Pro-Action Myths About Prejudicial Behavior Taining Alert

Pro Action
Prejudice Reduction Opportunity - Action
Vol. 1 - Number 1 - January 1996

Becoming The Target
If we look at the response of the Danish Monarchy to the invading Nazis, it is easy to understand the process that I have called "becoming the target." The Danish Monarchy simply told the Nazis that if they were going to require the Jews in Denmark to wear the Star of David all the time, as the Nazis had required of the Jews in Germany, then everyone in Denmark would wear the Star of David. This approach and other similar actions resulted in the annihilation of fewer Jews in Denmark than in any other part of invaded western Europe.

The most recent example of this process in a rather large social setting was in Billings, Montana. A Jewish family in Billings had hung a picture of a menorah in their child's window during the celebration of Chanukah. Members of a hate group threw a brick through the child's window. About the same time, a Native American family in Billings found racist hate material painted on their home. The people of Billings responded in a very strong way. Over ten thousand families in Billings placed menorahs in their windows. Paper menorahs were given out at churches and through other organizations. The local painters' union showed up with dozens of people to repaint the home of the Native American family. Those who were not the targets of the hate identified themselves with those who were the targets for the hate.

When those who are not identified as the targets of the racism or other prejudicial behavior suddenly identify themselves as the target, their redefinition of the situation changes the circumstances for those who are behaving in prejudicial ways.

The redefinition that is made in this situation removes the possibility of the person being seen as a bystander. At the same time, it removes any possibility of the perpetrator presuming that support for his or her position is forthcoming.

One might read these examples and say to themselves that they may never have such opportunities to stand up to prejudicial behavior, yet standing up and becoming the target can be a process in everyday life. When we hear a racist joke, we might simply make a remark that shows that we identifies with the target population. It might be a short remark like "I might do that myself," or "that is the sort of thing that I might do." I find it helpful to sometimes say, "I don't get it." We can often avoid hostility and confrontation simply by becoming the target, thereby isolating the prejudicial activity without having this person feel a need to defend himself or herself.

In some settings a strong silence will have a great deal of power, but in many settings it is appropriate to make our positions clear. Becoming the target is not an attack, so it changes the dynamics of the interaction. Often a person who is being prejudiced will respond quickly to a strong rebuttal which confronts the prejudice, but the power of someone "becoming the target" is unexpected.

One fascinating feature of this dynamic is that none of us can use it to defend or protect ourselves. This powerful process can be used only to defend and protect others. Jews can defend Catholics, Blacks can defend Arabs, and those with disabilities can defend the aging. Everyone can defend and protect others, but no one can protect or defend himself or herself. It naturally works into a wonderful web that provides each of us with new understandings. It is much like a folk image from Vietnam: As it was told to me, "In Vietnam there is a traditional folk image of the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, people have chopsticks a yard long so that they cannot reach their mouths. In heaven, the chopsticks are the same length - but the people feed one another."

Group Activity
The activity can be that of practicing. Think of jokes or comments that are racist or sexist or about some other group. Label the target group's identity as "target group," then practice hearing the jokes or comments and responding with a "becoming the target" reply. It is important in doing this that everyone have a level of trust within a small group and that the group be as diverse as possible. Three to five people make a highly workable group. It is important here that everyone understand that there is no best or only response. It is also helpful to review the goal of ending the racist, sexist or prejudicial jokes and comments without stimulating anger or defensiveness on the part of the person telling the prejudicial joke or making the prejudicial comment. We don't want to make them the target and close off communication. We want to become the target, and thus give them no distant, faceless group to devalue.

Never attempt this exercise with people who have not freely selected to become involved. It should not become a required class or an required activity in another class or a workshop that is required.

In order to teach this process and provide a departure for group discussions, consider using the video, "Not in Our Town," which is available from the Public Television Order line (1-800 358-3000) for $29.95. This is a short video (about 27 minutes) of the actions that took place in Billings, Montana.

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