“How come black people can say the N-word, but white people can’t?” That’s a question teachers of race get a lot and comedian W. Kamau Bell has a great answer, “You can say anything you want, but you have to live with the consequences of your words.” While Bell is talking about the N-word, his wisdom could be applied to any discussion of privilege/oppression or really any highly controversial topic.
Intent vs. Impact
There seems to be genuine distress and/or hurt on my students faces when they say, “No, no, no. That’s not what I meant at all!” For the most part, students who say something that deeply offends portions of the classroom seem surprised by the impact of their words. It’s as if I’m watching the student reach down, wrap their hands around their ankle, open wide and stick their foot in their mouth only to be dumbfounded as to how it got their in the first place.
Bell’s retort to the “N-word question” makes me laugh because he is hitting on something that is so painfully obvious and simultaneously something that we often want to pretend isn’t true. Our words and actions sometimes have an impact that we did not intend when we said those words or took those actions. This “intent vs. impact” idea is something that students struggle with, but it’s also a prerequisite for classroom discussions that are open, honest, and safe. It’s something I teach when we set our class expectations for discussions and reiterate throughout the semester.
“who is we?” is something I always ask my students. Many times we is used when the speaker means white people. However, I used the term we to refer to everyone. While folks of privilege may be more likely to deny the intent vs. impact idea, all of us are prone to denying it. If you’ve ever said, “that’s not what I meant at all” to a partner, relative, or friend, then you’re inside my we. ↩