Intent and Impact

In the book club/conversation group to which I belong–Witnessing Whiteness through the YWCA here in St. Louis–we spent some time talking about intent and impact in the work of racial justice.  As a white person, I can have the best intent result in a hurtful impact.  I have been sitting with that difficult truth for some weeks, recognizing over and over places where I didn’t intend to do harm, but where harm was done.  Sometimes, in working with students at school, the same concept comes up.  “But, I didn’t mean to hurt her,” a student might say as we are working towards restoration after a conflict.  “True, but she is still hurt.”

While intent and impact have been most alive in my thoughts regarding racial reconciliation, it has also jumped into my community experience.  As a young sister, I can’t fully understand the experience of religious life of my sisters who lived before and through Vatican II and who have large numbers of sister peers.  And those sisters can’t understand what this life is like for me.  As much as we explain, as much as we listen, as much as we love one another, as much as we want the best for one another we’ll never quite get it.  And, regardless of our intent, we’ll sometimes hurt each other in what we say and do.

It would be easy for me as a white woman with good intentions to check out and give up knowing that I’ll never be able to understand the experiences of people of color and that I’ll always be working to mitigate the impact of my actions.  And it would be easy for me as a young sister to check out knowing that my dear sisters will never understand my experiences and that I’ll never understand theirs; and that, even though we love each other, we will hurt each other.

If that hurt is inevitable–if we can’t control our impact–what do we do?  We keep at it.  We listen with patience and curiosity.  We trust and give even when we don’t understand.  Ideally we have conversations before decisions are made, not after.  We check in along the way.  And we apologize, a lot.  We keep loving and we keep trying.  I know that a loving intent does not negate the impact of an action.  But maybe it allows for a little more compassion, a little more willingness to forgive, to not give up on ourselves, to not give up on each other.

I’ll keep trying if you will.  We can only do it together.

–S. Sarah