Posted by: mzbitca | May 22, 2009

Breaking My Privilege: Why I thought Intent mattered

In my previous post, I discussed how I used to not understand why it was inappropriate for me to question others about their ‘oppressed status.”  That was only the surface of my privilege taking a hold.  If i was ever challenged, or felt uncomfortable about my behavior I always had a surefire way of making myself feel better:  I had good intentions.  I can understand how “other, racist” people might say something harmful on purpose but I was an “ally” and open-minded so even if someone “misinterpreted” what I was asking I could alleviate any guilt I felt by thinking that my intent mattered.

That’s the thing about focusing on intent.  It’s designed to make the oppressor feel better and once again silence the oppressed person’s feelings and experience. As a privileged person I live in a world where I can assume intent matters in many ways.  I am not used to having a person look at one tiny example of my behavior and use it fortify some time of stereotype in their head.  I don’t have to worry about how, no matter how many black people someone has an interaction with, they will take the one negative experience and attribute it to all.  Intent matters to ME because I’m used to being treated like an individual, not representation of my entire perceived group.

For example:Not long ago I wrote a post about rape trees and immigrant women being denied abortion access while in custody.  In the post, I used the term “Hispanic”.  I was unaware that this was a term that is not truly appropriate.  Thankfully, I was let know in comments* that this was not an appropriate concern.  I changed it immediately but I found myself, even days later, trying to justify that term in my mind.  I felt myself getting defensive that only that part of my post was picked up on and if I came across the term in my daily experiences I would think: How was I supposed to know? It’s everywhere.  (Another example of privilege: assuming that just because something is common therefore it must be “appropriate.”).

I knew my intent behind the post and the word but in reality it didn’t matter, it still was the incorrect term.  Instead of just accepting that I used a harmful word and filing it away to remove it from my lexicon and correct others, I still struggled with being ‘corrected.’  Caring about intent is just another way of making the fight against racism, homophobia,&  transphobia about myself. It’s a way of focusing the discussion around me and how “good” I am and it shows that people who get incredibly defensive about their intent are in the fight because of how it makes them feel about themselves or look to others.  This is insulting considering that t others don’t have the opportunity to view these battles  as a “hobby” or “good deed.”  We will fuck up and I have witnessed multiple times allies fucking up on WOC blogs or posts on Trans rights and guess what: When someone gets corrected and apologizes and continues the conversation something productive happens.  However, when someone refuses to allow the conversation to continue because they need people to know that THEY ARE NOT A RACIST the conversation stops and nothing productive is happening which is exactly what an ally should not want.  There is nothing wrong with admitting that we do not know it all and may inadvertently hurt people’s feelings.  That does not mean we are not a good person, it means we are learning.  

*Disclaimer: Even while writing this post I had an attack of the privilege.  I almost typed the qualifier that the commenter was “polite” when calling out my fuck up.  By typing that I would have implied that POC and others must only be polite when calling out racism or other isms if they want to be listened to (Another silencing tool: See This Thread).  It allows the framework to be set that I would have been justified in not changing the post if it hadn’t been polite.



  1. Very thoughtful post.

  2. I agree with Whatsername that you have put a lot of thought into this post.

    Yes, you can say that ignorance is perpetuating racism, but I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself about all this. You may have had a bit of an artist’s flourish at being corrected, but just because you might find criticism hard to take it doesn’t make you a racist too. If the problem had been that you’d got some wrong information or the wrong impression and that it was really not a tree at all but a bush or a fence, and this information had been corrected, you probably would have felt the same compulsion of wanting to defend your sources and to make allowance for the limit of your knowledge, but you weren’t being discriminatory against trees…

    It’s great that you’ve taken the time to look into the reasons behind these thoughts and to consider whether you do need to change anything about your attitude.

    No one can get all of this stuff right and the fact that you intend to do things right should be enough to satisfy you. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to say “black” or “coloured” and I find it difficult to tell the difference between certain races of people, but I accept everyone on their merits, I’m friendly and tolerant to everyone and I hope that’s enough.

    It’s the people out there with sticks and guns who are the real threat to peace between the races on this earth.

  3. It’s the people out there with sticks and guns who are the real threat to peace between the races on this earth.

    I would have to disagree. Yes obviously the violence is a major problem and we should focus on police brutality or the fact that the “trans panic” defense is considered legitimate.

    But, every day that I choose to not face my privilege and analyze my actions is a day that I tell my brothers and sisters that don’t have certain privileges that their fight is not important. It’s not fighting privilege and staying blinded to my role in our racist society that allows violence to occur.

  4. Hi, yes, I see your point. Sorry I didn’t mean to be dismissive of your point, more supportive to you personally. People who are genuinely trying to do something to change the world to make it better should be encouraged in my book.

    We can only talk from our own experiences and try to be as tolerant as possible, but yes it would be best to be as accurate as possible too and to appreciate what others go through.

    Sorry I don’t speak specifically enough sometimes and that was a bit of a flippant way of wording it about the sticks and guns. Yes there is a need to combat attitude problems as well and to really get to the bottom of the way that people think and the blinkered way in which people in more privileged countries concentrate on their own lives and don’t see much beyond that.

    I think in some ways we’ve become desensitised to the struggles of other races and people in other countries precisely because there is now so much information about it. People have started to switch off to what they hear and read because they hear and read so much and because so many differing opinions are available online that unless you have personal knowledge of the situation then you don’t know what to believe.

    Some kind of information fatigue perhaps.

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