On Race, Good Intentions, and the Benefit of the Doubt -The Toast

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To my enduring surprise, responses and reactions to this piece continue to trickle in — some in the form of emails and tweets and pending comments, some in the form of essays on related topics. Most of the people who’ve reached out to me personally have been supportive, and many have shared similar stories. As for the people who said truly terrible things to me, well, internet lesson learned; I realize these are angry times we live in.

In the weeks since I published the piece, several not-terrible (but still misguided) readers have chimed in with some form of: Why not just give everyone the benefit of the doubt? Wouldn’t it be better if you just assumed that most people have genuinely good intentions? Next time, they suggest, I should remember that everyone really means well, and take it upon myself to educate them. Kindly. Patiently. And SMILE ! :) 

Yes, what’s in one’s heart matters, a great deal — and I don’t think every conscious or unconscious bias a person lets slip is necessarily a sign that they are past all redemption. That doesn’t mean everyone should ignore what actually comes out of someone’s mouth, nor does it mean we are always duty-bound to spend our time and energy educating them. Not only does it sound socially disastrous and potentially wasteful of my one wild and precious life to go around offering impromptu primers on Racism: Why It’s Actually Not Great, it also seems silly to ask me to base my emotions or reactions on the alleged “good intentions” of others.


I have not been able to stop thinking about those twin protests — “but, good intentions!” and “the benefit of the doubt” — and what they really mean. Who usually gets the benefit of the doubt? Who is expected to grant it?

A few weeks ago I was in a discussion about anti-racist parenting, and at one point a white parent asked how they were supposed to keep their kids from developing a low opinion of people of color if they’d had “bad experiences” with them. They told a longish story about two boys at their child’s school who sometimes flout authority or are mean to the white kids. They don’t listen to the teachers who try and tell them to stop, because they don’t respect women in their culture. I pointed out that there is no culture that universally respects women, and that whatever good intentions they might possess, they were still thinking of literally two children as representative of an entire group of people. They couldn’t even manage to look at two kids and see them as individuals. And their own child was probably picking up on this, and doing the same generalizing and stereotyping.

So much for the benefit of the doubt.

The person who said all of this was clearly not trying to cause offense. If I had called them out in harsher terms, I’m fairly sure that is the defense I would have gotten — something about just being honest and not racist and that’s not my intention! It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone could hope to rely on the presumption of innocence while simultaneously condemning others as guilty.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard What if you/your kids have had bad experiences with people of color? as if all people of color are a monolith; as if we don’t have plenty of “bad experiences” (there’s a euphemism for you) with white people. Yet we’re honestly expected to carry no baggage at all, just bring trust and faith and boundless patience to each new interaction and relationship — to offer well-intentioned white folks the benefit of the doubt, every single time.

I don’t always have the mental, emotional, or spiritual fortitude to trust in the purity of some stranger’s intentions. I don’t have the capacity to believe I’ll never be hurt by a white person again.

Over the years I have been conditioned — particularly by my adoptive upbringing, I suppose — to be patient with and also crave the approval of white people. I’ve accepted that deprogramming myself will probably require a lifetime’s worth of work. And yes, sometimes I’ll bite my tongue. Sometimes I’ll “educate.” These are just some of the things I have to do in order to keep my friends and do my job and function in society. But I’ve been over this idea of “good intentions” and their supposed weight and importance for a long, long time now.

I should note that the bigotry I’ve faced, over the years, has been relatively minor — name-calling, slurs, stereotyping, fetishism. I’ve been overlooked, underestimated, erased. I’ve been the token friends and family can point to while denying their prejudices; I’ve been used as a “model minority” to prop up anti-Blackness. Still, no matter how large or small the offenses, I don’t always have the mental, emotional, or spiritual fortitude to unquestioningly trust in the purity of some stranger’s intentions. I don’t have the capacity to believe I’ll never be hurt by a white person again. And I cannot bring unfailing faith and trust and sweetness and light to every single interaction I have with white people. That should not be asked of me, or anyone.

So, yes, I get angry sometimes. I won’t allow the feelings or fears of others to dictate how I feel about racism. I don’t care deeply about or even care to acknowledge someone’s heart of gold if what comes out of their mouth is hurtful or hateful. I don’t have a grudge or a chip on my shoulder; I have simply had experiences enough — in real life, and online — to know that sometimes, trust has to be earned. The truth is, I don’t think most white people realize just how often they are given the benefit of the doubt, over and over and over again. Sometimes you don’t have any more to give.

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