I once had a friend yell at me and call me a liar because I told him that a meeting he led had made others who were there “feel attacked” (something they had expressed to me). He’d asked me about reactions to the meeting, but he couldn’t accept the answer. He heard it as an attack on him – on his intentions and character – rather than as a report of impact and results.
While that particularly instance was extreme, I don’t think the confusion is unusual. It bothers us when what happens isn’t what we meant to happen, when someone hears something that isn’t what we meant to say. We want to be judged by our good intentions rather than by whatever somehow went awry between those intentions and the outcomes.
If we can take a step back, wisdom tells us that, while our intentions are important, they are far from the only contributor to what actually happened, especially when communication is involved. Context matters, and history is a part of that. Shared meaning and/or purpose is part of it – or not, as the case may be. But all too often, we want to believe that we can control more than we do, and that our intentions are the most important thing.
I see it happen most often when we’re talking about race. When something someone says or does is called “racist,” white Americans want to talk about what their intentions were, what was “in their heart.” And when told they are participants in “systemic racism,” white Americans tend to recoil. We hate the idea that we could be part of something we didn’t choose, something that flies in the face of our good intentions and the way we think about ourselves. Something we don’t want to be true, much less responsible for.
But what if it is true? What if, in spite of our good intentions, we are actually doing harm? Perpetuating harm we don’t intend?
It’s a terrible thought. And the only thing worse than thinking it is not thinking it.
The ways we tend to use language about race are all wrapped up in avoiding the thought. Stereotype. Prejudice. Bias. Bigotry. Discrimination. Racism. White supremacy.
We all recognize these words as negative. White Americans tend to see them as moral defects in personal character – bad intentions and ugly, false beliefs. Black Americans tend to see them as negative as well, but in more nuanced ways.
A stereotype is an idea, an over-generalization. “Black people are good at sports.” “White people like yoga.” We can know a stereotype and not believe it.
Prejudice is a feeling. “Southerners make me nervous.” Bias is a tendency, an inclination for or against something. “I just like to date taller men.” We can be unaware of our prejudices and biases – they often function subconsciously and influence our choices and decisions in ways that may even undercut our conscious intentions.
Bigotry is believing a stereotype and being prejudiced against it. But people who are bigoted rarely see it that way; they believe the stereotype is really true and dangerous in some way, so they usually see their actions as simply protecting themselves. “Black people don’t keep up their homes, and if one moves onto our block, the value of my house will go down.” Well-intentioned people who are bigoted allow for exceptions: “That black family that moved into the neighborhood, they’ve actually got the nicest yard on the street!” For various reasons (social stigma, financial incentives, etc.) bigoted people may not actually act on their bigotry.
Discrimination is acting either in favor of or with bias against a person or group because of their perceived race. Discrimination can be indirect, particularly when we want to believe in our good intentions. “I’ve got nothing against black people, I’m just more comfortable dating men with a similar background to mine.” We can act on a racial stereotype even if we don’t think we believe it.
White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to those of other races. White supremacy is also any system (social, religious, economic, housing, judicial, penal, educational, etc.) that reflects the assumption that white people are superior and gives them preference (even indirectly). That assumption may have been a part of the system from its inception – designed to implement the supremacy of white people; or assumptions of white supremacy may have been added to it along the way. Either way, those who continue to use the system are participants in white supremacy, whether they know it or not and regardless of their personal beliefs. It is not the intentions of those participating in a system that create white supremacy; it’s the effects of the system. White supremacy is a system that results in the preferential treatment of white people.
Racism is a pattern of harms done to a group of people because of their race. It is a persistent perpetuation of racial stereotypes, bias, prejudice, and discrimination. The key here is the pattern of harms. Racism is in the effects rather than the intent.
When I was a child, a black family lived across the street from us. I loved them the way a child loves neighbors – though the youngest children were several years older than me and too old to be playmates, they were always friendly to me, and the mother fussed over me and gave me my first popcorn balls (a magical Halloween treat from the days before homemade treats became verboten). When I was five or six, we invited the youngest two children to come to Vacation Bible School. As my mother drove us home that night, the three of us entertained ourselves with a game of I Spy. Trying too hard to be clever, I spied “something green,” and after they finally gave up, laughed as I told them the “something green” was the color of their skin in the glow of the dashboard lights. Appalled, my mother made me apologize and after we got home gave me a stern talking to that I didn’t fully understand. I just thought their different skin color was interesting – it didn’t mean anything to me yet.
But it meant something to them. However naïve my comment was (I won’t say innocent because, while I wasn’t trying to embarrass them for being black, I was trying to best them with my cleverness), it happened in a social and historical context that made it more than I knew. It fed into a pattern of harms. It was racist. I didn’t have to plant the seed of racism – that was done generations before me – but I blithely watered that seed, however unknowingly.
We want life to be more neutral than that. We want to believe we all start on an essentially equal playing field and we all have roughly the same ability to work hard and make something of ourselves. We don’t want to believe we are watering seeds we wish had never been planted.
The world we live in is made from much more than our intentions. Black and white American live with a history every day, a history of racism and white supremacy. If we are willing to step back and look, whatever we believe about our intentions, the pattern of results is clear. Like specks of color in a tweed woven with checks, exceptions are everywhere but the pattern is clear. Changing patterns requires changing the machinery that creates them. And we’ll never change what we aren’t willing to see.
2 thoughts on “Race, Language, and Intent”
Great piece, Jennifer. We had a very similar experience with our son when he was in kindergarten. He’s been very sensitive to the language he uses since then. It’s such a challenge to talk in an age-appropriate way about those contexts without confusing children — but to wait for “teachable moments” also feels like too much to ask when others get hurt. I recently became involved with a local organization, Speaking Down Barriers, that aims to get adults talking about these issues (and hopefully eventually kids too) — it would be amazing if they were ultimately able to go nationwide, because these conversations are so sorely needed.
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Should be required reading! Lucid and compelling, Jennifer.
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