Intent vs. Impact vs. Consequences

Mural painted pink background, white swirls, orange speech bubble with words in light blue “Have Difficult Dialogues.” Seen in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District

For a long time people would, and probably still do, write a group norm that says something along the lines of “consider the intent of a person’s words,” “give grace and assume best intent,” or “assume positive intent.” Even Oprah uses the word intention when she speaks and writes. I once heard her say she tries to work and live with intention, including asking her staff members who approach her with project request or ideas “What is your intention?” If they can’t answer genuinely their idea doesn’t go far with her. Intentions are incredibly important but often a careless intention is hurtful to POCs and people hide behind their intentions without understanding the impact and accepting the consequences.

A Sign in the Bathroom

A few weeks ago I virtually “ran into” a friend I hadn’t talked to in a long while. We were catching up with each other and she told me about a hurtful incident. Her friend was in the bathroom of a hospital and came across a poster from public health telling people to be on the lookout for coronavirus symptoms (i.e., cough, fever, etc.). It also said if they were in contact with people who traveled to China, the original epicenter of COVID19, to be extra cautious. She came across this poster during a week where intense anti-Asian hate was in the media and closer to home people in our immediate circle had experienced anti-Asian racism.

My friend was deeply hurt, offended, and mad. She took the time to email contacts at public health with a picture of the signage to inquire about it. The staff person at public health replied and said it looked like the sign had been produced during the early days of COVID19, when many officials were linking COVID directly to people who traveled to China. Looking back that may all be factual, but it ignored the impact of how it bred anti-Asian hate and violence, especially since by the time COVID reached Seattle region (where the first US case was detected) it was already spreading beyond people connected to China.

The reply saying the signage was produced almost a year ago and would ask the hospital to remove it was not the response she was hoping for. It dismissed the hurtful impact of the signage, and did not acknowledge how they unintentionally contributed to anti-Asian sentiments. The not accepting of responsibility or the consequences of the inherent racism that is more visible a year later was not acceptable to my friend.

When she relayed the story to me and I saw the picture, my first reaction was “that sign is definitely old.” Like the staff person, I dismissed it at first. In talking it through I saw how the impact was deeper and the lack of accepting responsibility didn’t lead to responsibility. As Matt Halverson points out in a related piece, when this signage was produced COVID19 was well established in Italy but few public health organizations called attention to travel to Italy. Too often we brush things aside and say, “that wasn’t the intention” and we plow forward. Maybe we need to do what my friend was hoping for – accepting of responsibility for the hurt and facing up to the consequences it may have caused. I’ve also been thinking about the recovery period from COVID and the lessons we carry forward. The dismissing of the signage as old, didn’t point to what we need to learn to avoid these incidents in the next pandemic (which there will be at some point).

Impact and Consequences

I feel at times people say, “that wasn’t my intention,” and expect to be let off. They may feel bad, but it stops there. We need to beyond acknowledging intent and work towards acknowledging the impact and the consequences of actions to get closer to justice. In these situations, it is important to acknowledge the harm done and not brush it off. Acknowledgment is one piece of working to rebuild trust and rebuild the relationship that has been damaged. The people involved will also have to get into their feelings and most likely dwell in the zone of uncomfortable and unsettled feelings. Feelings are part of growth so be ok with being uncomfortable and honor that intention of growth for racial equity.

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