Why Your 'Good Intentions' Aren't Enough

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
lechatnoir / Getty Images

Have you ever given someone a bit of advice, or made a suggestion to them, coming from a genuine place, only to be met with a less than thrilled reaction? Perhaps they are even angry with what you said, and you have no idea why, because you didn’t mean it in a negative way?

Well, here’s the thing, you may not have meant for it to come out in a way that would be negative, but that’s the way the person interpreted it. So, while your intent was good, it did not make a positive impact. Intent versus impact is something that has come up a lot in recent years, and yet it is still something that not everyone is aware of — but they should be.

Much of the current conversation around intent versus impact revolves around social justice, and rightfully so. There is a lot to talk about and unpack, and people are in a place of learning. Sometimes, though, while we are learning, we may not be as receptive as we could be, and that’s where the intent of our comments versus the impact they may have on an individual or a conversation comes into play.

Say, for example, we’re talking about race. It is a complex topic to discuss, and there is a lot of nuance to every conversation. If someone says something like “I don’t see color, I treat everyone the same,” it is often met with criticism and pushback, as it absolutely should be. Here’s why: As nice of an idea as that is, it’s not how the world actually works. The intent of the comment is to say that you try to treat everyone you encounter fairly, regardless of race, but the impact of your words to a person who is from a marginalized race is that their racial identity is not important.

While you may think that being “colorblind” is a good thing, when it comes to race, it’s actually a very harmful way of thinking because not acknowledging someone’s race, by extension, fails to acknowledge the challenges that people face because of their race. Claiming to be colorblind is erasing their entire cultural identity. You’re telling that person that their racially-based problems don’t matter to you, because that’s not something that you’re concerned with.

“But that’s not what I meant!”

Well, no, that may not be what you meant. But that’s what the marginalized person you were talking to heard and internalized. This is something to consider — you may not think so, but you’re the person who has the privilege of not being aware of race. It’s something you’ve never needed to worry about a day in your life.

Not recognizing your privilege as a white person is another prime example of intent. Saying “I’m not rich,” or “I’m a woman,” or “I live in a bad neighborhood,” whatever the case may be, is still a failure to realize that while you may be using these examples to humble yourself to a person of color, again, the impact of your words erases the reality of a person of color who is also not rich, a woman, or whatever else. You still have power that the person of color doesn’t have.

Privilege, more often than not, has nothing to do with money. It is simply being born with white skin and not brown skin. In many places, the poorest white person can still be treated better than the richest brown person. That is something that so often gets lost in the conversation of privilege, and why it is so important to examine the potential impact of your words and actions.

For another example, and one that is very current, let’s look at the current gun violence movement. While it is a long overdue national conversation, a majority of the people making the charge are white. And while the Parkland kids have acknowledged that the black kids from their school are being ignored, they should have and could have brought at least one of them into the fray from the beginning. While the comments were made with the best of intentions, the impact is already done.

There is a centering of whiteness on an issue that communities of color have long been trying to get the same acknowledgement for. I have seen several of my white female friends begin groups and talk about taking up the fight, and yet, I never see them extending the conversation to women in communities of color. When they post pictures of their groups at town halls, there is never a woman of color with them.

So while they have the best and most admirable intentions, they are centering their groups on whiteness, and the impact is, yet again, leaving people of color out of the conversation. Then they wonder why people of color get frustrated and call them out. Because they never bring us into the fold, but they take the problems that we’ve been talking about for decades and make them solely about white communities.

“But how do I become more aware of my impact?”

I’m glad you asked. When people of color talk, listen. Don’t try to talk over them, don’t try to compare your problems to theirs. Give them the space to exist, not just as a compliment to your identity, but a whole person. Think before you speak. If you have any hesitation about how your comment is going to be perceived, then you should probably keep it to yourself. And if someone tells you that your comment was off-base, don’t argue with them about why they’re wrong. Acknowledge the misstep, listen to what they have to say, and then dig a little deeper into what you said and why they were uncomfortable. It’s the only way we’re ever going to move forward.