“I’m sorry if…”
“I didn’t mean to offend…”
“I didn’t intent to hurt anyone…”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“I’m not racist. My best friend is (fill in the blank)…and I love eating (fill in the blank)…”
It’s not your intention. It’s how messages are received and interpreted in the present and later as history. If intention was the problem, sins of the father and mother like slavery and genocide wouldn’t be an issue because I’m told folks back in the day really, honestly, truly believed with no malice that White was right. And some slave owners were doing what was required of them to make a living, right? They didn’t intend to create an unjust, unequal system that generations later remains broken. Lots of harm, but no foul because they didn’t intend harm, right?
No. NO! Wrong! WRONG!
Yet the defense of ignorant – if not racist, racially-insensitive, questionable, unwise, or just “interesting” – comments, reactions, behaviors, etc. often go straight to intent, as if that covers all sins.
Take for instance Madonna, who posted a photo of her son on Instagram with a caption using the “N” word. Madonna didn’t intend to cause controversy (though at this point in her career it can only help, right?) but that’s not the point. Who uses the “N” word as a term of endearment for her White son? What kind of endearment did she intend? What world does Madonna live in that has blinded her so completely from the racial, political, and cultural issues surrounding the “N” word and excludes her from paying the consequences?
She lives in a majority culture world that is changing and giving voice and space (or perhaps voice and space is being taken up) by those who are tired of being told that intent is all that matters.
How is this for a change: I know that some of the things I say and write will offend some of you. My voice, my perspective, my point of view, my tone may cause some dissonance, confusion, and defensiveness because it’s not what you expected, different from what you believe or see or feel. I know that sometimes we will agree, but I also know that sometimes you will be offended because sometimes I am going to call you out on your stuff. And, if you are in relationship with me, you will do the same.
As a Christian, I often am told in so many ways that my outrage over issues of race, ethnicity and gender should be tempered and quieted because my first posture should be of understanding and listening.
But as an Asian American woman, my entire life has been about understanding, learning, adopting, and adapting to the ways of the majority culture. I was born into a world that awarded me when I assimilated – when I untangled my tongue and learned to speak English at the expense of twisting my Korean tongue, when I brought peanut butter and jelly sandwiches instead of rice and soup to lunch (but now sushi and pad thai are cool so we’re all cool), when I despised the smell of my home even though it was the only place to go when I was chased down the street by boys screaming, “Chink, go back to where you came from!”, when I learned to sing the hymns in English and stand respectfully in the pews.
Dare I say I wouldn’t have made it this far if I had not been such a good student of understanding and learning?
And yet over and over, I and others, who don’t have the luxury to be colorblind because we have paid the price for other’s blindness and whitewashing, are told to learn, that our taking offense is actually our fault, our lack of information and intelligence.
Christianity Today/Her.meneutics contributer Anna Broadway does exactly that in her recent piece, “Picture This: A Closer Look at Mindy Kaling’s Elle Cover” when she tries to quell the outrage and educate the outraged.
“I can only imagine how much richer and more intelligent the conversation might have been were visual arts education more widespread.” (my emphasis in bold)
I’m not as educated in the visual arts, but I do know the difference between Instagram and film, thank you very much. I bristle at the tone and the assumption that understanding the visual arts happens in some sort of cultural and social vacuum completely void of racial, cultural, ethnic, social and gendered impact and influence.
And seriously, (unless you are younger than I am) am I really the only one who would look at this series of cover photos and not start singing:
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
Sure, maybe it wasn’t the intention of the cover editor at Elle to let all the White women stand up and have both face and torso photoshopped into perfection and have Mindy cut down to a glamour shot. Maybe it wasn’t their intention to raise the eyebrows of more than one outraged critic to wonder why the one woman of color is the only woman whose photograph is not in color.
But at some point, the student observes and learns to question and speak. We see patterns and gaps. We see the repetition or the absence. And I don’t know about you, but some of us are tired of being told to forgive based on intent, to keep learning about visual art or about what other people intend.
I am all for learning but I don’t think I’m the only one who needs to learn.