I have become deeply tired of hearing about ‘intention’. It seems these days that despite the ample, exhausting, dangerous and countless examples we see of racism throughout Australia – within the media, justice systems, politics, and more…somehow no one is actually racist. Really, surely, believe them all – they are not racist, they themselves absolutely, surely deplore racism, and are horrifyingly offended that you would even imply that they have been racist.
It does not matter that race is clearly a key factor in whatever the act, statement, or creation is.
It does not matter that there is a legacy of racism attached to such behaviours, statements, or creations.
It does not matter that people belonging to that minority group are pointing out that it is offensive, and indeed racism.
When race is raised, when racist acts are being unpacked, or called out, so often we are thrown the line that the act of racism ‘well it was not my intention’ and somehow, therefore, it is not racist.
How is this actually supposed to work?
Okay, perhaps it was not your ‘intention’ to offend, to cause harm, but it has now been brought to your attention that you did offend, you have caused harm. How you respond now, to being told you have created harm, should surely matter more than whatever claim you make about your original intention.
When called out, ignorance ceases to be an ongoing plausible excuse, so where do you go from here?
If you choose to double down, to argue with the people who would know, who have taken the time to raise it with you, if you choose to insist that original intention is the only valid factor, I must ask – why is this a plausible or acceptable position to take?
Where else in this world, in this society, does ‘intention’ mitigate the harm caused? Or dismiss the need for accountability for the act in the first place? Certainly not in civil or criminal law. If you are found to be speeding, claiming you ‘intended’ to be under the speed limit does not negate the imposing of a fine.
If you are playing cricket and break your neighbours window – does a lack of intention to break it negate the need to fix the window? Or mitigate your responsibility to be the one to do the fixing? Nope, that window still needs fixing, and it didn’t break itself.
I have been thinking on this a lot lately, we see the excuse of ‘intention’ whipped out so quickly when it comes to racism. As though unless you are wearing KKK robes you can’t possibly be doing something racist.
Whether you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, engaging in tropes which have caused significant harm (e.g. black face), or discriminating against a student in your class or lecture/tutorial. If someone draws your error, and the harm it causes, to your attention – why are you so empowered to not only disagree, but to impose your feelings on the matter as the correct ones?
Somehow this idea that if you are continuing acts steeped in racism and historical legacy of harm, e.g. (mis)appropriating culture, profiting from theft, repeating it, broadcasting it, you can’t possibly be racist – if you say that it was not your ‘intention’.
So end of conversation.
This was the case recently with the horrid, misogynistic and racist cartoon Mark Knight drew of Serena Williams, and which was published by the Herald Sun. With immediate backlash, we saw people and brands race straight to the ‘ignorance’ and ‘intention’ lines. Which was also the case when Bill Leak created and published in The Australian his horrid cartoon depicting Aboriginal men as drunks, and negligent Fathers.
It’s the excuse given when we see brands and businesses taking Indigenous designs, terms, and practices, (mis)appropriating them, and selling them for their own profit. As we saw with Sephora last month, Kmart constantly with DreamCatchers and Tipis, and at so many markets and stores around this land.
It’s the excuse we are given when black people die in police custody, when black children die at the hands of white people, as we saw with Elijah Dougherty. When justice is miscarried, and the systems we are bound to, fail us. Always we are thrown the ‘intention’ line. Somehow a claim of good intentions, is supposed to be enough.
Josh Frydenberg on Q&A recently claimed ‘there is no shortage of good intention’ when it comes to the parliament and politicians working with and including Indigenous people. I would argue that there is no shortage of claims of good intention, there is certainly little actual action or evidence of decent intention.
When Sunrise aired their factually incorrect, racist segment on Indigenous children and foster care earlier this year, they refused to apologise when countless people brought to their attention the harm they were causing and the lies they were spreading. Even now, after the ACMA have ruled that Sunrise breached the Code, and
‘found that the segment provoked serious contempt on the basis of race in breach of the Code as it contained strong negative generalisations about Indigenous people as a group. These included sweeping references to a ‘generation’ of young Indigenous children being abused. While it may not have been Seven’s intention, by implication the segment conveyed that children left in Indigenous families would be abused and neglected, in contrast to non-Indigenous families where they would be protected’.
Channel 7 and Sunrise will not apologise, and are doubling down, claiming that it is ‘Political Correctness gone mad’.
‘The ACMA found that the introduction to the segment claiming Indigenous children could ‘only be placed with relatives or other Indigenous families,’ was inaccurate and in breach of the Code. The licensee explained that this repeated a statement from a newspaper of the day. However, the ACMA considered that Seven should have taken steps to verify the accuracy of this claim before it was used as the foundation for a panel discussion’.
Funny how when ‘it’ harms and threatens First Peoples, or People of Colour – THEN protesting or calling it out, well then its just that damn old ‘Political Correctness’, it is madness, and should be dismissed….
But when ‘it’ challenges, and threatens the status quo which white people benefit from, such as young Harper choosing to sit during the Australian Anthem – THEN the politicians and media are free to rather violently call for this young child (age 9) to be physically harmed, expelled from school, and worse, and that this response rather than being ‘political’ anything is marketed instead as ‘patriotism’ and ‘respect’…
It’s disgusting, and it’s exhausting. And that exhaustion is what those who benefit from the status quo, from maintaining the current power structures, and oppressions, rely on.
What do your claims of intention matter, when we must continue to live with the ongoing consequences of your systems, your actions, your harm.
It is the excuse when people insist on their right to create and sell ‘Golliwog’ dolls. If they, as a white person looking to profit via either finance and/or reputation, say they ‘did not intend’ racism, then offense is somehow not allowed to be taken at their creating, selling, and displaying items they have repeatedly been told cause harm.
When I see a conference program, publicising inappropriate cultural practice, and bring it to their attention, I am told ‘I didn’t know’. Okay, well why didn’t you know – if you are writing it, why didn’t you know? If you were unsure, then why didn’t you speak to someone before writing about culture in a document you knew you would be distributing? Why didn’t you even look this up on Google (for example)?
When you have power and influence to wield, then it is your responsibility to know better. You should pause before you go selling or branding using First Peoples designs, culture, and terms – is it your right to do so? Is collaboration, intellectual copyright consideration, consultation needed?
If you have gone ahead and the deed is done, now what? Well to start with – You should listen when someone points out your error. But so often it seems to me that when someone has the power, they don’t bother to listen to those without the power, because what are the consequences to them, to their people, to their family? Rarely anything.
When you air, publish, distribute, and create in ways which cause harm, your intention as a white person, in a system which privileges whiteness, covers you. And leaves those damaged by your work, to fix themselves.
If you are in a position where you hold power, whether its creating formal documents which are distributed to others who hold power (e.g. text books, programs, etc.), a globally powerful brand creating items to sell, a social media influencer crafting a caption to match their photo to show to your hundreds of thousands of followers, you need to take your responsibility, and recognise the need for you to be accountable. If you are going to use words, artwork, designs, practices, which involve First Peoples, or People of Colour, and you know or hope that what you create will be influence, and be received by many then you need to consider that what you create, the service you provide, the posters you make, the artwork and culture you plan on (mis) appropriating, can be incredibly harmful.
You do not exist in a vacuum. Know the ancestry of your acts, know the environment and people it impacts.
If you are told you have gotten it wrong, then don’t scream out about whatever your original intentions may have been. Listen. Be willing to learn. It is exhausting taking the time to educate people, consider that this person contacting you – it may have cost them emotionally, psychologically etc. to do so.
You are being gifted an opportunity, embrace it, learn from it, grow, improve, and reflect on what your ongoing intentions are.
And if your intention is to not cause harm, then consider this…
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
You have been gifted an opportunity to know better, so listen, and know you can do better.