Imagine for a moment that you’re standing with your friends in a park, enjoying a nice summer day.
You don’t know me, but I walk right up to you holding a Frisbee.
I wind up – and throw the disc right into your face.
Understandably, you are indignant.
Through a bloody nose, you use a few choice words to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing.
And my response?
“Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you! That was never my intent! I was simply trying to throw the Frisbee to my friend over there!”
Visibly upset, you demand an apology.
But I refuse. Or worse, I offer an apology that sounds like “I’m sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you.”
Sound absurd? Sound infuriating enough to give me a well-deserved Frisbee upside the head?
So why is this same thing happening all of the time when it comes to the intersection of our identities and oppressions or privileges?
Intent v. Impact
From Paula Deen to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted uncle or friend, we hear it over and over again: “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intent…” “I am not a racist…” “I am not a homophobe…” “I’m not a sexist…”
I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent.
At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact?
After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?
In some ways, this is a simple lesson of relationships.
If I say something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t much matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else – because my partner is hurting.
I need to listen to how my language hurt my partner. I need to apologize.
And then I need to reflect and empathize to the best of my ability so I don’t do it again.
But when we’re dealing with the ways in which our identities intersect with those around us – and, in turn, the ways our privileges and our experiences of marginalization and oppression intersect – this lesson becomes something much larger and more profound.
This becomes a lesson of justice.
What we need to realize is that when it comes to people’s lives and identities, the impact of our actions can be profound and wide-reaching.
And that’s far more important than the question of our intent.
We need to ask ourselves what might be or might have been the impact of our actions or words.
And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our actions is out of step with our intents or our perceptions of self.