times, in order to explain relationships between people or groups of people,
it seems that physical metaphors make relationships more clear and understandable.
So, I want to use three of them here to describe the relationships between
prejudiced people and those who are the targets of prejudicial behavior.
Any force which is directed toward a target can be redirected
much more easily than it can be confronted, resisted and stopped. This may
sound more like physics than an approach to changing prejudicial behavior,
but let me pursue this a bit further. The principle is, I believe, universal
and valuable in developing a model for reducing prejudicial behavior.
Direct Opposition is Ineffective
In this simple illustration it becomes clear that any person or group who
is the target of a force is not located in a position to provide an efficient
or effective intervention for their own defense. An oncoming force cannot
be effectively redirected from a position which is the target of that same
force. From the target, a second force can only resist the oncoming force
and thus absorb its full impact. To economically protect people, it becomes
clear that the redirection of any force needs to be executed from a completely
The victims of prejudicial thinking or prejudicial actions are already devalued
in the eyes of prejudicial individuals and any action taken by these people
is seen as less valid because of their devaluation. In addition to this person
being devalued, his or her action also brings an oppositional force into the
situation; this often creates more heat than light. Oppositional positions,
while they may be completely "correct," often trigger resistance
within observers, as well as within the individual who perceives himself or
herself as the target of that force.
The Opportunity of the Non-target Person
An understanding of this process can be best illustrated with a quote
from Martin Niemoeller. "In Germany they came first for the Communists,
and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a Communist. Then they came
for the Jews, and I didnt speak up because I wasnt a Jew. Then
they came for the trade unionists, and I didnt speak up because I wasnt
a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didnt speak
up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no
one was left to speak up."
In addition to the foregoing principle, there is a second principle to consider
here. This principle has to do with the location of, or point at which the
force is redirected. You see, the earlier a force is redirected, the less
energy it requires for the same effect. Just as a force meeting its target
requires the greatest change of direction, a force leaving its origin requires
the least change in direction to protect the target. The force of change is
most powerful if it is from one who might be best identified with the initiator
of the prejudicial action.
So, to effectively redirect a force, the target position is precisely in the
weakest position to respond. Thus, a force from any other position can more
effectively redirect the prejudicial force than a force from the target position.
This principle can be illustrated if you imagine a small bird landing near
the end of the barrel of a rifle just as a marksman is shooting at a distant
target. The weight of the bird could never stop this projectile, but it could
slightly redirect the projectile as the bird puts a small critical force on
the rifle barrel.
Intervention Near the Origin
When we apply this principle to the process of reducing prejudice,
it becomes clear where the opportunities are greatest for intervention to
be effective. The position of greatest influence is the position nearest to
the person acting in a prejudicial way and is from a person who is not the
target of such prejudicial actions. One who is not a target has greater influence,
can act with greater safety, and needs to apply less pressure to redirect
the prejudicial actions. When I imagine people intervening to protect others
from prejudicial behavior, I am reminded of a traditional folk story from
Vietnam about the difference between heaven and hell. In hell, people have
chopsticks that are a yard long so that they cannot reach their mouths. In
heaven, the chopsticks are the same length -- but the people all feed one
another. It seems that the prevention of prejudicial behavior is much like
the people with yard-long chopsticks; none of us can effectively respond to
prejudices toward ourselves, but we can each intervene to help others.
The third major principle is that all actions have an equal and opposite reaction;
anyone who exerts a force will create a force in the opposite direction. This
means that without support for ones position, one is unable to direct
a force toward others without being moved by the equal and opposite force.
With this principle it is clear that those who are acting in prejudicial ways
have support from people around them. The support may be defused and not active,
but it supports the actions of the prejudicial behavior. Therefore, if this
support is removed, the prejudicial actions that it supports can no longer
exist. This may seem like a difficult goal, but it needs to be addressed.
If we are to continue to move toward a more equitable and sustainable world,
each of us needs to use the position we find ourselves in to improve this
The Inactive Support for Prejudicial Activities
We need to have a clear understanding that as we allow those around us to
speak or act in prejudicial ways, we are providing support that is essential
for the prejudicial acts to occur. Without our support, as quiet as it might
be, the prejudicial acts could not continue. One of the effects of nonviolence
and passive resistance is to produce change. The individuals who usually provide
silent inactive support for prejudicial activities, stop providing that support.
When the institutions of law began to use fire hoses and police dogs on school
children in Birmingham, the support of the silent inactive citizen melted
away. This left the instigators of prejudicial violence without the support
they needed. This final theme is very much related to our society at large.
We have created a society where heroes are those who lead us into battle against
those whom they define as different from us. This theme is played out repeatedly
every Saturday morning on childrens TV and many other times throughout
the week. In this action to reduce prejudicial behavior, we need to recognize
that the reduction of conflict will reduce opportunities for many young men
to become heroes in the traditional way.
Unless this loss is defined and these male myths revised, conflict will be
difficult to replace within our society. It is my fear that we have created
such an expectation for conflict that is only resolved by defeating others
that we will have difficulty eliminating this expectation in order to have
a more inclusive society. Even in traditional childrens literature only
the story of Ferdinand The Bull stands out as a model of one who chose not
As a society, we need to stop encouraging conflict in the face of differences
and we need to encourage understanding and acceptance of differences. This
single issue has far-reaching implications which we can not possibly address
here, but our subtle support for prejudicial actions and prejudicial thinking
should be addressed at every opportunity.
A Prejudice Reduction Strategy
In consideration of an effective strategy for prejudice reduction, the foregoing
dynamics seem central to any successful approach. These dynamics also seem
central to an understanding of the limitations of many groups which have been
devoted to prejudice reduction and have been less than successful. A group
cannot be created by one group to effectively create changes in the beliefs
and actions of another group. It is my proposal that the most effective prejudice
reduction strategy will be one which takes full advantage of the above dynamics,
not one which ignores these processes. Indeed we are all interdependent, and
on an issue like prejudice, each of us is in the position of being least able
to act in our own defense. However, we each have the power, the leverage,
and the opportunity to act in the interest of others. It might be said that
by having the opportunity, we each have the responsibility to act in accordance
with the needs of others.
The Dalai Lama recently wrote, "... our world has become smaller and
more interdependent. . . . But, to begin with in the context of this new interdependence,
even self-interest lies in considering the interests of others." (From
the introduction to Facing Our Future, J. Cole, 1992)
While the simplest form of this type of intervention might simply be to respond
clearly to a prejudicial joke that occurs near us, it is important to start
where we are able. To move forward and take the prejudicial force upon oneself
is usually effective in weakening and redirecting that force. I imagine people
who hear racist jokes or sexist jokes responding, "Well I might do that
myself under some circumstances." A statement of this type does not label
or counterattack the person who has made the prejudicial joke or statement.
However, by making a statement like this, one simply places oneself in the
line of the prejudicial action. In doing so, we change the direction of the
force and identify the action as inappropriate without creating a direct conflict
or oppositional force. At times other action might be needed, but counterattacks
are not the most effective intervention.
I will sometimes respond to a prejudicial remark with a simple reflection
on the group that is experiencing the attack. For example, "When I hear
jokes about gay guys, I am reminded of the social pressures they experience
and how they have a suicide rate that is three times that of their age group."
In responding to a joke about a young womans weight I might reflect
upon how about 25% of the women in our colleges and universities have eating
disorders, which are largely a response to social pressures for a woman to
have a body that is the "right shape." I dont feel that it
is helpful to interpret the intentions of the person who has made the prejudicial
remark or told the prejudicial joke. But, it does seem to be important to
define oneself within the context of the prejudicial actions of others.
The practical application of these principles within an organization seems
to require some important strategic rules.
response to a prejudicial action is the weakest when taken by a member
of the targeted group.
response to a prejudicial action is most effective when it is taken by
a person who is identified as being within the same group as the person
taking the prejudicial action.
passive support by the group where the prejudicial actions originate is
essential in order for the prejudicial actions to continue. Thus, the
removal of this support, regardless of its seemingly inactive nature,
message of these three principles is clear. None of us can act for our own
defense as effectively as one who is identified as different from us by those
who might be prejudiced toward us. In order to institutionalize the above
principles, it would seem most appropriate to have a committee or task force
which would be as diverse as the organization or unit it functions within,
such as the university, college, corporate division, department, etc.
This task force or committee would function most effectively if it were to
have the following freedoms, characteristics and responsibilities.
membership which is not dominated by any specific group and all members
be personally committed to the creation of a more just world for everyone.
level of official recognition and support.
access to and responsibility for making the total institutional membership
aware of issues related to prejudicial actions within the greater organization..
actions of this group should be taken in ways which are inclusive and
supportive of the written polices, procedures, goals and regulations of
the larger organization.
spokespersons for this group should vary, depending upon the situation,
needs and issues.
group should make all decisions in total, with consensus being the level
of agreement needed for action.
Policy recommendations from this group might be submitted to the larger
policy- and decision-making body or administration.
The response of this group might be to have the male members of the group
jointly submit a committee statement on the concerns about sexism within the
institution, or to have the non-Hispanic members speak up about the need for
action for the Hispanic population. These actions might be only recommendations
or public statements, but it would seem to be an important function for a
diverse group to share. The group could recommend training for its own members
or for the total organization, but it needs to have the visibility of a recognized
group within the organization and the responsibility and freedom to take actions.
With this configuration, whenever any members identity group is under
attack, a response needs to come from the total group. Those members who are
most easily identified with the group taking the prejudicial actions can most
effectively be the spokespersons for the response. The most leverage for reducing
prejudice always stays with those who are identified as members of the offending
group and this leverage needs to be utilized. To take an extreme example,
we might remember the whites who joined the blacks in the civil rights actions
of the 1960s, and began to be killed with the blacks. The public opinion from
otherwise inactive whites was mobilized.
The actions of this task force or committee and the sharing of its decisions
also models a diverse group working together and is an important model for
the way people can function. This group should be allowed to do informal research
and surveys within the organization with the goal of defining problem areas
and making recommendations for improvement within the organization. While
they need to be responsible in the actions that they take, they also need
to be removed from any subtle threats that are often related to such activities.
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