It’s Not Only About The Onion: On Intent and Impact
There’s been plenty of brilliant, angry writing in response to The Onion’s tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis. But an admittedly non-scientific reading of my facebook feed tells me lots of white folks are still confused. Just what is all this hoopla about?
We all know The Onion is satire, right? We all know satire’s job is to use the absurd—the offensive even—to make a deeper critique, right?
In this case (so the argument might go), to use one of the most sexist, sexualizing and derogatory terms available to refer to the youngest nominee for Best Actress as she stood on the red carpet looking adorable, elated and yet so very composed is truly absurd. And the absurd here (so the argument might go) could be intended as commentary on the endlessly sexist, sexualized and derogatory ways we look at and talk about women in the public eye. Get it? The tweeter wasn’t calling Wallis the “c” word. Throwing that word at a beloved and obviously innocent female child might have been an attempt to expose the sexist nastiness of Hollywood. Maybe The Onion pushed the envelope too far—satire is always dangerous and good satire is really, really hard. But there was no malicious intent here. Right?
Well, none of us knows the tweeter’s intent. But that’s precisely the point—because the intent is most assuredly not.
Have you ever touched a hot stove? Did you do it on purpose? Probably not. Did you get burned anyway? I bet you did. Then you know first-hand that intent is irrelevant to impact.
It’s taken me a long time to learn this, so I’ll say it again. Intent and impact have (almost) nothing to do with one another.
Just ask anyone who has ever unintentionally put her hand on a hot stove.
Unfortunately, those of us who are white usually confuse the two. The familiar conversation goes like this:
- incident happens;
- people of color cry foul and describe in painful, often eloquent, detail the effects of incident;
- white people respond, often defensive, insisting that motives were pure (or at least can’t be proven malicious).
I totally get why we do this. We know racism is “bad” and when people of color describe its horrific effects we become frantic trying to show that we—or those whose jokes we laughed at (or at least didn’t think were that bad)—couldn’t possibly be associated with that. I get it.
But think about it. People of color are talking about harm—the impact of putting your hand on the stove. White people start talking about motives—whether or not you intended to put your hand on the stove.
Now imagine what it would be like to have a severe burn and be yelling that you need to get to the hospital, only to be met with the numb response “but it was an accident, so surely you can’t be burned as badly as you think.” And, then we sit here—and I’m not talking here about “we” Fox News-loving white folk, I’m talking about “we” liberal-ish, well-intentioned Onion-loving ones (like me)—shaking our heads, asking “why are Black folks always so angry?”
Whether we intend it to or not (pun intended) our obsession with intent makes the damage worse. It also creates so much static we literally can’t hear people of color as they describe impact.
Can we hear this?
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that your right to be a child, to be small and innocent and protected, will be ignored and you will be seen as a tiny adult, a tiny black adult, and as such will be susceptible to all the offenses that people two and three and four times your age are expected to endure.
Black women are routinely stripped of control of ourselves and our bodies. We are “Little Q” on the red carpet. We are “c-nts” on the internet. We are “baby/honey/sugar/shorty with the fat ass” on the street as we go about our lives, minding our own business. And when we open our mouths to speak against it all when it seems no one else will, we are charged to defend our defense of ourselves.
Our job is to stop protesting innocence and listen. Carefully.
When we do we might still find it hard to believe our ears. Short of being a target oneself, the best way to understand impact by living in close and sustained relationships with those who experience it. And guess what? We live such deeply segregated lives in this nation that most of us who are white simply don’t have those kinds of relationships. But that doesn’t mean Black folks’ need to say it more carefully or clearly than they already do. It doesn’t mean they should say it with less urgency and anger (remember the stove?). It most certainly doesn’t mean what they describe isn’t real.
To develop understanding and empathy is a learning process. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen “naturally.” We have to decide we want to and make a concerted effort to do it. We can start (and its only a start) by turning off the “intent” conversation and listening carefully to the “impact” conversation, assuming something critically important is being said.
Ironically enough, the only way to actually prove good intentions is to stop insisting they are there and instead take the impact so seriously that we admit how much we don’t know, work to change our understanding and behavior, and insist again and again that others do the same.
Until we do, we’ll take moments like the one Quvenzhané Wallis deserved to have—namely an untrammeled celebration of her gifted, accomplished, young female Black self—and drive them into the unforgiving ground of our white racial ignorance again and again and again …
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.