When it Comes to Fighting Racism, Intentions and Context Matter | Opinion

A major tenet of anti-racist activism is that intentions don't matter. When an individual speaks a word or asks a question, whether he or she meant to hurt listeners' feelings or to enact a racial microaggression—or to engage in good-faith dialogue—is irrelevant. The impact on listeners is all that should be addressed. Whenever I consider the accuracy and efficacy of this tenet, I think of a few incidents from my past.

In college, I was once kicked out of a party because a white female peer didn't feel comfortable with my presence. Apparently, a black man dancing as carefree as the white people felt like too much of a threat to her. I was forcefully removed. Fortunately, upon hearing about what happened, a multi-racial group confronted the party's hosts to let them know racism would not be tolerated. But did the demand of my erstwhile allies constitute insensitivity to the "impact" my presence had on the host?

In graduate school, I worked as an assistant director of my university's writing center. Typically, I was considered a jovial and fun person. However, one day I was in a low mood, and arrived at the writing center without my usual smile and good attitude. I wasn't scowling; I just didn't look happy. Some of my colleagues complained to the director of the writing center that they felt threatened by my demeanor and were concerned for their overall safety. The director, knowing I did nothing wrong, informed me of their concern, which floored me—I was reminded of the thought that black people must always feel jovial to make white people comfortable.

I do not relay these incidents to garner sympathy or to inform readers of the unimaginative conclusion that racism is bad. I tell these stories to preface a question: in the two scenarios I just shared, does intent matter or is impact the sole consideration? Based on the logic of "impact over intent," that woman was right to have me removed from the party, and my graduate school colleagues were right to report me to my boss. Although I didn't intend on being harmful, they felt like I was. Automatically assuming that impact is more important than intent can actually justify behavior that many would consider anti-black racism.

Emphasizing impact over intention can make sense in many situations. However, it can also have deleterious effects, including the perpetuation of racism. Whether or not impact should trump intention must always depend upon the particular situation. To emphasize impact regardless of context is to weaponize it.

Robin DiAngelo, in her bestselling book White Fragility, insists that "emphasizing intentions over impact" actually "privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behavior on the target." This can certainly be true. However, more and more frequently, this logic leads people to blow out of proportion relatively innocuous incidents: the misinterpretation of a hand signal, association with someone accused of being a racist or the use of a Chinese word that merely sounds like a racial slur. These incidents show that all it takes to successfully accuse someone of a harmful act is to feel harmed.

BLM Protest2
Demonstrators hold up signs and flags during the "Commitment March: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks" protest against racism and police brutality on August 28, 2020, in Washington, DC. - Anti-racism protesters marched on the streets of the US capital on Friday, after a white officer's shooting of African American Jacob Blake. The protester also marked the 57th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP via Getty Images

Of course, there are situations in which impact should be emphasized over intent; we shouldn't acquit a drunk driver because he didn't intend to cause a multi-car pile-up. What's more, this idea can surely inform race relations; one may not intend to offend with a racist Halloween costume, but the problem still needs to be addressed. However, when the idea is applied regardless of the situation, anyone at any time can be guilty of something. As DiAngelo and others have stated, "The question is not 'did racism take place' but rather, 'how did racism manifest in that situation?'" Intentions, then, are always already racist.

What exacerbates the issue is the fact that defending oneself against accusations of aggression—or even asking for an explanation as to why one's behavior is perceived as aggressive—is taken as proof of the accused's culpability. Ibram X. Kendi, in a recent talk at the University of Rochester, went so far as to say "The very heartbeat of racism is denial.... When people say they're not racist, they're sharing the words that white supremacists use. Jim Crow segregationists said they weren't racist." Besides its false equivalency of Jim Crow segregationists with any white person asking for due process, Kendi's argument effectively poisons the well of good-faith dialogue and renders the mere feeling of being wronged irrefutable.

One of the biggest defenses of "impact over intent" is that denial of harm—intended or not—is arrogant and insensitive, and amounts to policing how people should feel. Requests for clarification as to why a certain incident caused harm is also considered dismissive, as if it were the same as saying "just get over it." The apparent "perpetrator" is rarely seen as wanting to engage and get to the bottom of an issue so as to better ensure mutual understanding and prevent offense in the future. This tendency to see the "impactor" in a necessarily bad light portends the end of dialogue, understanding and even empathy. It also reflects a dangerous inability or unwillingness on the part of the "harmed" to consider context, gauge the particulars of a situation and act accordingly. As podcaster Benjamin Boyce said in a recent tweet to such activists, "if you can't read the room—what makes you think you can change the world?"

Weaponized appeals to "impact" do not affect the accused alone. Inadvertently, it could have negative effects on accusers as well. The thought that a request for clarification is tantamount to Jim Crow-era racism is at best a sign of delusion and, at worst, a sign of mental and emotional weakness that has no business in anti-racist spaces like academia and activism. I wouldn't want my leaders—be they community organizers or professors—to be so easily injured by the very kind of critical inquiry they themselves use and teach. Seeing my leader completely crumble at a request for elaboration does not instill confidence. DiAngelo and Kendi insist that self-defense against a questionable accusation is a sign of fragility. The ultimate irony is that accusing someone of fragility for requesting a fair hearing is the very kind of thing a fragile person would do. To ignore intent as a general rule is to normalize this fragility as a core characteristic of people of color.

The anecdotes from my school days that I shared should not have happened, but I derived three positive things from them. First, I was reminded of how painful it is to be judged—especially negatively—by looks alone, and to have my character completely neglected, if it was ever considered at all. Second, these incidents motivated me. I resolved not just to be better than those who judged me so frivolously, but to do my best to make the world the kind of place where incidents like those simply don't happen anymore. The wholesale neglect of intentions, even for the slightest of impacts, is not conducive to that goal. Lastly, what both accusing parties did not want to do is talk, to allow me to speak with them about the issues and come to a resolution. Knowing how it feels to be silenced and dismissed, I will not do it to others. Barring an egregious violation of my dignity, I will welcome dialogue.

Dialogue and recognition of the contexts in which it takes place are our best tactics for dealing with race and racism in a way that is beneficial to society and conducive to progress. Of course, not every conversation will go swimmingly, but we must have the courage to take the good and the bad to reach a goal of true anti-racism. If we don't have the courage to relinquish a perpetual belief that impact is more important than intent, we probably don't have the fortitude to effect real change.

Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania and a writing fellow for Heterodox Academy. His latest book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, was recently published by Lexington Press.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.