Entry 62: Intent and Impact


Dear Allies,
If you are called out for a microaggression, focus on your impact, not your intent.  If you hurt someone, it does not make you bad, it makes you human. 

I have two boys, ages 7 and 11, and they fight and argue.  Over the last year, I noticed a pattern with the younger one.  When he realizes he has done something to hurt his brother, he becomes very upset.  Many times, his reaction seems disproportionately large compared to the original hurt he caused.  

As I continued to observe and reflect, I drew a parallel to what we adults may experience, when we are called out for causing a microaggression or Subtle Act of Exclusion* against a Black, Indigenous, Person Of Color (BIPOC).  [*Subtle Act of Exclusion (SAE) is a more descriptive term for microaggression that I am a huge fan of.  It was created by Dr. Tiffany Jana:   Check out more from them here or here.  ]

See if this resonates with you.  A BIPOC colleague, friend, or social media contact, points out to you that something you said or did was a microaggression, and that it made them feel invalidated, invisible, disrespected, or harmed them in some other way.   

Do any of these run through your mind?  

…What? I can’t believe they would think that.  

…But I wasn’t trying to hurt them.  

…I can’t believe they are calling me out (in public).  

…They are so oversensitive – i’ve said that to another colleague, and they never reacted that way.

…But, i’m one of the good guys… I’m not racist.  

…I’m a good person…  I wouldn’t hurt anyone.

…Or we want so desperately to ‘move on’ from their hurt, that we over-apologize. In so doing, our reaction turns the focus to ourselves instead of to the experience of the harmed person.

These reactions may demonstrate feelings of surprise, shame, guilt, disbelief.  All of these emotions are real and there are multiple reasons for these reactions.  

In many white-dominant communities, politeness is a key cultural value – when we hurt someone, we violate our own stated value of politeness, and can feel shame or guilt.

In liberal white communities, we may consider ourselves one of the ‘good guys’ (opposite of conservatives or other ‘racist people’).  If we cause harm to a BIPOC, it contradicts the self-image we have as a “good” or “moral” person.  This causes a physical dissonance and triggers the disproportionately sized response.  

And more broadly, we may suffer from perfectionism, and in our attempt, we may have a hard time accepting that we could make a mistake.   

The fact that we hurt someone does not make us bad, it makes us human.  None of us is  perfect, and we will cause harm to others over the course of our lives.

When one of my boys is an ‘initiator’ of harm on the other, I work with both of them to ‘make it right’.  

First, the ‘initiator’ listens to how the other child was hurt.  This gives the ‘harmed child’ agency to share how it impacted him (if he chooses to).  

Next, the ‘initiator’ thinks about how he might try to ‘make it right’.  Making it right could be assisting to mend the physical wound, a hug to tend to the hurt feelings, an apology with a commitment to learning from the mistake, or talking it out together until the hurt child is ready to move on.  

  • The basics are:
    • Keep the focus on the harm or impact
    • Give the harmed party agency to explain their hurt.
    • Let the initiator propose amends, that the harmed party may accept or not.
  • The additional nuance for us grown ups might include:
    • Take a breath and give yourself grace to listen and learn
    • Instead of trying to reject, disprove, bypass the other person’s experience, get curious about how the other person was impacted by your actions. 
    • If you can do it authentically, thank the person for being vulnerable and sharing their hurt with you.  
    • If you are not ready to respond from a place of caring and authenticity, ask for time to let the experience sink in.  Then, come back at a later time (only if the harmed party is willing). 

I’m hoping that with these practical lessons, my boys learn the power they have to choose their actions.  Some of those actions may cause harm, and that doesn’t contradict whether they are a ‘good person’.    

While it has been hard for the kids to accept the pain they cause others, they are also learning they have the power to make it right.  Making amends can allow forgiveness and peace (until the next time someone gets hurt, which is inevitable).  

Anti-racism is a process of un-learning habits… for all of us.