We’re all familiar with the people who tell you outright that they hold hateful opinions towards oppressed groups. But for every blatantly malicious bigot, there are 10 people who “meant well” or “didn’t mean it like that” or “had good intentions” when they said or did something that actually had a harmful effect on a member of an oppressed group. You have probably been one of those people at some point in your life. This excuse is used so frequently that it’s hard to see a single online argument about social justice without someone having to explain that good intentions does not negate or remedy impact.
CN: general discussion of oppressive social dynamics, brief discussion of misgendering
While theoretically, it is better to unintentionally harm than to do so maliciously, “having good intentions” can actually be used as a tool of oppression. It’s not just a social accident. It actually helps reinforce existing oppressive structures.
How “Good Intentions” Are Typically Used
Let’s say you are pushing your grocery cart through the store, and while you are distracted, you accidentally run into a person hard enough to knock them down. They yell “OW! HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!” The natural and kind response in this instance is to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, are you okay? Let me go get help.” Right?
Of course, you didn’t injure them intentionally. But the fact that you didn’t intend to hurt them has nothing to do with how hurt they ended up being after you hit them. Regardless of your intentions, you’re still responsible for their injury. You messed up, it’s on you to try to make the situation better.
That’s how you would expect such a social interaction to happen in the context of an acute physical injury. But if someone uses a slur, uses dehumanizing language, misgenders someone, or states an opinion that does serious harm to an oppressed group, and you, the oppressed person, decide to speak up that this action is really hurtful to you, what happens?
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“That’s not how I use that word.”
“I’m sorry you took it that way.”
“Hey, go easy on them. Obviously, their intentions were good. There’s no use getting on their case about it.”
“It’s not that big of a deal. Why are you acting so upset?”
“Really??? You think I’m racist/sexist/ableist because I said [racist/sexist/ableist thing]? Wow. Maybe you should focus your energy on the real bigots.”
There are a few patterns to notice in these responses:
- Responsibility for the action is evaded or deflected. Even though they were the one who said a harmful thing, they don’t accept that it’s their job to mend the harm or even that they did anything wrong.
- The severity of the harm is minimized or ignored. In most of these conversations, the person doing the harm never acknowledges just how much damage their comment could cause. They believe it’s “just a word” or “just a joke” or otherwise dismiss explanations of how serious the problem is.
- The person who was harmed and spoke up about it is saddled with all the responsibility. They are blamed for causing a conflict, for being divisive, for having too big of an emotional response, and, most importantly, for not being more compassionate toward the person who hurt them.
Now, imagine you were the person being hit with that grocery cart, you get knocked down and you feel a searing pain in your leg like something is seriously wrong and you yell “OW! HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOING!” But the person responds with “Oh, you know I didn’t mean to hit you. I would never hit you on purpose. Why are you still upset? Calm down,” or “Get over it. I barely touched you,” or “Wow. Maybe you should focus your criticism on people who are actually physically abusive,” or “It really hurts my feelings that you think I would just run you over intentionally. I’m doing my best. You should really have more patience when people slip up and run you over.”
That would be terrible, right? But unfortunately, this kind of defensiveness is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to being corrected on social justice issues.
This pattern is made even worse when there are multiple members of the privileged group who side with the person doing the harm. The oppressed person is pressured on multiple fronts to drop their complaint and “focus on the good” rather than jumping to the worst conclusions about people. “[Person who hurt you] is a good person. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. Can’t you offer them some understanding and patience instead of jumping down their throat?”
How “Good Intentions” Reinforces Oppressive Dynamics
There is an additional layer of problems behind what we can already see as rude and dismissive behavior.
When someone says “I/they meant well” they are usually reinforcing the idea that you shouldn’t be as upset as you are, that you should offer some compassion to the person who messed up, that you should give them the benefit of the doubt. Where have we heard that phrase before?
Expecting Benefit of the Doubt
In Explaining Privilege Part 4, I detail the three biggest benefits that privilege gets you regardless of merit: Assumed competence, un-earned credibility, and benefit of the doubt.
“When it comes to people with privilege, we’re more likely to come up with a story to explain bad behavior in a positive light: They must have a good reason, maybe they know something they don’t, they must know what they’re doing, maybe they’re just [rational explanation here].”
A big side effect of this benefit is a lack of accountability. By putting the focus on someone’s intentions rather than the impact of their actions, the members of the privileged group are skirting accountability for their actions and asking for their actions to be seen in the best possible light even if that isn’t merited. They are asking for credit and appreciation not only for something they didn’t actually do but for something they did the wrong way. How many trans and genderqueer folks have heard, “Hey, I’m trying, okay? That should count for something,” when someone misgenders you for the 10th time that day? “But they had good intentions” means “please treat them as if they did everything right, even though they didn’t.”
They are saying, “please continue treating me with the level of privilege that I have, because, regardless of my actual actions, I deserve that treatment.”
Ignoring the Larger Social Context of Contributing to Oppression
If you have been confronted about something you said being harmful to marginalized groups, and you read the grocery cart example, you may have had the thought, “But what I said wasn’t that bad. Like, it wasn’t great but it’s not like it seriously hurt them.”
This is a pretty natural response to have. But are you sure that it’s accurate?
As mentioned earlier, one of the patterns in the common “good intentions” responses is downplaying the severity of the harm that was done. Regardless of whether the person who messed up genuinely doesn’t understand the depth of the problem they are contributing to, this behavior is part of the larger patterns that I talk about in “The Problem with Misrepresenting Oppression as Just Part of Life”:
“The conflation of a life difficulty and an instance of oppression happens when people define oppression as an individual action intending to hurt or undermine you rather than a widespread cultural attitude that will be encouraged and enforced no matter where you go.”
In so many of these situations, the harmful act is seen as a one-off thing rather than what it really is: part of a huge systemic problem.
You may have heard the phrase, “death by a thousand paper cuts.” It’s used to describe the impact that microaggressions have on members of oppressed groups. Each individual “cut” isn’t so bad by itself. It only hurts a little and it’ll heal in a few days. But when you receive thousands of them and you keep getting them every day, you suffer a great deal of pain, your health is much more at risk, and you’re never able to fully heal.
In the same way, microaggressions (subtle or indirect behaviors that reinforce oppressive systems) injure members of oppressed groups constantly and consistently over time. You’re not the first person to ever misgender your trans friend. You are the 300th person. Maybe the 1000th person. Maybe the 10th person today. Your action weighs more when it’s stacked up on top of everyone’s misbehavior.
By encouraging someone to chalk it up to “good intentions,” we are reinforcing the idea that the harm oppressed people experience is not real or serious, which lets us, the ones who messed up again, let ourselves off the hook.
This excuse also denies that this problem behavior is part of a larger issue. People who rely on this excuse are separating themselves from the problem of racism or sexism or whatever form of bigotry they participated in. They can’t contribute to those problems because they’re not a racist or a sexist or etc. Their mistakes “don’t count.” And in some cases, the people who rely the most on “good intentions” to get them out of their mistakes are also the people who are repeat offenders and have made those same mistakes before.
Diverting Resources Away from the True Problem
When a conversation about social justice turns from identifying the problematic behavior to defending the intentions of the person who did it, it’s also derailing from the real issue. More from The Problem with Misrepresenting Oppression:
“Let’s say that during a discussion about racial discrimination, I claimed that individual black people being distrustful of me, a white person, is just as much of a problem as institutional racism toward people of color.
Rather than directing awareness and energy toward fixing a serious problem that doesn’t affect me, I’d be centering myself and my own problems. I’d effectively be asking for that energy to be directed toward me, even if my problem was a one time issue and not a culture-wide system that’s been used for thousands of years. By centering myself in a conversation that’s not about me, I’m saying that my problems are the most important and that we should stop spending time focusing on people far more vulnerable than me. As long as we’re talking about me, a privileged person, we are also neglecting the suffering of marginalized people.”
If I direct a conversation toward defending myself and insisting that what I actually meant is the true meaning, I’m ignoring the real problem and instead, acting as if the “real” problem is the marginalized person “wrongly” accusing me of bigotry. I’m asking people to spend resources on comforting me instead of on rectifying the problem that I contributed to.
Expecting Marginalized People to be Peace Keepers
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this oppressive dynamic is the idea that a marginalized person should not be allowed to speak out about their own mistreatment. In social situations, marginalized people are largely expected to reduce friction, to ease the discomfort of the more privileged members, to keep the peace. This requires marginalized people to stay silent about all sorts of micro and macroaggressions, all the time and allows privileged people to hide behind ignorance.
When a marginalized person expresses that they are hurt and the privileged person relies on “good intentions” to get them out of the consequences of their actions, they are also enforcing the expectation that the marginalized person should be prioritizing the needs of the privileged person, that it’s their job to be patient and kind and understanding and never complain about how they are treated. They are saying, “I’d like to continue this thing we had going where I get to say what I want and you go along with it; where I’m happy and you just let everything roll off your back. I liked it better that way.” After all, it’s a lot easier to mistreat people who never tell you that you have hurt them.
Denying the Importance of Constructive Conflict
If someone having good intentions behind their mistake always leads to forgiveness for the person who messed up and always leads to accusing the wronged person of overreacting, then no harm can ever be bad enough to merit the marginalized person’s distress as long as the offending party “didn’t mean it.” Any expressions of anger or hurt from the marginalized person are therefore denied validity and labeled as “bad behavior” or “impolite” or “being difficult.” Their outrage is never treated as justified or productive, only destructive, while well-intentioned mistakes are treated as effort in the right direction.
If every mistake is unintentional, then none of them get addressed, no progress is made, and any resulting conflict is blamed on the marginalized person who spoke up.
Because of all these factors at play, when someone uses “good intentions” as the excuse for bad behavior with regards to social justice, they are actually using their privilege and your oppression to keep things more comfortable for them and harder for you. Their excuse plays into the exact same dynamics that their original hurtful behavior did. The excuse does not reduce the severity of the harm. It actually makes it worse.
Ironically, These Patterns Are Also Unintentional
There are certainly some figures who hold positions of privilege who lean on “good intentions” as a manipulative tool. But despite how many oppressive patterns this excuse plays into, for many of the people who use it, well, that’s not intentional! Most people don’t go into these conversations with Mr. Burns fingers, saying to themselves, “Wahaha, I shall say that my intentions were good and thereby reinforce the social hierarchy that keeps me on top!!!”
Most of them are repeating unconscious socialization that they’ve learned from watching how the people around them act. They’ve absorbed the idea that it’s the natural and normal way of things for them to get the benefit of the doubt and that people who have less power than them should be working to offer them compassion. It’s not calculated. People just do it, thinking that they’re doing the right thing. They aren’t thinking in terms of the larger picture.
Many of them also have been explicitly taught that blatant and malicious bigotry is the only kind there is. It simply doesn’t compute that they are capable of the same level of harm as the people using well-known slurs and committing hate crimes because they don’t actually want to hurt anybody.
But wanting to avoid hurting other people is not enough. Your intentions do not matter. Your actions and their impact do. If you have done harm, however unintentionally, you need to address it. If possible, you need to repair the fall-out and make the changes necessary to avoid the same problem occurring again. You have to actually adjust your behavior and step out of the old comfortable dynamics if you want to be committed to real change.
What Should You Do Instead?
Being a good ally is a lifelong practice and includes a set of skills that deserve their own series of articles. But here are a few key things to try if you find yourself thinking “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that” when someone flags for you that something you said or did was harmful.
Let’s say, someone has just left a comment on something you posted on social media that says, “Hey, this post is actually really [insert form of bigotry here] because [reasons]. I’m really sad that you are sharing stuff like this and I hope you’ll consider taking it down.”
First: Stop. Take a breath. It’s normal to feel defensive. Studies have shown that humans perceive having their beliefs challenged as a threat to their survival. But you are not in danger. Notice if your heart is racing or your breathing is short. Try to take a second to reset.
Second: Consider your goal. What’s the most important outcome of this conversation? To be right? To be seen publicly as a good person? For this specific person to think you are ethical and trustworthy? To minimize harm? To learn more information about an unfamiliar perspective? Choose your goal consciously to avoid reacting automatically out of fear.
Third: Decide what you need to do in order to genuinely absorb what this person is trying to tell you. Do you need to step away for a while? Do you need to ask questions? Do you need to take the conversation offline?
Fourth: Offer a real apology and then communicate what your plan for next steps is.
A sample script might look like this:
“This was new information to me. I’m so sorry that my post hurt you. I would like to understand where I went wrong a little better because this is new and obviously I have a lot more to learn than I thought I did. Would you be up for telling me more about [part of topic you’re confused about]?”
Fifth: Listen. If you make a request and the wronged party says no, accept it with grace. Consider doing some googling to see if you can find answers to your questions. If they do offer answers, acknowledge them but don’t contribute your additional perspective on them. Get out of “output” mode and into “receiving” mode. Keep your responses minimal, and thank them for investing time and energy in your learning process.
Sixth: Sit with your discomfort. Social justice includes hundreds of years of tragedies on a global scale. It is painful to learn about the realities that have been hidden from you. Don’t try to get rid of the feelings of grief, anger, or shame if you are facing how your actions have contributed to these problems. Move through and process them on your own. If you need support from another person to do so, do not solicit it from the person you harmed. Find another trusted friend or member of your support system, preferably not one from the marginalized group you just wronged.
If your impact and your intentions get misaligned, they can be re-aligned. But that adjustment has to come from you, not from the person who has reflected to you what your impact was.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.