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“But I didn’t mean to be racist.”

Intent, impact, and empathy in race relations

Published on:
February 8, 2017
Read time:
7 min.
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Once, when my son was a toddler he drew on the wall with a crayon and made a mess. When I confronted the perpetrator about his offense, he couldn’t understand why I was upset. He had, after all, intended to draw a pretty picture to please his father. 

His “intent” was not to cause damage. In fact, it was the opposite—he wanted to do something nice. That’s not really the point though. The fact is his actions resulted in a mess that had to be cleaned up. While my son focused on what he meant by his actions, I focused on what he actually did. Intentions matter, but the entire conversation changes when we talk about impact.

The distinction between intent and impact is a critical one at this time in American history. With the proliferation of videos capturing encounters between armed police and unarmed citizens, often involving white officers and black civilians, the state of race relations has once again become a topic of sustained national conversation. 

Many conversations about racial reconciliation get derailed before they can even begin because of one common misunderstanding—the failure to distinguish between intent and impact.

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The Distinction We Can’t Afford to Miss

Although intent and impact are common words, they have a particular application when it comes to race relations. Intent refers to the person or people who have spoken or acted in a way that causes harm to another. The harm is racial in nature—letting the “n-word” slip out, attributing criminality to someone’s color or culture, failing to consider the unique concerns of racial minorities, or stereotyping people of a certain racial group, for example. 

The intention of the person has to do with whether he or she planned to inflict harm out of racial prejudice. 

In all the conversations about whether a person meant to be racist, what is lost is the damage done to other image bearers.
Jemar Tisby

Impact concerns the person affected by another’s words or actions and call attention to the harm that was done. This could be an individual or a whole group of people, but the emphasis is on the injury caused by someone else. Impact puts the victim at the forefront of the conversation by seeking to understand the person’s pain, repent for causing it, and make restitution for the damage done.

When Christians talk about race, the focus often revolves around intent. If someone says or does something racially offensive, a common response is “Well, I didn’t mean it that way.” Motivations matter—brothers and sisters in the body should take care to discern whether a person’s actions display malice or ignorance. 

The problem comes when the discussion stops at intent. In all the conversations about whether a person meant to be racist, what is lost is the damage done to other image bearers.

Racial Discussions within Christianity

Our dialogues about police engagement with black civilians are tense even between brothers and sisters in Christ. Some people focus on the intent of the officers. They emphasize the split-second decisions these men and women face and, even when the most tragic outcome imaginable transpires—the killing of someone who didn’t deserve the death penalty—they point out that the officers did not act out of malice or hatred. In other words, they weren’t being racist.

On the other side, some conclude that whatever their motives, the actions of law enforcement officials caused the unnecessary death of another person. Who is right, and which perspective deserves more attention?

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Focusing on intent disregards real pain.

In a recent race-related incident in Evanston, Illinois, police officers arrested an African-American PhD student for allegedly breaking into a car. Yet it turns out the car was his own, and dash cam video showed the student cooperating with the officers before they tackled and arrested him. At the trial, the student was acquitted of all charges. 

While this could be a straightforward case of mistaken identity, the woman who called the police about the student made some revealing comments. On the released recording of the 911 call, the citizen said, “He was African-American with a black hood. . . . It looked like he was breaking into the car. . . . I don’t know if I’m racial profiling, ’cause, like, I feel bad.”

The problem is that motives only matter so much.
Jemar Tisby

In a racially-charged situation, a focus on intent is usually an attempt to assert the innocence of the one who acted. It’s a way of proving the person isn’t racist. If the person didn’t mean to be offensive then they can’t be held responsible for the results of their actions. The individual certainly can’t be accused of bigotry toward a person of another skin color.

The problem is that motives only matter so much. You don’t need to intend to hurt people to actually hurt them. What matters more, the fact that the caller didn’t intend to racially profile or that the young man was physically assaulted and wrongly arrested? 

Your answer may depend on your race. A poll conducted by Pew Research shows that 75% of white respondents thought that police treated different racial and ethnic groups equally, but just 35% of African Americans thought the same. 

In the case above, citizens, including Christians, reflexively identify with either the woman and police officers or the African-American student. Many whites would point to the woman’s benign purpose and the difficult job the officers have. They would then declare the event unfortunate, but not a case of injustice. 

Many African Americans would look at the event and, seeing themselves or someone they know in the young man, would put the assault and arrest at the forefront. They would concentrate on the violation of the man’s rights and expect justice. 

Both the woman’s intentions and the man’s experience matter, but focusing on intent over impact leaves the victim out of the conversation and the harm remains. Whatever the citizen’s motives, her actions were the catalyst for a series of traumatic events for the man. It’s certainly better that the caller didn’t mean to racially profile, but that doesn’t change what the man had to endure. If your words or actions result in harm, then that is what must be addressed. 

In my work with racial reconciliation I’ve seen divisions created or widened between black and white Christians. Much of the impasse reduces to a differing emphasis on intent or impact. While both are important, believers should highlight impact rather than intent in order to improve race relations. 

We need to make the same distinctions the Bible does. 

The Bible sets a precedent for distinguishing between intent and impact. If someone is in the forest with his neighbor cutting wood and his axe head flies off and accidentally kills his companion, then the offender may flee to a city of refuge to avoid death. The reason the killer can live is “the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past” (Deuteronomy 19:4–6). Since the man had no malice or forethought in the act that led to his neighbor’s death, he did not deserve a fatal punishment. 

On the other hand, “If anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies . . . Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel” (Deuteronomy 19:11–13). A person who plans evil earns a different punishment. Motives matter. 

But lack of malice does not remove the harm done or the need for restitution. In another biblical example, after giving instructions for all kinds of rituals, God makes a final provision for anyone who unintentionally breaks the law. Numbers 15:27 says, “But if just one person sins unintentionally, that person must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering.” Notice that the transgression is still called a sin despite the unintentional nature of the act. And the person must still bring a sin offering to make atonement. 

As an African American, I wish my white brothers and sisters in the faith understood the difference between intent and impact.
Jemar Tisby

In a similar instance, the high priest annually enters the inner sanctuary of the tabernacle with a blood sacrifice “which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people” (Hebrews 9:7). God sees every intention of the heart, but breaking the law still demands recompense.

If we apply this principle to race relations, then perhaps Christians across the color line might understand one another more deeply. 

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Focusing on intent creates empathy.

When I speak to white evangelicals about race I often encounter a strident effort to prove that one is not racist. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter whether you think you are racist. What matters is whether your words or actions caused harm.

African Americans who have endured race-based chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and inequality, as well as ongoing forms of institutional injustices, deeply understand that a person does not have to intend to discriminate racially in order for racial discrimination to occur.

As an African American, I wish my white brothers and sisters in the faith understood the difference between intent and impact. Empathy is an essential ingredient in racial reconciliation. Racial minorities must feel that others understand their pain before authentic relational bridges can be built. 

Spending too much energy indignantly proclaiming one’s innocence shows that the concern isn’t really for the one who was hurt. It tells minorities that their pain is less important than the reputation of the perpetrator. If it doesn’t seem like white Christians care as much about the harm caused as the intent of the offender, then racial dialogue will continue to flounder.

But our racial dialogue doesn’t have to flounder; it can flourish if we focus on impact. This change, and putting the experiences of the offended at the center of dialogue, requires disciplined thinking. Too many of us rush to conclusions about race-related events without giving due attention to either intent or impact. 

We have pre-formed notions about how the world operates on racial terms and we seek to confirm those notions without carefully pondering the circumstances. Training ourselves to regard the impact of an action, whatever the intent, would help Christians in the majority understand racial minorities better. 

Of course, like the biblical examples above, we can’t disregard motives. We should respond with grace and patience to a person who meant good but erred. At the same time—and this is harder for most people—we can’t let good intentions overshadow damaging effects. Racial minorities, African Americans in particular, have constantly had to express their pain and then defend it as justified in the face of the good intentions of white people. these maneuvers are exhausting and in many cases shouldn’t have to happen at all. I know firsthand.

It can be challenging to understand the impact of your own actions on other people, especially across racial lines. If you haven’t personally experienced the damage caused by racial biases, it will be difficult to understand when minorities talk about their pain. But in humility we should seek to feel with our brothers and sisters who have been harmed due to racial stereotypes. We have to attempt to empathize with the “other.”  

Next time a race-related event happens in the public or your personal life, pause and consider both intent and impact. Do your best to discern whether malice or prejudice played a part. But go further. Consider the impact on the offended party. “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Think of the long history of African-American suffering in the United States and the countless instances when black pain was minimized or ignored. Determine to break the pattern of self-justification by elevating empathy over indignation.

Only when our love for unity outpaces our love for self will we create opportunities for meaningful racial reconciliation.

Jemar Tisby
Jemar Tisby is the president of The Witness, a Black Christian Collective where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also the co-host of the Pass the Mic podcast. He is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism. His writing has been featured on Urban Faith, Christianity Today, and the Christian Research Journal, and he has spoken nationwide at conferences on racial reconciliation, US history, and the church. Jemar is currently a PhD student in History at the University of Mississippi. He is a member of Presbyterian Church in America, is married, and has one child. Follow him on Twitter@JemarTisby.
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Cover image by Brittany Fan.

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