focuses attention on you rather than on the work. Remember that actions speak louder than words! 


I've heard people say 'silence is complicity.' What does that mean?
BIPOC are frequently targeted by micro- and macroaggressions, often in the presence of white people who may consider themselves to be allies. When white bystanders remain silent during these encounters, the harmful behavior is allowed to go unchallenged and this puts BIPOC in further danger. Furthermore, silence communicates approval of or agreement with the racist behavior. Racial harassment and attacks happen not only in the general public, but in libraries and at library-focused events as well. For example, ALA Council member April Hathcock was verbally attacked by a white male council member at the 2019 ALA Midwinter Conference, and no bystanders stepped in to hold her attacker accountable or provide support for her in the moment. This caused her to feel unsafe not only in that moment but also within the larger conference and organization. Hathcock wrote about her experience on her blog.

Racial equity advocates have compiled many tips for effective intervention in these scenarios. For examples, see the Bystander Intervention Training resources from Right To Be and the Bystander Intervention page from the American Friends Service Committee.


Being anti-racist means you are actively working towards shifting power. How can I do this in my work setting in both small and large ways?
Before you begin working to shift power in your library/workplace, you must first understand how power is distributed there. “Power” doesn’t always align with job titles, and it can come in different forms. For example, business scholars have identified seven types of power in the workplace, including “legitimate power” conferred by one’s title and the formal structure of the organization and “referent power” which is conferred by colleagues onto people they personally admire. Before thinking about shifting power, try to identify the different forms of power held in your organization and who holds them. Don’t forget to identify your own power, and the power of the communities served by your library!

After this reflection, think about how you can begin to disrupt or shift power at multiple levels. Keep in mind the ultimate goal of shifting power toward marginalized communities. We suggest starting with the following questions:

  • What can I do in my library and community today to shift power toward BIPOC colleagues, youth, and communities, and what I am working toward?
  • What can I do to influence the library staff at my library today and what am I working toward?
  • What can I do to influence the library system today and what am I working toward?


Additional Resources

From Ally to Accomplice: Talking Race, Anti-Racism, and Intersectionality: For Librarians & Educators (Brooklyn Public Library Libguide)

Kailin, Julie (2002). Antiracist education: From theory to practice. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Reading While White (blog)


Go Back:
Module 13: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion
You Are Here:
Module 14: Allies and Antiracism
Module 15: (In)Equity in the Educational System