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Intent is Different than Impact, written by Jeanne Spurr
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - July 30, 2020

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Intent is different than impact. And both are important.

Working to become a white ally is not a task to be taken lightly. You will be challenged to the very core of your being as you begin to recognize your privilege – the unearned advantages you have in life that our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) friends and colleagues do not have – simply because of the color of your skin. You will have to examine and “unlearn” many closely held beliefs. In the process, your heart will be deeply bruised – healing slowly with forward movement and growth that may take a lifetime.

I lived in the Virgin Islands for more than a decade and experienced what it feels like to be in a minority that you cannot hide from because of the color of your skin. I felt compelled to visit school regularly to be sure my children were being treated fairly. We found ourselves at the mercy of Officer Bell, who prided herself on ticketing whites for any reason she could. It was commonly referred to as DWW. (Driving While White). In one incident, my husband received four tickets for making a wrong turn. Fortunately, the court threw out three of the four, laughing that Officer Bell loved to ”pile on tickets”. I began to understand a small fraction of what BIPOC face every day of their life.

I thought I understood. I came to know and love the people of the island. I learned of their individual struggles, family history and achievements. I thought I understood. Only because of a lifetime of white privilege could I possibly have believed I understood.  

My journey to become a white ally began several years later when a consultant noticed the white people were the first to answer or speak up, not leaving “room” for our sisters of color to speak. Wait a minute – that wasn’t our intent! We were trying to speak up and to help people feel comfortable – what is wrong with that?? We had learned in life that (as a woman in a man’s world) we had to speak up if we were going to be heard. Assertiveness meant taking the lead, speaking your mind. So, we spoke up. At the same time, we were carefully cultivated to “be nice” and “helpful”. So, when no one spoke up, we did. We were just helping things get started – you know, breaking the ice.

To realize that BIPOC needed some space to speak up – that they had learned to hold back through generations of being silenced – was surprising and embarrassing. I realized I had been an active participant in this silencing. As I noticed this play out in various settings, I had to recognize and then change my behavior.  Then I noticed it in our meetings – I actually tracked how many times and in what context people spoke up. The data was clear. We had a problem.

Through the next few years, it was like peeling an onion – layer by layer of new realizations, understanding and commitment to change. Along the way I skinned my knees, clumsily stepped on toes and pushed ahead only to retreat in shame. I often felt like I had become a clumsy, stumbling person instead of the confident woman I was. When I am paralyzed with fear of “doing it wrong” and hurting someone, I want to quit. But then I remember – I am here to make life better. Life can only get better when it gets better for everyone. For the last girl.

I continue learning about where I have privilege and how I can use it to change our world – one relationship, one interaction at a time. In our organization I have become more aware of my privilege as a tenured leader with broad experiences and access to learning. I look for inequity- and how to eliminate it – in our day to day operations, hiring practices, management and compensation. I have been intentional to seek space for building up and supporting BIPOC; to identify and break down barriers and give them a real voice in the organization. While I definitely have not “arrived” I continue to stumble down this difficult path because I want to be an ally and build a more equitable organization and community. I make mistakes and have had people reprimand me as well as encourage me. I try not to take it personal. After all, intent is different than impact.

Commands