When it Comes to Racism, Does Intent Matter? It’s Complicated

Sometimes it matters, other times it doesn’t, and you should know the difference

Tim Wise
6 min readJul 6, 2021

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“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

It’s the predictable defense for most after being accused of saying or doing something racist or, in some other way, prejudicial. As in, “It was just a joke!” Or, if not a joke, just an innocuous comment or action lacking deliberately biased motivation.

In response, many who write or speak about racism or do activist work tend to reply with an equally predictable refrain: Intent doesn’t matter, we insist. Impact is what matters. I’ve even written something to this effect myself, here:

And while I stand by the arguments in that piece, I’d like to clarify something. Because when we say intent doesn’t matter, we mean it — or at least I do — in a very specific sense. In another sense, it matters quite a bit. And confusing the two can create conflict where it need not exist, thereby turning some people off to an anti-racist analysis and eliding…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)