On Allyship: Does it work for the Oppressed?


Anshul Kumar


Allyship is a proactive, ongoing, and incredibly difficult practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access, and the ability to thrive in our society.1The idea of allyship is a very modern phenomenon and draws its ideation from the Black struggle against the racial oppression by the whites. Lately, this concept in a hyper globalised world has been imported into the Indian discourse against caste oppression.

This has recently been witnessed in the debates and discussions around the movie, Jai Bhim, which was released on Amazon Prime. The movie is based on a real incident of police brutality in Tamil Nadu in which tribal persons were murdered in police custody. Then, a Marxist human rights lawyer takes up the case of the murdered persons on behalf of the wife of one of the victims. The movie ends with the lawyer being able to win the case fought for the lady and the accused policemen and the others who are complicit in the crime served a legal sentence by the High Court.

Almost all the reviews of this movie that have been featured in the Indian mainstream media and even in the alternative media have one thing glaringly common and that is the praise of the "good hearted savarna" who was indoctrinated and influenced by the ideas of Marx and Ambedkar and had in him the spirit of fighting for the cause of the marginalised, for whom no one stands.

This is indeed a commendable act of love and magnanimity that should be praised but there is something missing here which no one has bothered to dig deep into.

If we talk on the binary of the oppressor and the oppressed, in the Indian society, the Untouchables and Tribals have been systematically oppressed by the Savarnas. The oppressed and the oppressor stand in contradistinction to each other.

What happens when such exceptional stories of the 'good hearted savarna' start trending and the idea of allyship gains prominence? Of course there is no doubt that there are good hearted Savarnas, but what is the need to emphasise on this fact and unnecessarily keep on harping about it?

If we dig deep into the interpersonal relations between the oppressed and the oppressor, there is hierarchy involved and the relation is highly unequal.

"Social, cultural, and economic structures impact the micro-level behavior of individuals, and mutually, individuals’ behavior affects social structures, for example through sustaining oppression (Ratner, 1994; Makki Alamdari & Bishop, 2020). Social oppression has effects on individuals in terms of perception, cognition, morals, emotions, aesthetics, and reasoning. These psychological effects are value-based. That is, the effects are not disorders such as schizophrenia or low educational performance (Ratner, 2011).

Ratner (2011) points out to examples of the value-based psychological effects such as believing superficial and biased news, accepting punitive and fundamentalist religious thoughts, conforming to power and theological dogma, obeying the superordinate at work, endorsing the interests of the elite, becoming obsequious, irrational, lacking critical thought, working with limited capacity, sensational and crude aesthetic taste, and enjoying vicious entertainments. Further, the oppression causes neglect of individuals’ aptitudes and limits people’s power and abilities (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972; Adorno, 1978; Ratner, 2011).

Social structures such as oppression affects individuals’ behavior and mind through a variety of processes including social learning, internalization, labeling, defense mechanisms, and fear of being judged (Akers, 2011; Driskell & Salas, 2013; Lakey & Lakey, 1998; Muenster & Lotto, 2013; Smith, Mackie & Claypool, 2014; Thoits, 2013).

As Akers (2011) argues, social learning theory can explain the interrelated connections among cognition, environment, and behavior. The theory developed by Bandura in 1963 demonstrates that individuals learnt behaviors through cognitive processes and in the social context. Observation of behaviors or behaviors’ consequences provides patterns for action. Rewards, punishments, and consequences reinforce the behavior (Akers, 2011). In this case, when people in the oppressive society observe that the oppressors get benefits from oppression, the people learn and are encouraged to join the oppressors and repeat their behaviors to get the benefits. Obeying and endorsing superordinate, loyalty to superiors, and obsequious behaviors (Adorno & Horkheimer, 1972; Ratner, 2011) might be the results of the social learning."2

From the above articulation by Sara Makki Alamdari it is clear the behaviour of the oppressed in general is regulated to an extent by the unequal power relations of which he is a part in the larger society. His cognition, perception, emotions makes him obey the superordinates, endorse the interest of the elites and become obsequious to the extent of being highly irrational.

In short, the oppressed psychology is influenced to a great extent by the oppression he is facing and this is a direct result of the injustice meted out to him by the society. When one is accustomed to so much pain, disabilities and trauma historically it is natural for him to seek moments of love, laughter and happiness and forget the collective wrath meted out on him by the oppressor. In so much as he is greatly influenced by even small gestures of kindness and acts of love shown by the oppressor, even though that kindness and love is something he deserves by the virtue of being a human. The oppressor is not doing any favour on him through such gestures and acts but the fallen man ends up forgiving the oppressor community as a whole by observing the kind actions of a few individuals from among the oppressors.

This makes him loyal to those few good oppressors and as the interpersonal relations between him and the oppressor are highly unequal and power laden, it is often the oppressed who ends up internalising the oppression meted out to him. He forgets that his oppression is systemic and a few individuals behaving otherwise against him is not akin to the collective psyche of the oppressor changing in his favour.




1. https://nvcguides.libguides.com/c.php?g=1132585&p=8266498

 2. Makki Alamdari, S. (2020). Psychology of the oppressed: Viewpoints. IUPUI ScholarWorks.


Anshul Kumar is currently pursuing MA in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, JNU.


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