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
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."
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
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,
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