This paper approaches accomplice work via an exploration of key concepts developed in black social theory, where ‘black’ indexes capacious traditions of subversive political and social thought, and not simply an epidermal characteristic or descriptor. The paper begins by laying waste to allyship, then describes accomplice work as a contradistinctive praxis through which those who might understand themselves as white unravel and unbecome themselves. A paraontological blackness, I propose, following Fred Moten, Tiffany Lethabo King, and others, is the “method” of that unbecoming. This paraontological, black, unbecoming is also a remaking otherwise, and is thus abolitionist, making the claim that a radical alterity from the strictures of racial identity is necessary, possible, and desirable.
The institutions that we are fighting are not just the school, the police, the clinic, and the jail. It is also the self—the subject.—Fred Moten, “the university: last words” (2020)
This essay is an experiment in mutinous ideas, tethered to the notion that in order to fight for the possibility of life on earth, white people must radically reorganize our politics toward the abolition of ourselves and welcome the unexpectable subjectivities to come in light of our abolition. If we are to do this, we must dispense entirely with “allyship” as a desirable subject-force and theorize white radical intentionality otherwise. Indeed, I want to insist upon a future whose contours we do not yet know, and by this I mean a sociality that is livable for everyone on a planet that sustains our fullest lives; one whose ethic is black trans feminist abolition, and whose abolitionist efforts are aimed at, which is to say against, the ontological. Again, to begin, these politics require us to dispense with allyship.
To be an ally, and a “white ally” in particular, is to join with others in a social movement—those who are non-white—because of some common interest expressed within the liberal grammar of rights, but often for selfish reasons that makes the alliance worthwhile. The diplomatic history and etymology of the word alliance suggests that white allies come to the fight with interests of their own to protect. In my mind, one such “interest,” perhaps its most deeply seated, is the preservation of whiteness as a conditioning force for their understanding of self; for the very notion of the “self.” However, these interests diminish the capacity for radical work to be done by these actors as they run counter to the liberatory project.
Allies congeal as Subjects by way of allyship. Allyship mobilizes and conditions the subject position “ally.” Allies are inert1 political units, and allyship functions as a vacuous, though not meaningless, pathogen, seizing a home in a variety of actors (who Shannon Sullivan  calls “good white people”) as well as in symbolic gestures, such as those perennial lawn signs that rehearse neoliberal multicultural slogans, such as “Kindness Matters,” “Science is REAL,” and “Black Lives Matter.” These gestures are necessarily performative; allies neither affect the materialities of anti-blackness, nor disrupt the ideological conditions that engender normative subjectivity. These considerations, along with showing up to the ballot box to “vote blue no matter who,” seem to be the tasks as well as the limit of allyship. Nevertheless, framing allyship as a force that subjectivates allies is consistent with my broader theoretical perspective that political-ethical labor shapes the subject position and structures it. This formulation will become more precise as I elucidate the argument that the figure of the accomplice emerges out of what I call “accomplice work.”
What do abolitionists mean exactly when they say they want accomplices to show up, not allies? And how can we think more productively about this distinction (“Accomplices NOT Allies”) by harnessing the politicality of its black and indigenous assertions rather than its more paltry assertions by liberal allies? It is not enough to say that accomplices are simply more radical than allies, or that accomplices show up more earnestly than allies who are merely performing their politics. We must dig deeper than these simple identitarian binaries and move beyond the performance of comparing the ways in which they are both similar to and different from one another.
To be sure, we must distinguish accomplice work from allyship—for the accomplice is “the being who is not there and yet by being there makes us more and less of ourselves, unsafe, in danger” (Desideri and Harney 2013). The accomplice does not simply “advocate” within preordained structures in order to reform them, but aims to unstructure and do away with them. The accomplice is animated by a “notion of fugitivity that is not simply an opposition to power but a refusal to even accept the validity of the terms of power” (Bey and Sakellarides 2016).2 Ultimately, however, we must retire the tendency to place them in contradistinction. Not only because allyship is a liberal formulation that desires normative categories of difference, but also because serially theorizing accomplice work in relation to allyship reduces its ethical and political radicality into a lateral move between supposedly comparable identities.
Accomplice work is the radical, chronic refusal of the ontological scene that claims (to benefit) the normative Subject by those purportedly normative Subjects.3 This scene is almost banal and quotidian, yet it remains violent because it is privilege laden, biologistic with respect to racial as well as gender and sexual formations, aggressively identitarian, and thus, individuating. If these are the pillars of a violent scene that enables allyship, then its fixedness must also be contended with. If we understand “trans” as an insurgency indexing movement away from imposed, regulatory norms, then the ontological scene is structured by transantagonism as well. Accomplice work, as the appellation for the political and ethical labor to desubjectivate from whiteness, aims to dissolve the self-possessed individual as the consummate achievement of the human, proliferating instead a practice of study that is entirely unbound from any individuated precepts. Its unit of analysis is the gathering, or the collective. Its mood is the subjunctive, the fugitive, and the nonnormative. In study, accomplice work shapes an ethical mode of subjectivity whose central tenets are radicality, care, liberation, and abolition. I view it as an expression of fugitive subjectivity that refuses the anti-black regime of the Subject; the paraontological distinction; a necessary component of genuine coalitional possibility (Campt 2014; Bey 2020b).
Accomplice work is abolitionist—it is work that “promotes a dismantling of [oppressive] systems in search of life and livability by other means not predicated on violence” (Bey 2020a). It is an assuredly quotidian practice against imposed ontology, which is the philosophically and politically hegemonic domain of being “predicated on violence,” and organized through supremacies (and, therefore, normativities) of whiteness and cisheteropatriarchy. bell hooks, for example, names an ontological scene when she theorizes “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 1992). Signally, this ontology makes real particular renditions of social life and denigrates and denies the capacity of others. While archival traces such as federal court opinions and runaway advertisements might suggest a contextual magnitude that does not easily square itself with “the quotidian,” I want to point out that the dominant, who control archival production, were mounting an enclosure of space in order to eradicate the fugitive impulse. In the context of extreme domination, the archive distorts accomplice work's everydayness.
Ontology thrives on anti-blackness and thus maligns a range of blackness's self-determined conceptualizations. One way that “ontology distorts blackness” is by reducing it into a sedimented epidermal notion, and therefore subsuming it under the colonial grammar of “race” (Warren 2017). Under this grammar and its logic, raciality is categorical—that is, “determinable” and “separable” according to hegemonic parameters (Ferreira da Silva 2016: 57). Identity, as a conceptual frame, becomes the vector within which raciality is expressed, and “racial identity” entrusts its hefty metaphysical status on the plane of the body, in the epidermis. The body ultimately cannot bear this intense ontological bestowal. It is no surprise, then, that oppressive machinations exact themselves on people given to specific identificatory lodgings—it is precisely these identities that oppressive power forms in the service of its continuance. In much the same way that Marquis Bey posits blackness, transness, and feminism not as “tied to a specific kind of body or identity” but, rather, as “inflections of mutinous subjectivities that have been captured and consolidated into bodily legibilities,” I want to make an inverse-parallel argument about whiteness—that whiteness is a political subjectivity historically affixed to specific kinds of bodies, and its overdeterminative power in the ontological domain obfuscates the process by which whiteness subjectivates epidermally white people (See Bey 2021, esp. 9). This is a violence whose magnitude is incomprehensibly large. But what would it mean, and what would it look like, to recognize and refuse this violative processual arrangement? If the categorical identities to which we relate are not serving our liberatory project, what good are they?4 If racial identity is normativity's vector that secures subjection as the basis of social relation, then we must abolish it—full stop. At a higher level of abstraction, we must, too, dispense with ontology with abolitionist regard, because ontology dampens the ethical and social possibilities exuding from blackness that normative metaphysical and ontological structures are bent on regulating (Warren 2017; Bey 2020c). Paraontology is one of abolition politics’ strategies to elide ontology's grasp on identitarian modes of social relation. A paraontological rendering of blackness conditions accomplice work, a traitorous, mutinous project to abolish the normative Subject by those who have been prefigured as these very normative Subjects.
But how is this possible? In “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” Fred Moten argues, “On the one hand, blackness and ontology are unavailable for one another; on the other hand, blackness must free itself from ontological expectation, must refuse subjection to ontology's sanction against the very idea of black subjectivity.” Moten's point is that blackness is incompatible with ontology, with the very capacity that black beingness can be enclosed within ontology in any normative capacity; that black subjectivity in any ontological scene manifests through anti-blackness. By way of Chandler, he posits a paraontological distinction, and asks us to “think otherwise” in an effort to eclipse the ravages of ontology:
The paraontological distinction between blackness and blacks allows us no longer to be enthralled by the notion that blackness is a property that belongs to blacks (thereby placing certain formulations regarding non/relationality and non/communicability on a different footing and under a certain pressure) but also because ultimately it allows us to detach blackness from the question of (the meaning of) being. (Moten 2013: 749)
Presuming the nonproprietarity of blackness is an intimidating proposition, for what it could suggest and open, namely that others, especially whites, might find, claim, and expropriate blackness, and thus ravage it from the inside. By expressing this move, I do not mean to exact what can be understood as a colonial move to dispossess black people of their blackness. That is not my intention here at all. Instead, I want to consider deeply the implications of blackness's non-exclusivity to people racialized as black. Caring for its open aesthetic ground, I want to consider what an ethical encounter with blackness looks like—an engagement with the aesthetic sociality of blackness as someone not prefigured, or racialized, as black. In my view, I (and the “we” not racialized as black) have an ethical obligation to open ourselves to such an encounter. If this is possible, it is, then, necessary for white people to subjectivate, or desubjectivate, themselves through blackness, such that white people are no longer moving through whiteness, are, perhaps, very tentatively, no longer white. Accomplice work invites and makes an ethical demand to refuse whiteness such that white people are rendered un-white—indeed, the abolition of whiteness.
Accomplice work also rejects—and proliferates the rejection of—the idea that ontology can be beneficial for anybody by taking up the politics behind what is arguably Harney and Moten's most famous statement in The Undercommons.
The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it's fucked up for you, in the same way that we've already recognized that it's fucked up for us. I don't need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker . . . (Harney and Moten 2013: 141; emphases added)
So, the task of accomplice work, before accomplice work can happen, is recognizing that “it,” “this shit”—the world, anti-blackness, cisgender supremacy, heteropatriarchy; ontology—hardly confers an ethical program to the Subject, hardly a genuine possibility for livingness for everyone, including those who are said to benefit from such configurated realities.
Accomplice work emerges into the social as an ethical disposition on the edge of black study's critique of ontology. Accomplice work, indeed, breaks ethics away from ontology by striking at the very heart of the anti-blackness of ontology's quintessential Subject and its figuration of the world. If the production of a world—an ontology—presumes an array of normativities that give us something like the Subject, accomplice work constitutes a fugitive disposition already given in black study that is radically open, “available to anyone, or more pointedly, any posture, that is willing to take on the formidable task of thinking as a willful act of imagination and invention” (Spillers 2003: 5). The point is that accomplice work might index that ethical, laborious disposition with which white folks might take on the “formidable task” of abolishing whiteness. I use “with which” to denote a working-through, whereas “from which” might denote that accomplice work comes from somewhere, say, a fixed, habitable position. “From which,” then, anticipates a positionality discourse that I ultimately seek to discard, yes, abolish—because it presumes identitarian logics within its frame, logics that, as I have detailed, are not conducive to the kind of politico-ethical interventions that blackness and accomplice work—as appositional formulations—seek.
I ultimately want to unsettle the effects that positionality discourses have on the extent to which we mobilize ourselves in the service of living otherwise. Blackness is the conduit for this mobilization; and whiteness might very well be said to be its inverse—the brutal imposition of identity categories and regimes of thinking and being whose intent and effect is a stalled, fixed understanding of thinking and being. Accomplice work, therefore, is an engagement with the entropic capacities of blackness to dislodge insurgent social desire from something that might be understood under the rubric of identity. It hinges on the idea that the desire to produce a black world must not only be desirable to black people. Accomplice work is the work of breaking down the strictures of thought that convince, for instance, white folks that a black world is undesirable. A black world, where blackness releases itself into the social, where blackness breaks the social down and then back up again, where blackness means something like abolition, might enable all of us to actually live—or “live otherwise.” This work defies the logics of position and positionality as methodological, and thus conceptual, apertures from which to build a legible social movement. Accomplice work cannot live in or with these delimiting frames, frames that I think find their root in the dominant ontological scene. It works toward their abolition, the abolition of positionality.
In chemistry, an inert chemical is one that is stable and unreactive under specified conditions.
In Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, a portion of chapter forty tells of Mrs. Bruce, a woman who harbors Jacobs away from Dr. Flint. Mrs. Bruce's husband is irate at the fact that she is harboring a slave and that she is “violating the laws of her country.” When asked if she knew the penalty for harboring a fugitive, she said: “I am very well aware of it. It is imprisonment and one thousand dollars fine. Shame on my country that it is so! I am ready to incur the penalty. I will go to the state's prison, rather than have any poor victim torn from my house, to be carried back to slavery” (Jacobs 2005 : 211). I read a kind of accomplice ethicality, which is a refusal of the terms of order, undergirding her rebuttal.
In this sentence, I want the reader to consider what it means for a given ontology to make a claim that it benefits the normative Subject and abjectifies “others,” and have this be understood as the “source” of inequalities expressed in socialities organized by capitalist, white, and cisgender supremacies. But I also want the reader to consider, perhaps more emphatically, what it means for the given ontology to claim subjects who will go to work on behalf of the given ontology, and consider this a kind of (spiritual, metaphysical) theft. This is really how I want to understand whiteness, cisgender, and other fonts of supremacy—as permitting the theft of life and livability of, really, everyone. In this respect, I agree with and am making recourse to the oeuvre of afropessimist thought that emphasizes the ways in which the given ontology sanctions (Black) social death, though I ultimately yearn to refuse this ontological scene by way of a paraontological abolition politics.
The logic of this argument is akin to Baldwin's critique of the Christian God: “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, it is time we got rid of him” (Baldwin 1963: 57). If hegemonic renditions of race, identity, and racial identity do not work in the service of abolition, which they do not, then we must dispense with them and find new, unlimiting frameworks with which to participate in sociality.