Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression

Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression: The Role of Allies as Agents of Change

Andrea Ayvazian

When one looks at the many forms of oppression that operate in current society, it is easy to feel paralyzed, overwhelmed, and confused about what to do and how to do it. How can we help, and where do we begin? Andrea Ayvazian provides a solution: become an ally.

What Is an Ally?

Ayvazian defines an ally as a member of a dominant group who actively works to break down a system of oppression from which they benefit. The key word is actively:

“Allies have such a powerful impact because their actions embody the values they profess; their behavior and beliefs are congruent.”

Social identities are made up of many categories; we are all members of both dominant and oppressed groups. By identifying the category, or categories, in which we are dominant (race, gender, class, etc.), we are given the opportunity to become allies.

Ayvazian repeatedly stresses that in order to be an agent of change, one must participate in allied behavior; it is not enough to simply “be” an ally.

“Available to each one of us in the categories where we are dominant is the proud and honorable role of ally: the opportunity to raise hell with others like us…because of our very privilege, we have the potential to stir up good trouble, to challenge the status quo, and to inspire real and lasting change.”

Allied Behavior to Combat Violence

One of the primary factors maintaining systems of oppression is violence, or the threat of it, by a dominant group against an inferior group.

It has been proven that the violence accompanying oppression can be drastically decreased when many members of a dominant group join together and confront the perpetrators of the oppression.

Ayvazian uses the example of model mentoring programs, in which men who are past perpetrators of violence intervene with men who are current perpetrators to promote anti-battering. The success of these programs proves that allied behavior can disrupt cycles of violence.

  • One such model mentoring program in Quincy, Massachusetts reduced instances of domestic homicide to 0% in 1992.

“Because members of the dominant group are conferred with considerable social power and privilege, they carry significant authority when confronting perpetrators of violence in their own group.”

Education: Allies as Role Models

Citing her experience as a public speaker in high schools throughout the country, Ayvazian notes a troublesome trend: adolescents cannot name white people who historically fought racism, or are currently fighting racism.

They can, however, easily identify white racists (both living and dead).

Ayvazian goes on to list many historical and contemporary white anti-racists, whose names are largely unknown to young people. She emphasizes the importance of providing young people with examples of allies, stating:

“I believe that it is difficult for young people to grow up and become something they have never heard of…it is hard for young people to grow up and fight racism if they have never met anyone who does.”

Choosing Our Roles as Allies and Moving Forward

Ayvazian concludes by imploring each of us to consider our roles as allies, and how we can put allied behavior into practice.

She points out two important realities about assuming the role of an ally:

  • We will not always be able to see or quantify the ways in which our efforts as allies manifest.
  • A perfect ally does not exist.

With this knowledge in hand, an ally’s primary goal moving forward is to simply keep moving.

“We move forward, along with the doubts, the uncertainty, and often the lack of visible results…we are imperfect, but we are steady.”

Additional Research (you may need to log in to the VCU Databases):

Kelly, C., & Chapman, C. (2015). Adversarial Allies: Care, Harm, and Resistance in the Helping Professions. Journal Of Progressive Human Services, 26(1), 46-66. doi:10.1080/10428232.2015.977377

  • An exploration of professional adversarial allies.
    • Professional practitioners are not inherently allies of the oppressed individuals and groups they serve.
    • Practitioners must critically examine the power they hold over clients, as care in itself can operate as a form of oppression.

Smalling, S. E. (2015). Silence Is Not an Option. Reflections: Narratives Of Professional Helping, 21(3), 50-52.

  • Commentary on what it means to remain silent as a privileged individual regarding the oppression of others.
    • Members of dominant groups who choose to be silent are contributing to systems of oppression by being tacitly complicit.
    • If you have privilege that allows you to speak up, do so, and remain open to constructive criticism from members of oppressed groups to guide your allied speech and behavior.

Current Events: 

White Nonsense Roundup – An Online Anti-Racist Service Created by White People

This newly-formed group embodies what it means to be an ally. Its mission page states to People of Color: “If a white person is filling your social media with white nonsense – anything from overt racism to well-intentioned problematic statements – tag us and a white person will come roundup our own.”

*Note: it is quite easy to join this group! Explore the page if you’re white, and interested in helping roundup white nonsense.

Overcoming Bystander Syndrome: An Illustrated Guide

Maeril, a French illustrator, created this illustration to help people intervene in instances of public Islamophobia.

Saturday Night Live’s Ode to Armchair Activists

SNL is known for its’ comedic social commentary, and this skit portrays Louis C.K. as “Scott,” a man who solves the world’s social injustices from the comfort of his living room. A humorous look at the difference between true activism and “slacktivism.”

Personal Reflection:

  • Many of us have family members or friends who are members of one or more of the same dominant groups to which we belong — do any of these individuals in your life, indirectly or directly, contribute to the oppression of others? Have you addressed it?
  • As aspiring social workers, our professional work will demand that we ally ourselves with oppressed groups. Currently, though, many of us work in fields unrelated to social work while we are in school. What are some ways we can act as allies currently?


Ayvazian, A. (1995). Interrupting the Cycle of Oppression: The Role of Allies as Agents of Change. P. Rothenberg & S. Munshi (Eds.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study (pp. 629-635). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

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