How to stage a Privilege Intervention
February 18, 2013 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I have a friend who has a long history of saying hurtful things based on stereotypes to his friends. I want to gather his friends and stage an intervention. How to go about this?

I believe that he genuinely means well, but he is an straight upper-class cis white male who has a long history of saying hurtful things to people around him based on stereotypes. He doesn't seem to realize it's unfair and hurtful to judge people by stereotypes about their cultures. For example, he 'jokingly' harassed an asian friend of ours for months, asking if she wanted rice or kon pao chicken for dinner, made fun of her for not speaking "her native tongue" (she was born and raised in America), and made fun of her asian name. They got into a massive fight about it, and the behavior with her about that specific issue seems to have stopped, but the general behavior is still very much present.

He prides himself on his "knowledge" of different cultures and his behavior is very much tied into his worldview that stereotypes accurately portray minorities. He once met a Korean couple and proceeded to tell me all about them, who they were as people, where they were from, their culture, etc. I happened to meet those people and it turned out they were Filipino, not Korean, and he had entirely made up their history and life story based on stereotypes of Koreans without ever talking to them about it.

His issues are not limited to race, and extend to gender, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual minorities, etc. Basically, if a culture has sterotypes about it, he'll apply those stereotypes to anyone he meets in that culture. I care for him very much and he has many other redeeming qualities, but this issue is ruining our friendship. Our friend group is otherwise socially progressive and aware of privilege issues. All of our friends have tried talking to him about privilege individually to no effect.

As a last ditch effort, I want to get all of his friends together and stage a "privilege intervention", where we talk about his stereotyping of people and how things he's said have hurt us as people and how it's affected our relationship. Everything I'm finding on the internet relates to addiction interventions, and I'm hoping to get some better resources or ideas on how to go about this. Thanks!

posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This video may help - "How To Tell People They Sound Racist."
posted by quodlibet at 8:17 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

I have to wonder if a friend who has issues with "race...gender, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual minorities, etc." Is really worth the trouble of a whole intervention. I'd drop him and if he asks why, tell him it's cause he was being a racist/sexist/homophobic/etc jerk.
posted by Katine at 8:22 AM on February 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

Sounds like your friend may be an undiagnosed dickhead. Unfortunately, there's no cure for dickheadism. Cut him loose. Stop asking him to hang out. If he asks why, tell him, "Stu, you're a dickhead about your white straight cis male privilege, and I want fewer dickheads in my life."

If he swears he'll change, then tell him you're going to be calling him on his bullshit. Then you have several options.

1) Stare. Whenever he does this, just stop what you're doing and stare at him. Don't tell him why. Just stare until he realizes that he has done something incredibly stupid or walks away.

2) Ask him to clarify. "What do you mean by that?" "Well, you know, your native language..." "Do you mean English, because I was born in Chicago?" "It was a joke." "What was funny about it?" Eventually, he'll either realize or disengage.

3) Leave. Whenever he does this, just stop what you're doing and walk away. If you can't do that (like, you're in the middle of dinner), say, "Stu, you're being a dickhead again, and I'm not going to have this conversation with you. Good-bye." Then turn your head and refuse to engage with him.

4) Ding training. This one will work best if he's actually committed to changing.
posted by Etrigan at 8:24 AM on February 18, 2013 [31 favorites]

You say, "I believe that he genuinely means well,..."

No, he doesn't! He means ill, and likes it that way. Drop him as a pal. If he asks why, tell him he's a dinosaur and you expect your friends to have entered the 21st century, as you have.

What do you all mean by "cis?" I Urban Dictionaried it, but can't figure out what you're getting at.
posted by BostonTerrier at 8:30 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

What do you all mean by "cis?" I Urban Dictionaried it, but can't figure out what you're getting at.

Not transgender.
posted by Etrigan at 8:32 AM on February 18, 2013

"Cis" is short for "Cisgendered"
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:32 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is done by drawing a person aside, not by having a bunch of people confront the person. That makes people defend themselves and their way of interacting with the world.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:39 AM on February 18, 2013 [11 favorites]

Nothing good will come from this. You and your crowd of pals will get to berate him, go away feeling righteous, he'll be miffed, and nothing will change. If everyone has already talked to him, and nothing changed, why go through the theatrics of an "intervention"? If he's that dreadful, why hang out with him? Your female Asian friend handled him herself, right? I'm sure he'll get his hash settled by someone else he offends. (Or maybe he doesn't offend everyone, which is always a possibility.) If you all shun him, he'll either get the message or he'll find a new circle of pals.
(And listing his heritage, ethnicity, gender, status, etc.. is pretty much playing his same game--categorizing by externals.)
posted by Ideefixe at 8:39 AM on February 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

This sounds less like an issue of privilege and more one of ignorance and arrogance, maybe? I mean, the privilege could come into play in his not understanding how his comments reinforce stuff that members of oppressed groups face daily and unjokingly, but it sounds like the main problem you're identifying is that he has no clue what he's talking about but he continues talking.

I point all this out just to throw out the idea that in talking to him about his "privilege," you may be soft-pedaling things to the point where he's not getting it. I'd sit him down and tell him that his jokes aren't funny and that much of his comments about people from traditionally oppressed groups are straight-up racist and ignorant, and you don't really care what he thinks in his own head but he needs to stop making those comments out loud, because you're all sick of them.

Along the lines of what Etrigan said, I think you need less of a "Privilege Intervention" and more of an "Asshole Intervention."
posted by jaguar at 8:42 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds more like an ambush/ confrontation than an intervention, and I am not confident that it would be successful. There have been questions on about how to respond to jerk behavior, esp. discriminatory behavior. I believe that calling him on his behavior as it happens will be more successful.
posted by theora55 at 8:44 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I sort of disagree with the people saying this is pointless. I think some people really are dim about this stuff and really do need a giant wakeup call. I would do this, with the approach that while none of you can make him consider of change his behaviour, what this group of people can do is commit to zero tolerance of it, and that consequently you'll each be leaving / blowing a whistle / smacking him with a newspaper when he does it.

Or something.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:54 AM on February 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Interventions don't even really work for drugs and alcohol, except to force people into rehab (which I don't think is very effective for people who are not there of their own volition) and to make the intervenors feel like they have done something. What is the goal here? There's no asshole rehab to force him to enroll in. Spending weeks haranguing a co-worker isn't done out of "privilege", either; it's done for pleasure.
posted by thelonius at 8:55 AM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

I guess if I were you and there were some genuine redeeming features to this guy, plus maybe some mitigating circumstances...

....let's say that he's materially generous, laughs at people's jokes, and has genuinely been nice to people in addition to hassling them; let's assume that he says the bigoted stuff in a genuinely smiley way like he thinks it's so trivial that it's the equivalent of gently mocking their obsession with Wittgenstein or something - ie, his privilege is such that he really does not understand that other people's histories have genuine pain, struggle and disadvantage in them and thus are unsuitable for joking. Let's say too that for some reason he has really poor social skills - home-schooled by wolves, or has some kind of untreated mental condition that makes it hard for him to read people and behave appropriately. (Maybe he has trouble understanding how to get "appropriate" attention? Could he have - rather horribly - had a crush on that girl?)

In that case...

I'd have a one-on-one conversation with him - not an intervention, because that will just make him feel ganged-up-on and shamed, which is all right if someone is killing themselves with heroin or setting themselves up for jail time, but unlikely to work in this situation.

Start out by saying that you're really concerned - not angered, yet - by his constant use of stereotypes and constant mocking of people based on them. And you want to explore where he's coming from. Start by asking him about the Filipino couple - you noticed that he told you a bunch of wrong information based on a stereotype. What does he think about that? Why did he assume that he knew stuff? What has been the outcome? Ask him about how things went with your friend - how did he think she'd react to being teased? What was the upshot? How does he feel about the situation?

Basically, get him to lay out in some detail what he thinks he's doing. If he's really clueless, naive and insecure, he may be able to change; if he's really committed to "every stereotype is just a little bit true!" then you can drop him in good conscience.

After he lays all this out, share your frustrations with him - it's hurtful to see and experience this stuff, it's embarrassing to be around him when he does this, it gets in the way of your friendships, it is embarrassing for him to be seen as someone who has these stupid and retrograde ideas. Talk about how he has some good qualities and you don't want to stop being friends, but unless he makes an effort to stop this stuff across the board - not just when you're there - you can't handle being his friend any more.

And then see what he says.

If he's clueless but has a feeling heart, you might give him some James Baldwin or something to read (I would be happy to recommend some heart-wringing memoirs, too) so that he can get a little tiny fraction of an idea about why this stuff is cruel and wrong.

I would warn you that this kind of attitude is really, really entrenched where it exists - I did not grow up in a conservative, stereotype-using household, but even so I would say that it took me years of pushing myself and reading stuff and so on to start to grasp some important stuff about racism, racial justice and the stuff I needed to do be a decent human being. Socialization is really powerful. If this guy can knock off most of that race-baiting/stereotyping shit in the short-to-medium term, that's going to be a huge change for him but may still leave him as a frustrating friend for you since he's unlikely to become, like, really sophisticated and self-aware very soon.
posted by Frowner at 9:05 AM on February 18, 2013 [12 favorites]

Praise in public, Reprimand in private.
posted by matty at 9:09 AM on February 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think an intervention would be pointless. What I'd recommend is that each one of you get together with this excrescence individually and each tell him that this shit has got to stop.

Meet in a quiet pub and take the table in the back:

"Dick, I know I've mentioned it to you before, but you don't seem to be getting the message, that shit you do with people of cultures different from your own is really bigoted, ugly and unacceptable. I'm at my wits end with you frankly. I like you and I don't want to drop you, but I will unless you make a drastic change to the way you interact with anyone who isn't a straight, white man. Now, being a straight white man is like being born on third base. So you already have a lot of advantages in this life. Hearing you stereotype people and make offensive comments is doubly disgusting because you have no idea what it's like to be a maligned minority AND because you don't stop to listen to people to actually learn about who they are. This is already affecting your friendship with me, it can't be helping your friendships with other people or with how you interact with people at your job."

That's it, you've done as much as you can.

Frankly, I don't think it will help. He probably thinks he a model of open-minded rationality.

Good luck with that.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:22 AM on February 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For example, he 'jokingly' harassed an asian friend of ours for months

There are people in the world who are so socially and culturally tone-deaf that they think they are connecting with people by endlessly "joking" about something that provokes a response - any response - from the target. It's that guy who will still give you shit about that horrible haircut you got that one time when you were freshmen...six years ago.

My point is I think you need to take several steps down the ladder from racism and start with "you are being rude and hurting people and you don't seem to realize it." I agree with Frowner that you need to ask him what it is he thinks he's doing. I think that should be a private conversation, though, and you need to hear him all the way out.

And then put your foot down about the mocking. Making fun of people is not a legitimate means of interaction. It doesn't matter what it's about. Make that a term of continued socialization with your group, and then if he actually learns to communicate with people in more authentic ways you can then deal with the advanced issues - if it's even an actual issue and wasn't just an "I don't know how to relate except via the obvious" problem.

There's probably a point where you should bring up that thing about the "Korean" couple, but I'd say hear him out first. Because if he's falling on stereotypes because he's desperate to relate and doesn't know how, that is a social skills problem that looks dangerously awful, but can be overcome with practice relating to people on their own actual terms.

I grew up in a family half made up of mockers. It's what passed for intimacy and communication. It's pretty insidious. If that's where he's coming from, you'll be doing him a great favor if you can help him see and stop it. A group attack is probably not going to do anything but put his defenses up; I think you'd be better off speaking with him privately first, and then seeing if he'd be willing to talk to the others - one on one - about how he can do better, if that's his desire.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:44 AM on February 18, 2013 [10 favorites]

Please note the OP says private reprimands have already been tried and failed.

Frowner's series of stages seems really useful:

1.start with concerned analysis of factual incorrectness.

2. then ask him to account for this malfunction (why did he assume he knew? what was the outcome?)

3. emotional consequences (hurt for others, embarrassment for him).

Stage 1 seems like the stage you'll really want to overprepare for. You say:
He prides himself on his "knowledge" of different cultures and his behavior is very much tied into his worldview that stereotypes accurately portray minorities.

Part of how interventions work is by knocking down someone's defenses so that they're forced to realize something they've been working very hard not to realize. The Come-to-Jesus talks that persuaded me to change my behavior towards others were the ones that forced me to realize: Everything I Like to Think I Know On This Topic Is Wrong; and this guy, as you say, also prides himself on his 'knowledge'. I would really go into detail about his ignorance -- do research, have authoritative sources sitting ready to hand on the coffee table, that kind of thing. Choose sources that you think HE will be forced to admit are authoritative. From what you say, it sounds likely that he'll then take refuge in a contradictory defense: the 'It was just a joke' tactic. Don't let this distract you from making his ignorance irrefutable.

Once you've accomplished that goal, you can then turn to the 'joke' defense. The trick here is to take it seriously, and to force him to provide an account (which will force him to realize he cannot coherently do so.) To take joking seriously, think (and possibly use) social science analysis of joking, teasing, etc. You might for example draw on Jane Hill's analysis of privileged stereotyping in Mock Spanish. Ask him to account for his teasing. Is he claiming to be unaware that teasing can be appropriate OR it can be hurtful? What is his strategy for telling the difference? Why did his strategy so clearly fail him? Was it a failure of understanding, or did he choose to hurt people deliberately?

The emotional consequences are your bottom line, your fallback position: even if he somehow intellectually rationalizes his behavior, that behavior still inflicts hurt and embarrassment that are dealbreakers for you all.

As part of the preparation, your group will need to be sure you are on the same page and can speak with one voice about consequences, both future newspaper-nose-smacking (as DarlingBri puts it) and more immediate consequences for refusing to sit down and listen to the intervention itself.

Good luck. Please report back. It'll be, at the least, an interesting experiment.
posted by feral_goldfish at 10:00 AM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Joke" back. When he says something racist, all of you shout "Racism!" really loud and make noises like the buzzer on a game show.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:17 PM on February 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

A one time intervention won't cut it. You and your friends need to call him out every. Single. Time.

The whole group needs to tell him "dude, not cool" whenever he says something inappropriate. It's the only way he'll learn to recognise when he's doing it again, and that it will not be accepted by anyone among your group.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:38 PM on February 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

searching on "intervention" would likely prove ineffective because with an intervention you give the person the ultimatum to either go to some sort of rehab right then and there or cut off contact. where are you going to send this guy? the library? lol. so...what you are wanting to do is just a group confrontation. he'll probably feel ganged up on and get defensive but who knows maybe it will work. i think calling him out in public at the time he says these stupid things might be more effective. the only way he may actually change is when he loses his friends because of this. you know: actual consequences.
posted by wildflower at 3:09 PM on February 18, 2013

Um, honey, your friend's problem isn't his "privilege".

Your friend's problem is that he's acting racist.

I think interventions are dumb and overly dramatic, but I agree that you have to do something about this. I would probably unilaterally decide amongst your friend group to speak up every time he does something like mocking another person's ethnicity (which is what making fun of an ethnic name or teasing a Chinese person about Kung Pao Chicken is). Regardless of the background of the witness. Regardless of who else is there or what the occasion is. Just a simple, "that's not cool" with a straight face and a serious demeanor.

Your friend doesn't need homework or an explanation of what privilege is or examples of past hurts. He needs a short sharp "that's racist".

To be clear, when I say unilaterally deciding, I mean that instead of getting together and inviting Your Racist Friend to publicly shame him en masse, you should get together yourselves (group email or a google hangout would probably also work) and decide "from now on, this stops."

If every single friend shutting that shit down over and over has no effect on him, drop him. I wouldn't threaten to drop him and make a big scene about how you can maybe no longer be friends. Just "that shit is not cool". Then, if he keeps countering with "it's just a joke" or whatever, and CONTINUES to not get it, poof, he's shunned. By the group. En masse.
posted by Sara C. at 3:59 PM on February 18, 2013

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