The Call to Action: Becoming an Ally or Accomplice

Photo taken by Shirin McArthur which accompanied her July 25, 2022 post.

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is a continuation of reflections by Shirin McArthur on what it means to take action for racial justice and our choices about our roles. For white people, one way to explore our work as allies and accomplices is by becoming more aware of our whiteness. To learn more about that, join us Wed., Sept. 7 at 5 pm Eastern for a 90-minute discussion on Noticing Whiteness. See last week’s post for details on how to join us Sept. 7.  

Two weeks ago, I reflected on a Critical Conversation post that got me thinking about my role in addressing racial inequity in America today. In this follow-up post, I want to share another element of the teaching that stood out for me: the differences between being an ally, an accomplice, and a savior.

The ideas for each role come from this article. In a simplistic nutshell, it teaches us that allies are people who offer quiet support, saviors seek to position themselves as rescuing heroes, and accomplices are those who are willing to “get their hands dirty” (or their faces bloody, as many did in the Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) with more vocal and active involvement in a situation.

Let’s look at each of these for a moment. I’ve read and heard a lot of talk about being an ally in support of LGBTQIA+ folks. As a straight female, I can offer support to my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends and family while not taking “center stage” in the process. I can be open to learning about their experience and their needs, listen when they tell me I’ve said or done things that are harmful (“microaggressions”), and consciously work to change my behavior. I can do the same about friends and family who are impacted by systemic racism and individual prejudice in America today.

I can also take it a step further and be more public about taking stands and actions that make a difference. This is becoming an accomplice. It’s about learning where and how we have power in social systems and then using that power to “disrupt the systems that make life unfair for people at the bottom of the hierarchy.”

That might mean showing up in peaceful protest outside detention centers, or joining sit-ins at political offices, or demonstrating outside the homes of Supreme Court justices. It might mean running for office in order to change the system from within. It might mean putting much more of our hard-earned cash into the coffers of organizations run by people of color that are working for change. It means putting ourselves at more risk and in positions with less power—with the potential for greater reward for society as a whole.

What I should not do is become a savior. That’s when we make ourselves the center of attention by taking leadership in order to “rescue” oppressed people without asking what they need and whether they want what we assume would be helpful. Some of the most important things I’ve learned in the past two years have been about not presuming that I have the answers about what needs to change for America to be equitable for everyone.

If we truly believe in equity, we need to give people of color a chance to take leadership roles and implement social change that inexorably works to undo the system of white supremacy which has run this country for centuries.

How do you fall into the savior complex? What can you do to be an ally or accomplice instead?

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This post first appeared in Shirin McArthur’s weekly blog on July 25, 2022. For more of Shirin’s posts or to sign up, go to


  1. Robert Francis

    Tom — Having spent the last 45+ years working on racial equity issues, I’m sometimes ashamed to say that before I learned better, I played all three roles. When I met John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann in 1990 I finally got it that no one changes anyone else. It is only through utilizing the gifts of others that things really change. The only role we as white people have is as an ally or accomplice. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Tom Adams

      Thnanks Bob, I appreciate your paying attention and commitment to leanring. A journey for all o fus ofr sure. The planet doesn’t know equity.
      Peace, Tom

  2. Joy

    Glorious photo!

    • Tom Adams

      Glad you enjoyed it, Shirin loves photography as much as writing and workign for good, I think.

  3. Sally Mac

    Saviors for all causes start with good intentions. If we prefer to be allies or advocates, it might be better to hang back from fiery phrases such as, “defund the police” when “reform the police” may better serve the solution.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks for weighing in, Sally. I attended a racial justice circle last night about seeing whiteness and one of the suggestions was looking at both/and. Radical all or nothing solutions seem to lock everyone in and create stalemates. There is usually a third way if we can stay open. Tom