The Bad Excuse of Good Intentions

I want to talk about accountability today. Because I think most people agree that taking accountability is a good thing. But I also think a lot of people have some problematic ideas of what taking accountability actually means. I think a lot of people struggle with doing it. I think a lot of people don’t look past their own privilege when it comes to expressing their accountability. And I think a lot of people use a form of false accountability to protect their own feelings above the feelings of others. And when that happens, nothing is solved. The damage and trauma isn’t helped. And nothing truly changes.

I try to follow people on Twitter who speak out about social justice, but I’ve started to notice a trend. There are people who regularly make amazing points to defend a group that they belong to. They excel at calling out others who are engaging in toxic behaviors. But when they themselves misstep, and are called out for it, they immediately fall back to defensiveness. They frequently double down on their mistake, even while they claim to be apologizing. And they often attempt to flip the script, and portray themselves as the victim, rather than acknowledging that they’ve done something wrong.

All of this leads to a constant swirl of accusations and defensiveness, and it is ultimately futile. Disproportionate systems remain that way, and people who attempt to speak out about their own experiences with oppression are left feeling exhausted and hurt.

Like most topics, this is a huge one, and this is just my first crack at it. But let’s talk about some basic and important concepts when it comes to true accountability.

Well, I didn't mean to push you off the ledge!

1) Intent is not as important as you think.

Cards on the table. This one is mostly for us white folks.

White people, I need to let you know something important. Chances are that you think intent is significant when someone’s made a mistake. You give intent a lot of weight. And you speak about intent a lot when you are trying to take accountability.

As an example, just this week we saw a statement by Joe Biden after a Democratic assemblywoman complained about his behavior at a campaign event.

“In many years on the campaign trail and in public life, I have offered countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort. And not once — never — did I believe I acted inappropriately. If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”

You’ll see this again and again in public apologies, especially from white people. But I have to tell you that when it comes to the various cultural perspectives on accountability, people of color do not care about your intent as much as you do. They care about impact.

They have to. When you are part of a culture that is routinely oppressed, harassed, and even killed for your skin color, why on earth should you give any weight to someone’s intent? You are trying to survive.

And this isn’t only a difference in racial perspectives. You’ll see the intent defense pulled out a lot by members of a dominant group when talking about hurt to a marginalized group. There’s a reason it’s used this way. Deliberate or not, it’s a strategy.

Yes, there are people who do intend to do harm. And yes, it’s better to be someone who has make a mistake rather than wanting to do deliberate damage.

But the key takeaway is that if you’re going to take accountability, stop and think before you use the word intent. Consider whether your feelings are really what need to be centered here. And make sure you talk plenty about impact.

It was a mistake! Why are you being so angry?! *sniffle*

2) No one is calling you a bad person.

Ok, truth be told, if you’re being called out online, there may be some people who call you a bad person, and probably worse. There’s a lot of really unpleasant people online. But this isn’t about them.

So many people have black and white definitions of what makes a person good or bad. Our culture tells us racism is bad, so if I’m called out for doing something racist, then I’m being called bad. It’s an immature and defeatist way of looking at it, and it sidelines us from the real issue.

I’ve mentioned before an amazing training I went to on Undoing Racism. And in that training, I realized that I’m racist.

I’m not racist because of any deliberate actions or choices I make. I don’t ever consciously do anything to target a person of color. I’m racist because I am of European descent and have pale skin within a system that affords me privileges because of it. I’m racist because I get to walk through the world without noticing the micro and macro aggressions that people of color have to face every time they leave their home. I’m racist because, regardless of intention (which doesn’t matter), I am sure I have still hurt people of color with something I have said or done, and I have faced no consequences for it.

Does this make me a bad person? Of course not. I’m still compassionate, kind, empathetic, and outspoken. I still care about social justice and making things better for all people. Admitting that you have done or said something racist, is not admitting you are a bad person. There is absolutely zero reason to get defensive about it.

So if a Black woman comes to me and tells me that I hurt her by something I’ve said and done, she’s not calling me a bad person. She’s not telling me she hates me. And I sure as heck should not respond by making myself the victim.

This is my opportunity to give a genuine apology and to promise to do better. I owe her that much.

Hey, pushes happen!

3) Passive voice is a copout.

Quick grammar lesson, for those of us who haven’t been through English in a while. Active voice is when a subject performs an action, i.e. “I made a mistake.” Passive voice is when a subject receives an action, i.e. “Mistakes were made”.

Now I’m not going to join the debate of the use of passive voice as a general writing technique. I think there are plenty of times it’s appropriate, and plenty of times it’s not.

When it comes to accountability, it’s not. Passive voice, and other grammatical cheats are a common way to pretend to take responsibility, while avoiding true accountability.

Oof, this one gets me mad.

Around the time I had decided to quit my job, payroll informed me that they had made a huge mistake with my pay. Now I like to joke that it was the Universe supporting my decision and telling me it was time to go, but at the time it was extremely stressful. It was due to human error, it had been ongoing, and and not only did they handle the whole thing terribly, the manager did a horrible job at taking accountability.

Honestly, all I wanted to hear was that they were truly sorry, and would do better in the future. I was luckily able to handle the impact to my finances, but I was also aware that there were a lot of employees with low pay and few resources who could have been deeply hurt by the same thing happening to them. I wanted an assurance that they would review their process so it couldn’t happen again. I wanted them to actually take accountability for it.

And in every response I got from the Payroll manager, there was a consistent grammatical tapdance to refuse to take any direct responsibility.

I got multiple examples of “we apologize for the error”. “The error”, as if it was some elusive little sprite that had just popped in of its own accord, rather than actually being due to a specific person’s actions. And when I asked for a review of the process that had caused “the error”, I literally got the response, “It was an error. Errors happen”, from her. Cue passive voice rage.

Errors don’t just “happen”. People make errors. And it’s normal. But people also need to take accountability

Hey. You're right. I'm sorry. What can I do to help?

4) The words are not enough.

So, you examined your part in what happened. You listened. You were able to put aside your intent and worries about being seen as a good person, and focus on impact. You took direct responsibility with a bunch of “I” statements, and expressed true understanding how your words or actions hurt others.

Congrats! You’ve done the bare minimum!

I don’t mean to come across as glib. And again, none of this is easy. But again, those of us who belong to dominant cultures have been relying on words far too much. We want to feel like we’re woke, and contributing to a better world. But like most things in life, we have to look at our actions too. We have to do the work.

This Sunday was the Trans Day of Visibility. And a number of trans people were pointing out that although they appreciated the love and support from others, that it didn’t erase the constant hate and harassment that they are experiencing from bigots, whether that be on the street or in government.

So taking accountability with your words is great. But taking accountability with your actions is better. What politicians and policies are you supporting? What kinds of nonprofit or charities are you contributing to or volunteering with? Whose voices are you elevating? What are you doing to educate yourself about the issues facing marginalized groups? Do you call out your friends and family when they say something racist, sexist, or homophobic?

Taking a hard look at ourselves and using a challenging moment to take true accountability is hard. But like most things in life, it’s worth doing well. And we can all do it better.