In my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training, forty years ago, I learned a number of “useful half-truths.” One of those interpersonal rules of thumb went something like this: “The meaning of any communication is in how it is received.” Of course, what I intend in a sentence, an action, or even a gesture, may not be the message that is received. That’s what makes it a “half” truth. But what the recipient discerns, or experiences, is part of the interaction and the meaning of that interaction.
That distinction would have remained an academic curiosity for me if I had not been guilty of transgressing it almost as soon as I learned it. One of my CPE colleagues called me out for treating her badly after we had a difficult personal interaction. I had persuaded myself that I was treating her the same as always, but group members begged to differ. In the face of that evidence, I protested that I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. The room got quiet as she wept and then fled the space.
It didn’t matter what I intended. The outcome was obvious. The question was not what I intended. Rather, the question was twofold. Could I put myself aside long enough to see not merely my intentions but also the outcome? And did I care enough about her to care about the impact of my behavior? I wish I could say that I learned that lesson in a flash, became a better human in that moment, and repaired the damage I had done. No, it took time to undo some of the damage, but I didn’t really “get it” until much later.
Recently, an Omaha firefighter filed suit against the City of Omaha. The lawsuit alleges that the department and employees of the department discriminated against Jane Crudup based on her race, color, and gender. Crudup was hired by the department in January of 2019, the fifth Black woman to serve as an Omaha firefighter in the city’s one hundred fifty-year history.
In the suit, Crudup alleges that her gear was hoisted on a station flagpole. It appeared to her to “simulate a hanging or public lynching,” as the suit states. No one took responsibility for the behavior, and no disciplinary action was forthcoming. No additional investigation took place. This was in the context of previous incidents that Crudup experienced as harassment and the department found to be “hazing for the purpose of training.”
The city attorney’s office plans to defend against the suit. Crudup has the written and public support of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters, of which she is a member. The suit notes that the Omaha Fire Department employs black firefighters at a rate of about five and a half percent of the total employee base, even though Omaha’s black population represents twelve percent of the city.
The department publicly affirms the value of a diverse work force but seems to have some history of complaints regarding the harassment of black, female firefighters. Crudup has been on leave from the job since the end of May. The suit has not yet been adjudicated.
As I read reports of the suit and the alleged behavior that prompted the suit, I think about the useful half truth I mentioned above. First, I use the word “alleged” because the case has not been settled. However, I am quite certain that Jane Crudup saw what she saw, experienced what she experienced, and evaluated it all accurately. No one has suggested that she or her Black, female firefighter colleagues have fabricated any part of their stories. In the absence of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, “Believe black women” is an effective standard of evidence in my book.
Second, I would be surprised – well, shocked would be more like it – if the perpetrators of the “pranks” were unaware of the intimidating and dehumanizing meanings associated with their alleged behaviors. These meanings may be so familiar that they did not come immediately to mind, but that simply proves my point. I think it is highly unlikely that there is any degree of innocence or ignorance involved here.
Those two points being given, we come back to my useful half-truth. If we continue to focus on the “intentions” of the perpetrators of racist behaviors, we will rarely – if ever – identify any behaviors as racist. If the argument that “I didn’t intend my message to be racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or classist, or transphobic” is allowed to be determinative and dispositive, then we will make little or no progress in anti-racist work.
We know that people who claim they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies are quite capable of deeply dehumanizing and destructive behavior toward those who are not “like” them. The protest of epistemic innocence is offered as sufficient proof that they are not guilty of anything bad. It is the “get out of jail free card” in the game of interpersonal and institutional racism. I have played that card myself enough times to be embarrassed and ashamed whenever I hear someone else use it.
This “intentions” standard underwrites much of the systemic and institutional racism in our society. Ijeoma Oluo, in her recent book, Mediocre, rehearses the way that Joe Biden rode the difference between school discrimination by intention and by “accident” to repeated re-elections to the Senate. People didn’t intend to segregate schools by rule, he argued. It just happened “naturally” and thus should not be remedied by busing.
The standard that “intentions” must be proved continues to support housing and education segregation. It maintains differential health access and outcomes for Black and Brown people. It encourages sexual harassment in the workplace, going back to Clarence Thomas and before. It maintains the myth of white, male innocence and the power and privilege that depend on that myth.
Relying on “intentions” is not a solution but is rather part of the social structure that maintains systems of harassment, discrimination, and abuse. Yet, that standard continues to be used to decide court cases on harassment, discrimination, and abuse at every level of the judiciary. So I’m not optimistic regarding the outcome of Crudup’s suit.
Anti-racist progress focuses on outcomes rather than intentions. “Racism is a marriage of racist policies and racist ideas,” Ibram X. Kendi writes, “that produces and normalizes racial inequities” (How to Be an Antiracist, page 17). “An antiracist policy,” he continues, “is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups” (page 18).
The emphasis here is on “produces.” We must stop thinking about “intends” if we ever expect to make any progress. Intentions are pretty much useless. What matter are outcomes and impacts.
As a Christian, I have an additional and more demanding standard of conduct to uphold. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he responds to a question about whether the early Christians could eat meat left over from animal sacrifices to the local, pagan gods. The details of that discussion are not important here. Rather, Paul’s standard is what matters. It’s that noble half-truth above placed in the Christian framework.
If my conduct offends the conscience of a “weaker” member of the community, then I must consider ceasing that conduct. “Weaker” is an interesting notion in Paul’s context. But he is certainly addressing a situation of economic, social, and political inequity within that congregation. I would argue that he wants the rich, powerful folks in the congregation (the ones who could afford that meat in the first place) to consider the impact of their behavior on those who do not have that position, privilege, and power.
If any of those firefighters are Christian (and I suspect at least some are), then they are called by their Christian vocation to put the needs of their colleague ahead of their own desires, regardless of their “intentions.” It is incumbent on those Christians with power to strive for empathy with and advocacy for those with less power in a system. The intentions of the powerful are beside the point here. What matters is the impact on those with less power.
Coming to terms with that impact requires effort and empathy. It doesn’t take a great deal of energy to figure out that a hat and coat in the imitation of a body hanging on a pole could cause distress for a Black colleague. It doesn’t take a great deal of energy to figure out that what white men in that system experience as good-natured “hazing” would be felt as persecution by black women who have dealt with that adolescent white boys’ bullshit their whole lives.
It wouldn’t take much energy for superiors to understand that the complaints of the less powerful are almost always discounted by the system, and that they had a chance to do something better. It wouldn’t take much energy for the system to acknowledge that discrimination and harassment are built into and supported by that system and most such systems in this country. It’s not asking too much for those who claim to serve others for a living to take the needs of their colleagues into account.
I know that I live in a glass house as a professional in a Christian denomination. We have often done little better in our own systems and structures. Just read the headlines any given week. But whataboutism won’t get anyone off the hook. That’s just another argument from intention – after all, we’re not any worse than others, and we really do mean well — so goes that argument. No – all of the systems created, controlled, and commanded by white men have the same problems and live under the same demands for change.
Let’s watch how this unfolds and apply pressure where we can to ensure greater equity of outcomes and a just resolution for this suit.