Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Intentions Are Irrelevant

I've had this post in my queue with just a title for over a week. I've been trying to formulate what I want to say, and I'm going to take a stab at it...but I'm not convinced it will come out right at all.

Oh well, here goes.

In the social justice/feminist world, when we are called out for a racist/sexist/heterosexist/abelist/cissexist or otherwise bigoted remark, the gut reaction we all have is to fall back on, "but that's not what I meant."

I see it all the time, and I'm sure you have too. We view ourselves as a part of the solution, so when we mess up (as we all do time-to-time) the guilt and disappointment in ourselves can be a lot to bear. So we revert back to what we believe to be true of ourselves...we're good people. We wouldn't do or say anything to hurt others.

We didn't mean it like that.

It wasn't our intention.

We weren't thinking about it that way.

We even make these excuses for other people we like, as if we can really know their intentions. Over at Tumblr, I regularly receive posts where the submitter screencaps a friend/family member saying something sexist, but they then write a caption like, "He's not even a bad guy" or "I don't even know if he meant it that way."

The truth is...our intentions are irrelevant. What matters so much more is the cultural context in which our words and actions exist. For example, as a white person, I benefit from white privilege literally every day. And these daily privileges become almost invisible to me, as a beneficiary of them, especially if I'm not actively thinking about it. So it can be quite easy for me to not "mean" something racist...but that doesn't change the fact that when a person of color points out something they see as a problematic aspect of my writing/speech/behavior--I should give it pause and actually think about it.

Sure, my intentions might not have been to offend, but if the end result is the same (offense) does that make me any less culpable?  Even if I've inadvertently invoked a stereotype, the stereotype still exists.

We have to stop thinking about racism, sexism, homophobia, and etc. as things that only bad people do. The truth is that all of us mess up time-to-time. We all exist in the kyriarchy and almost all of us carry some form of privilege.

So the real test is how you respond when you DO mess up? Will you learn from the experience? Or will you lash back---more worried about clarifying your intentions and clearing your name than caring about the person your hurt?

Ok, when I say that intentions are irrelevant, that's not entirely true. There are people who make it their business to be specifically bigoted, and that is its own special set of problems. But for those of us who really do examine society and think critically about oppression, we can't worry about getting a pass when we mess up. We just can't.

We've got to accept responsibility.

Working on Anti-Racism
"Yes, But..."
Don't you DARE Call Me A Racist!
How to Enter Feminist Discussions at the 101 Level and Not Totally Mess Up

This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion. 


  1. "Ok, when I say that intentions are irrelevant, that's not entirely true."

    I'm glad you said that. I would add that intentions have at least some bearings on culpability, if you mean moral culpability.

  2. You know, this whole idea reminds me a lot of narcissism.
    There is a book about narcissism with the title of "Will I ever be good enough?"
    The answer is no. Not for a narcissist, not for someone who calls you sexist or racist or finds other fault with you.
    With a narcissist, you go through different stages (at least, I did):
    1. Denial, self-defense: No, I refuse to define myself as the bad person you tell me I am!
    You are frustrated: Everything you do and are is wrong. You are repeatedly told this, you are ridiculed, berated. Every single small thing can cause a huge blow up: You put on your shoes the wrong way, greeted the person in the wrong way, look the wrong way, said a wrong word, gave them a wrong comliment. You want to sccream: I AM TRYING I DON'T WANT TO BE CRITICIZED FOR EVERYTHING!
    2. Doubt: Possibly I really am not as good as I thought?
    2.5 You refuse to try anymore, you become "difficult", "sensitive" and "stubborn"!
    3. Trying: Okay, I will leave everything aside, all my personal needs and for once try to be the person you want me to be. Do everything for you exactly the way you want me to, never complain, never talk about myself, praising you, degrading myself.
    You get no praise for this. First, you are frustrated. Then you move on to step 4:
    4. You treat the narcissist like a child or mentally challenged person. They have a handycap. You don't take them serious anymore. You know how to behave around them so as to minimize outbursts, yelling, humiliation, accusations. You have learned to remove yourself emotionally, not confide in them, not see them as an equal person, but as a needy person, as someone you cannot open to, but rather as someone you have to be careful around and treat in a way that will minimize damage to you: Praise them, do everything they want the way they want it degrade yourself - but not meaning it, minimizing contact, going home, being yourself.

    If you say intent does not matter, you drive people who are most likely to be accused of something - basically everybody in contact with others who like to accuse people of causing offense - to go through these steps. In the end, offense will be minimized but the ones defining offense - the women, the people of other races, different sexualities etc.- will not be take seriously anymore.
    Everyone was brought up to strive to be a "good person" by being considerate, polite, friendly, helpful, open. Now they are told, they will never be, especially if they are white, or male, or straight, or even cis (majority of people). They will go through these steps and in the end, will stop trying. Will stop being open. Will minimize talking to others. Don't ask, google. Don't cause offense. Don't make yourself vulnerable by repeatedly experience that you cannot ever be "good". Accept this, but, if you want to stay sane, only on the outside. Hide. Keep to your own. Don't try to get to know "other" people, you might cause offense and experience yet again that all your efforts are worthless, your are worthless, you are never equal, always at the merci of others to tell you how you should view yourself (as a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, ableist person. This especially hurts if you someone dear to you is of another race, female, disabled, homosexual or of a different sexuality, transgender etc.pp.


This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion.

TL;DR Troll comments are never published, so don't waste your time.