Quick thoughts on Anti-Racist Education: “Intention vs. Effect”

Today, I would like to talk about “intention versus effect” within anti-racist education. This was something that I randomly came across from this website a few months ago.

The argument goes something like this: when it comes to speaking to the other person, the intention does not matter, the effect/impact does. What matters is the effect of what is said towards the person who receives such words because it furthers the oppression of marginalized voices who are situated in relation with power structures.

For those who followed my blog long enough, you will know that intentionality is a big part of my research interests. Anyone who read my intro on Derrida’s deconstruction or Lacanian psychoanalysis will know that I talk about intentionality left and right. Perhaps some of you who are familiar with deconstruction and psychoanalysis can already guess how I will tackle this argument.

Frankly, the argument of intention vs effect/impact lacks any form of critical consideration of what intentionality really is (and if this can somehow be the “law”, then it is a poorly implemented one and deserves criticism). What this argument fails to understand is how the effect and impact of what is said also depends on intentionality. It ignores that intentionality is always a two sided phenomenon. Communication always consists of one pole to the other, i.e. reader –> listener/reader, and vice versa. Obviously, there are times where racism and violence is apparent. But what happens when someone is saying X and the other interprets Y? What happens when someone meant X but is randomly referred as a racist without attempting to understand the other?

In communication, there is always an epistemological/knowledge gap between the one who speaks and the one who listens or reads. To be sure, the knowledge gap that I speak of is not the same as the one expressed on the site here (I am thinking of the long old Kantian problem of the thing-in-itself). With this said, while I agree with some of their claims on the page, their use of the phrase, “deconstructing inaccurate perspectives” contradicts their argument for the irrelevance of intentionality on the other page. In fact, not only is such statement contradictory, it is also hypocritical to disregard intentionality on one hand, and call for the “deconstruction” of “inaccurate perspectives” on the other. This is because the act of “deconstructing inaccurate perspective” requires intentionality. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that we shouldn’t listen to marginalized stories (I think they should be heard). Neither am I defending dominant ideologies and people’s apparent amnesia of the violence of colonialism in Canada. I am simply pointing out their logical inconsistencies and their Wikipedia knowledge of Derridean deconstruction (I’m sorry if I sound condescending, but I found it silly).

When I am trying to explain something, there is always a general “direction” (intention) that orients my spoken or written words (I spoke about this in many places in previous posts such as here). Without going into any detail explanations, intentionality can be defined as a form of “pointing”.  To be sure, intentionality is not some physical object that can be seen or touched. It is part of a larger phenomenon that attaches onto our conscious thoughts and words (known as the “noema”). The use of intentionality happens everyday in our lives. In fact, it is happening right now as you interpret my words. Whether or not what I am saying here has an “effect” or “impact” depends on such intentionality. What I point to may never be aligned to the person who is listening or reading my words.

Intentionality is studied as a form of metaphysics via a discipline known as phenomenology (even if phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl reframed from assigning phenomenology as a metaphysics). An example might be how one person finds a book offensive or “triggering” while another person won’t. Or perhaps one can think of something that might be offensive in one culture but isn’t to another, like dining etiquette. The mistake is to think that the reader does not have any intentionality attached to their interpretation of the other person’s words. The argument assumes that, what the reader interprets as racist happens as a “matter of fact”—even when it might not be.

Not spending time to understand the other person can lead to dangerous practices of ignoring other people’s ideas and what they are really trying to say (it also leads to things like political correctness). In fact, by ignoring what the other is trying to really say, one is perpetuating the same form of violence found in colonialism (i.e. the ethnocentrism of interpreting a foreign culture by privileging their own culture—or the privileging of one context and intention over another; I spoke about this in many places on this blog, such as here and here). Hence I always emphasized on how interpretation via intentionality is a form of violence and how we should always have respect for the other. The argument which emphasizes on “what is said” depends on intentionality.

The phenomena of interpretation and intentionality is further complicated by the ways it relates to the unconscious mind and repression. As I had introduced in my posts on Lacanian psychoanalysis (see my “Popular Posts” menu), language is the symptom of the unconscious (and so are stories written by people). In other words, intentionality—which characterizes the movement of our conscious thoughts—is always influenced by our unconscious mind. Hence, one can also say that, what “triggers” someone is always related to some form of psychoanalytical trauma that brings forth the eternal return of some memory which influences intentionality and the interpretation of words. Readers are always interpreting the world that is measured against their conscious and unconscious experiences.

Hopefully we can begin to see the problem of such argument. If anti-racist education did not consider the intentionality of the reader, then it is something that needs to be looked into because it makes some startling assumptions in regards to the nature of meaning and intentionality.

* * *

While I agree that “white privilege” is true, does this mean that someone in a privileged position can’t be reasonable and cannot reveal something about the truth? Or that the things they say should be ignored because they are not marginalized stories? No. In the same way, just because someone has less privilege doesn’t mean they are wrong—but it also doesn’t mean they are always right. The point is that we should always try to understand what the other person is saying—especially once we recognize that intentionality via communication is always at least two sided. Hence, I always emphasize on treating people with infinite respect. This is why I tend to disagree that ideas have anything to do with power relations, identity or race. Certainly, you can have an idea about race, identity, and power. But every human being is capable of generating ideas.

While I also agree that hierarchies are an inevitable reality in this world (hence privilege and the recognition of power), we should consider whether or not racism has anything to do with power before jumping to the conclusion of thinking that it does 100% of the time. Perhaps it is most fair to say that, depending on context, racism occasionally has something to do with power.

The site points out that racism consists of power relations. This takes us to the other link that talks about “racism = racial prejudice + power” which is an argument that a few sociologists made in regards to anti-racist education back in the 90s (if I remember correctly). Basically, the argument is that since white people have institutional power, they are the only people who can be racist and it is not possible white people can experience racism. This is why reverse racism doesn’t exist because white people cannot experience racism since they are the people in power.

This type of definition of racism is quite different to the common one that most of us know, which is that racism is racism no matter who it is directed at. You can be racist without any power relation. While I am no expert in sociology, I wouldn’t use “racism = racial prejudiced + power” as a universal definition for racism—even if such definition may yield great insights of our system. I think it is easy to use this formula as a way to fit into a particular political narrative. In the same way, it is also easy to throw in terms like “deconstructing binaries” and use deconstruction to reinforce particular political narrative while having little understanding of what deconstruction really “is”.

Nevertheless, I think this opens up an interesting conversation in regards to whether racism is psychological or sociological—a similar question that I tried to propose few posts ago on whether human behavior is constituted by nature or nurture. Since psychology focuses more on the psyche and a sociological approach focuses on the societal system, I would imagine that the difference between the two is how the psychological views of racism would ignore the societal context that sociologists studies; the latter where the perceptions of race, etc. are learned and reinforced by social structures (hence, “systemic racism”).

My take would lean towards the “psychological” only in the sense that interpretation and intentionality always require a first person approach to the world (i.e. phenomenology attempts to study the first person experiences of the world via experiences of phenomena and intentionality). This is to say that sociologists are psychological human beings who interprets the world and thus, are always carrying an intention to interpret society in certain ways. To be sure, I place “psychological” in quotation because intentionality is not really studied under psychology as a discipline because even most psychologists takes intentionality for granted (I speak of psychology not in the same sense as psychoanalysis).

Just as one inevitably sees the world through the representation of language as a structure—it is the question of how sociologists structuralizes society in order to produce any interpretations out of it. This is famously known as “structuralism”, which is often criticized by post-structuralists. Despite such fact, does this render such structural sociological findings pointless? No. To reduce racism to a psychological phenomenon would be as naïve as reducing it to the phenomenon of structures and systems.

The key word that I wish to emphasize on is “phenomena”, something that every individual experiences everyday in their lives. What if neither psychology and sociology can offer sufficient answers to the origin or cause of racism or any psychical and social phenomena? What if the origin of racism is unknown or buried somewhere within the way these scholars interprets the world through X intentionality? And that such intentionality is also influenced by their unconscious mind? Could there be a phenomenon of racism that both psychologists and sociologist had ignored or excluded as they try to categorize these phenomena into coherent institutionalized systems of knowledge? What grants a specific psychology and sociology is the conscious experience of phenomenon—their attempts at describing the way they analyze psychic and social structures; of categorizing such experiences into compartments, languages, and definitions which unfolds as discoveries. Once again, I am not rejecting the findings of psychologists and sociologists. I am attempting to open up the discourse of possibility.

The most intriguing part about phenomenology is that it studies intentionality and how it is influenced by space and time. But even phenomenology negates the unconscious mind. Intentionality is not just something that a sociologist or psychologist produces through their conscious interpretation of the world. Their intentionality is also influenced by their unconscious desires (they are human beings after all). Yet, the relationship between what is repressed, always relies on an outside (society; laws) which influences the inside (i.e. laws that prohibit desires, intentions, thoughts, etc.). In other words, the boundaries between the outside (society; laws) and how it affects the inside (psychological; unconscious which influences intentionality and how we interpret things) is not always clear. The outside influences the inside which influences how we interpret an outside that we perceive as something that affects the inside. Hence, you may notice how I often talk about the outside/inside when I introduce deconstruction, such as how nature becomes culture, etc. (here). This relationship between outside/inside is actually one of the most famous paradoxes that exists in philosophy (it can also be found in different forms, like finitude/infinitude).

Ultimately, there are several things that I am trying to get at. Intentionality is a big contributing factor on how we perceive meaning—whether it is interpreting the effect and impact of the other person’s words, or a psychologist and sociologist interpreting the impact of society, human behavior, nature, etc. Intentionality matters because it determines the effect of words and the meanings produced by the phenomena of the world and society itself. With this in mind, not only does the “effect over intentionality” argument ignore the importance of intention and contradict their own attempts at “deconstructing inaccurate perspectives”, it also ignores the effect of meaning produced by intentionality despite their privilege of such term. When I speak of the word “effect”, I am referring to the way words signify and how they produce meaning (i.e. the movement of structuralization).

This is why racism has different definitions and meanings under different contexts—or that words in general have different meanings depending on context. Not only does the definition change, the epistemological (knowledge) structure of context also changes over time. In many places on this blog, I spoke about how time influences how we interpret texts and events, where contexts changes over time (such as here). Someone who lives in 20th century might interpret a text very differently by someone from 21st century. The fact that intentionality is always at least two sided is the reason why there are many ways one can define the word “racism” (i.e. as a prejudice, ideology; whether psychologically or sociologically, etc).

Furthermore, intentionality is also influenced by the unconscious mind. It is naïve to assume the findings of X as absolute when the root cause lies in the way we interpret the world is always at least two sided. Hence to say that “intentionality does not matter” is to promote a naïve form of education that doesn’t teach people how to think critically.

What I find fascinating in our world today is that people seem to stop thinking once they get into sensitive issues. They suddenly throw all the things they learnt out the window and feel like they must conform to some ideology or to some moral authority without challenging any of its presuppositions. When we want change, we need to think really carefully and critically. If we want to solve a problem, we do not solve it by removing the bad leaf, we must look for its root cause—we must look for its origins (i.e. would defunding the police end police brutality and racism? Can you train someone to not be racist? Is racism sociological or psychological?). If one cannot locate the origin, the issue will just happen again in a different form, like a cancer that refuses to leave someone’s body—despite having surgically removed the tumor.

As much as I would like to solve the problem of racism and oppression, I think the idea of “effect over intentionality” is an inconsiderate argument that needs serious re-examination. To put it nicely, while such argument yields great insight in our imperfect system, it also reveals its own contradictions. Perhaps I could sympathize with the argument more if they are simply saying, “be nice and mindful of others” which I would agree. But this does not seem to be the case.

Okay, Bobby needs to take his beauty nap.
Stay safe everyone.