Intentions: the big issue the media misses on racism
You didn’t mean to be racist? Well, that kind of doesn’t matter
“Is it okay to point out that a singer is black in a news report if their race isn’t relevant to the story?” my lecturer asks.
Bizarrely, everyone seems unsure. In a room full of white journalists, no one wants to answer. And that seems to be a theme within the media.
A disconnect between intention and results.
When you’re a kid, there are two things you are always taught, irrespective of your culture or background:
- Don’t bite your sister
- Say sorry when you’ve hurt someone
The latter, for me at least, seems fairly simple. Intentions are always secondary to making sure that the people you cohabit this planet with don’t feel miserable. An apology isn’t an admission or guilt, or even an agreement of wrongdoing: it’s an apology. I hurt you and I didn’t want that. I understand that what I did hurt you.
So why, then, do journalists get so riled up when people from minority groups, genders or sexualities, call them out for being hurtful?
Of course, no one likes being called racist. Or sexist. Or homophobic.
But surely the bigger issue, far, far bigger than your pride, is the fact that someone in a situation where you hold the power, is hurting because of you. Defending your actions immediately, without listening to why someone is hurting, comes across as bigoted, closed-minded and weak. We’ve all done it.
Every single person, whether you are a woman, a man, bi, straight, Nigerian or Swedish, has done something that unintentionally hurt someone else. Sometimes we might feel that the offence taken was a little silly (being seen as rude for not eating carbonised broccoli) and other times, it might be too painful to acknowledge that we could potentially be just a teensy-weensy bit bigoted. I get that. I’m definitely guilty as a white woman of getting angry when someone’s called me out for being offensive. But a real learning curve for me has been learning to listen before bursting into tears.
It takes a lot to voice pain, particularly against a figure of authority or, worse, a friend. You have to put yourself on the line and risk controversy, friendship and your image. You have to risk being the butt of a joke, painted as a shrieking killjoy or even a dreaded snowflake. You have to deal with trolling, public anger and exclusion. As far back as Eartha Kitt in the 1960s, saying that something is offensive as a PoC or as a woman has been career-halting.
The individual or friend who is saying that you are hurting them is saying it for a reason. Maybe you don’t agree with whether you were offensive or not. Maybe you don’t even think that you should have to apologise. But you should at least listen. You should engage with them as someone who is speaking out about their own pain.
If you accidentally kicked a bloke in the groin, you wouldn’t respond with “Well I’m not someone who does that and I’d never want to do that.” You’d try and help them up and apologise. Your own defensiveness doesn’t help at all. I’d rather someone came forward to say what they’d learnt from the ensuing hurt than clammed up and insisted that their opponents were totally unreasonable.
Intention doesn’t matter if it results in someone’s pain. Whether it’s a broken knee, a heartbroken sob into a pillow at 3am or simply a sense of alienation at an office party, it matters.
So the next time someone calls you out on something, I’ve got a handy list for you:
- Listen. Ask them to explain or elaborate if you need it.
- Acknowledge how they are feeling. “I didn’t know you felt left out. I see that now and I get why that hurt.”
- Work out a way forward. This doesn’t mean meekly accepting their narrative, it means creating a bridge to move past something: “I’m going to take personal steps to learn from this. I’ll make sure the whole editorial team are aware that using that phrase causes a great deal of offence.”
You have so, so much power as the fourth estate. You control what people know, how they see a situation and how they move on from it. Recognise that power and recognise your role in creating a kinder, more understanding and fairer world for everyone.