mother knows best… an introduction to Intent vs. Impact.

We’ve all heard it. Mother knows best. Unfortunately, I often find myself recognizing my mother’s wisdom only after having experienced the impact of ignoring it.  It is only as an adult, that I have begun to recognize the profound impact of my mother’s compassion and empathy and its connection to my life’s work as an educator and social justice advocate.  

As children, my sister and I did not love or appreciate each other as we do today.  In fact, we often did not appreciate each other’s presence at all. Our dynamic consisted of me (the older, “tougher” sister) picking on her (the younger, “sensitive” sister).  My toughest comments were along the lines of, “get over it” or “that’s stupid.” Pretty harmless, I thought. Not so harmless to my sister, and thus unacceptable to my mother.  

At the time, I could not fathom how my mother could side with her; “I didn’t mean to hurt Abby’s feelings. She was just too sensitive. My friends are way meaner to their siblings, and they don’t get in trouble.”  My mother’s consistent reply (condensed into a soundbite and minus a few angry southern mom expressions) was, “It does not matter if you meant to hurt her feelings. You did, so you are responsible. You need to apologize and watch what you say and how you say it. Her feelings are valid, no matter what you think.” I grudgingly apologized and, over time and through experiences in which I was the “overly sensitive” one, this value became one of my own. 

However, my mother’s mission to teach compassion did not stop there. She was intent on instilling in me an ability to think of the impact of my words before I spoke them. There were many instances in which I made a comment that I thought was simply an observation but quickly learned otherwise. I remember vividly such an occasion. My family and I were attending a Tennessee football game (one of our favorite activities!) in November. I was a UT student at the time, and thus had invested in an orange and white coat.  My sister, a high schooler, was wearing her purple coat. Without thinking, I said, “Abby, you’re the only one not wearing orange.” My mother immediately yelled, “Lauren Ann!” as my sister looked shocked and dropped her head in shame. Once again, my defensiveness kicked in, and I made excuses; “It’s not a bad thing! I’m just noticing. It’s not a big deal.”  It wouldn’t be for a few years that I would began to understand the implications of my comment, my sister’s and mother’s reactions, and the overarching lesson I was learning. 

Some six or so years later, I have learned the official term (as used in academic and social justice fields) for this lesson- Intent versus Impact. For some, this is an incredibly difficult concept to grasp, specifically for those of us who find ourselves in my shoes- the one constantly apologizing for words said carelessly. So, let’s break it down… 

When choosing our actions or words, we must consider the their impact. “If I say/do ____, how will the receiver of the words/actions be impacted?”  For example, had I thought about the impact of my comment to my sister, I would’ve realized the alienating, shaming, and overall icky feeling it would have caused her. Was my intent to alienate or shame her? Absolutely not. However, that was the result of my words. Thus, who is at fault? My younger sister, whose only mistake was attempting to stay warm in her only coat, or me, the older, “appropriately dressed” sister? I would say this is an easy question to answer. Me- I was at fault. But, just in case you’re not convinced, let’s look at another, even more obvious example, taken from an article on “everyday feminism” magazine. 

“Imagine for a moment that you’re standing with your friends in a park, enjoying a nice summer day. You don’t know me, but I walk right up to you holding a Frisbee. I wind up – and throw the disc right into your face. Understandably, you are indignant.

Through a bloody nose, you use a few choice words to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. And my response? “Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you! That was never my intent! I was simply trying to throw the Frisbee to my friend over there!” Visibly upset, you demand an apology.But I refuse. Or worse, I offer an apology that sounds like “I’m sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you.” Sound absurd? Sound infuriating enough to give me a well-deserved Frisbee upside the head?


Still with me? I hope so. We have two (pretty obvious, not to mention, politically neutral) examples of the precedence that Impact should take over the Intent behind our words or actions. Now let’s shift this logic to a more personally, politically, and emotionally charged issue- race and prejudice. 

**This concept can be applied to all circumstances in which a group of people, or an individual, is being mistreated; however, race is the issue about which I am most passionate, so it is what I’m choosing to address. I do not intend to neglect or diminish other forms of prejudice and oppression.**

Unfortunately, it has become a norm in our society for White people to say or do things that leave People of Color physically, emotionally, or psychologically hurt. (Need some examples? Racial MicroaggressionsNatural HairTrayvon Martin). Even more problematic, in my opinion, is the misplacement of blame. We too often focus on the Intention of the white person, rather than the Impact on the Person of ColorWe blame the Person of Color for being too sensitive to the ignorant question we ask. We call the young girl that refuses to conform to our dress code (which is based on white standards of beauty) stubborn or obstinate. We claim that Trayvon shouldn’t have been out late or acting suspiciously. 

What this causes is a continuation of mistreatment and oppression.  By justifying our actions, we are devaluing the opinions, feelings, lives, and experiences of an entire group of people. Just as my mother wouldn’t allow me to minimize or ignore my sister’s reactions to my comments, we cannot ignore the equivalent reactions of People of Color. Just as you wouldn’t excuse someone hitting you in the face with a frisbee because they didn’t mean to, we cannot excuse violence because the situation “felt threatening.” 

As the article on everyday feminism asks, “After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?”

I promised to write from a humble place, and since I feel myself moving into (righteous) indignation, I’m choosing to push pause. I realize the emotions that are stirred when we begin to delve into these issues; however, strong emotional reactions typically indicate that we are probing a subject that we desperately need to explore. So that is my request. Humbly explore this idea of Intent vs. Impact. Google it, email me for resources, converse with a trusted friend. (Please do not, however, find the person of color that is an acquaintance and ask their opinion. Think about the impact of you asking their opinion if you don’t have a certain amount of trust already established in your relationship.) 

In no way did I intend to provide a complete definition of this concept, but rather hope that you have been given the opportunity to begin to reflect on how you judge and justify your actions and words and those of others. Thank you for your genuine interest in my musings, your patience with my long winded writing style, your humility to think beyond your own experience, and (in advance for) your graciousness and consideration of the impact of your comments about this post. 


PS, Thanks Momma! 

**I do not claim authorship of the Intent vs. Impact theory. This blog is intended to a provide personal connection this theory, not claim any ownership of it.**

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