Compassionate rational people meet upset and traumatized people where they are to help them. They don't go on about how this other person's trauma isn't valid or not important or that your intent is more important than their trauma. Whatever happened, is important - to them. And that is what matters to them in the moment.
Now, let's apply these same skills to discussions about racism and sexism and whatever else -ism.
I recently responded to a post by Heterodox Academy. Heterodox Academy is a group of 5,000+ professors, administrators, K-12 educators, staff & students who believe diverse viewpoints & open inquiry are critical to research & learning. https://heterodoxacademy.org/
They posted this essay in newsweek from one of their members. https://www.newsweek.com/when-it-comes-fighting-racism-intentions-context-matter-opinion-1582459
It's a good essay and nuanced. I responded to the pull out quote out of context which was, ""A major tenet of anti-racist activism is that intentions don't matter. When an individual speaks a word or asks a question, whether he or she meant to hurt listeners' feelings or to enact a racial microaggression—or to engage in good-faith dialogue—is irrelevant. The impact on listeners is all that should be addressed..."
I disagree as I don't think that intentions don't matter to anti-racist activists. I think the statement itself is a flawed assumption. Intentions do matter, but may be irrelevant as what is being said may be a factual matter.
Here is my response.
I'm not sure the first sentence is true. It may be how people who are told - something they said or did is racist - experience it. But that's not necessarily the intent of the person pointing it out. I think it's a communication problem and it stems from being too defensive to listen and understand. What if we reframe this into - this is constructive criticism and not an attack?
I know from my own personal experience that the first time I experienced this, I was a complete idiot. At the time, some really nice people tried to explain to me why the way I understood what was being said wasn't what they were actually saying at all. And I still didn't get it and couldn't hear it properly. The problem was I was translating what they were saying into an attack on me and that wasn't what they were saying at all. At the time, I didn't get it though I appreciated their obvious intent to help me understand. The problem was that I was too busy defending myself to listen to what they were actually saying. And my defensiveness was TOTALLY unnecessary and counter productive.
What I understand now is that they were assuming was that I was a good person and that I wanted to be an ally to them and that I would want to know that I was accidentally saying something racist that I had no idea was racist because I didn't know the history of whatever it was. They were providing me constructive feedback. I experienced it as - they don't care that I'm a good person and my intent wasn't' racist at all. What I didn't understand is that they already knew about my context and intent. This wasn't the first time they experienced this sort of thing. It was my first time experience it. Not theirs.
Now for some loving truth. You simply don't give constructive feedback to people who have bad intentions. I think the overwhelming majority of anti-racist activists understand intentions matter and are assuming the people they are talking to would want to know they are saying something - racist and would want to know more. The problem is, keeping the person you are giving constructive feedback to, from getting defensive. If you have an image of yourself as a good person and someone says, whoa, that wasn't good, it's natural to get defensive. And when it comes to matters of racism, we should all acknowledge that there is simply no good way to tell a family member or friend that they are sharing Lost Cause propaganda without them feeling attacked. And yet, it wouldn't be kind to let them continue without correction.
You know they are not racist. You know them to be a good loving person. Someone who would never knowingly share KKK originated propaganda that's been used by white supremacists for over a century. And yet, they just did. Their intent is totally irrelevant at this point because they did just shared well known and historically documented racist KKK propaganda. Good intentions don't mean racist propaganda isn't racist propaganda. That's just a statement of fact. But ... people respond to being told that what they just shared was KKK propaganda as if they are being attacked. That is how they experience receiving this factual information.
The reality is, they aren't being attacked. They are being treated as well intentioned allies who made a mistake and are being given constructive factual and historical feedback.
So - to answer the question - why doesn't intent matter when we are talking about racism, sexism or other forms of oppression? Because it's irrelevant when we are talking about a factual historical matter. To deny the historical facts, is to deny history and reality.
The correct way to respond to being told you made a mistake in this area, is to apologize and correct it. This goes for all sides. It's about listening and not centering your anxiety or dignity violations in the conversation, but instead, learning about the dignity violations the other person experienced as a way to understand where they are coming from.
At this point, someone responded and asked a question that was centered on their own sense that their dignity had been violated by someone telling them, they had caused harm.
Here is what they wrote to me:
Granted, racist propaganda is racist propaganda regardless of the speaker's intent. But are all alleged "microaggressions" necessarily racist/sexist...etc. regardless of the speaker's intent? I don't think so. Usually, those sorts of speech acts admit of perfectly innocuous interpretations, which activists are dismissing out of hand.
ex. One time at trivia night, I noticed that one of my female teammates was reading, comprehending, and answering the trivia questions faster than I could even read them. Which struck me as pretty damned impressive (for anybody), so I asked "Wow, how do you read so fast?" She interpreted my question as "Wow how do you [a mere woman] read so fast?" and got pretty indignant.
Do I owe her an apology for my sexism regardless of the fact that that was not what I was asking?