So, you’ve tripped over your privilege. You’ve said or done something, and someone has told you that your words or actions have expressed bigoted attitudes. What do you do?
Do you tell them that it wasn’t your intention? Do you claim to be offended that you’ve offended someone?
That last option is ridiculous, but it has happened, so it has to be a viable option for at least one person.
Firstly, you need to know that there is a difference between being offended on a personal level, such as if someone calls you an asshole, and experiencing harm because an ignorant person has said or done something that contributes towards the systematic oppression that you, as a member of an oppressed group, experience on an ongoing basis, such as when someone uses an ableist, racist, sexist, etc. slur to denigrate someone.
Secondly, and the focus of this post:
Intentions are not magic erasers.
If you didn’t intend to cause harm, but you did, saying that it wasn’t your intention doesn’t erase the harm that your words or actions caused.
Let me give you an example that might be easier to understand that is not related to systematic oppression which is a concept that people who hold a lot of privilege don’t seem to be able to understand:
Two nights ago, I cut my finger while I was chopping vegetables. It was never my intention to cut my finger, but my finger was still cut. If I then say “That was not my intention”, will the cut on my finger magically erase itself?
It’s the same when you cause harm; whether you intended to cause harm is completely irrelevant to the pain you’ve caused. It hurts, and no amount of good intentions is going to make it hurt less.
So, what should you do instead?
Apologise, and try to do better next time.
Obviously, apologising also doesn’t erase away the harm caused, but at least it is an acknowledgement that you realise that your actions have consequences for other people. When you say “that wasn’t my intention,” there is no acknowledgement.
Worse, when you start by saying “that wasn’t my intention” and then continue by saying “no offense intended, but…”, please just stop. Nothing good ever comes after that “but.”
It is not your fault that you hold privilege. That is something that just happens through the luck of the draw. But you need to at least be mindful that with the privilege you hold, there is a responsibility to at least be aware that you hold it.
That leads me to my third and final point: Don’t deny that you hold privilege when you do.
I hold privilege.
Even though I am Autistic, and therefore disabled, I still hold privilege. Even though I am poor, I still hold privilege. Even though I am non-binary, I still hold privilege.
Why? Because I am white. the colour of my skin means that I am free from the systematic oppression that people of colour experience. I have tripped over that privilege more than once. I have been called out on that. I have done my best to learn to do better. I may still trip over that privilege. I may still be called out on it, but the personal pain that I will experience when that happens doesn’t erase the harm that I have caused, even when it was definitely never my intention to cause harm. So, if that happens, I apologise, and I try to do better.
Realise that you hold privilege. Realise that you might (in fact, you probably will) trip over that privilege. Realise that when that happens, you will get called out on it, and then you have an opportunity to choose to apologise and do better or tell people that it wasn’t your intention and look like an asshole. Your choice.