This notion of intention often comes up in discussions of racism--particularly the idea that the intention behind an utterance justifies or excuses any offense it has caused--and it drives me nuts. So I started a new thread, titled "Words & Intentions," and this is what I wrote:
I received many lovely responses. I also received a number of responses that were extremely frustrating, if not particularly original, and almost all of them, sadly, from the same person. Can you guess who? Yes, indeed, it was Person C.
This conversation feels familiar. One person will say something to the effect of "I find xxx language offensive" and another will say "yes, but we should really give the benefit of the doubt to the person who said xxx, because that person did not intend any offense." I'm a little weary of this conversation, to be honest. And I think the "give benefit of the doubt" argument is problematic, in that it seeks to protect the speaker. I'd argue that it is the person HEARING the language and feeling excluded/offended/etc by it who should be the person we rush to protect.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: in conversations about race, what people hear is the language, NOT the intention. And intention, no matter how good, does not compensate for language that hurts or excludes, EVEN IF the speaker did not mean to hurt or exclude.We all need to think carefully about what we say, own what we say, and take responsibility if we misspeak. And by "take responsibility," all I mean is to briefly acknowledge, clarify, and/or apologize. This is not about punishment; it is not about shame. It is about responsibility. And it does not have to be a big deal.
By being responsible and thoughtful about our language, and responding appropriately when others feel hurt or excluded by it, we ensure that this remains a community that is inclusive and comfortable for all of us. If we can't create such a community here, we can hardly expect the world to create one for our children, now can we?
And like the original conversation, C's arguments were familiar. There was, for example, much handwringing over how considering inclusiveness in language would deter dialogue: that people wouldn't post for fear of being judged, and what about the poor people who are in a hurry and don't have time to parse their language. Then there was more handwringing over not quashing free speech, blah, blah, blah. And much, much more, some of it truly head-scratching in its illogic that had the appearance of logic...
I was truly baffled by C's response, even though it's a species of response I've seen before. Nowhere did I suggest that people censor their speech. Nowhere did I suggest that people who failed to use inclusive language would be judged, or pilloried, or assumed to be racist. What, exactly, is so threatening about inclusive language? Why the protest?
At one point, I challenged him, writing "This argument sounds alot like an argument the privileged might make to avoid acknowledging their privilege."
But is that it? Or was C's response all about B's race? Could C not understand that a white person could object to language that didn't specifically exclude her but might exclude others? Would the conversation have been different if B was black?
In the end, I'm most puzzled by C's resistance and apparent sense that something is being threatened. But what? What exactly is at stake here?