Assume Positive Intent.
How often have you seen this norm used at meetings you have attended? Indra Nooyi, the CEO of Pepsi, made this norm popular, stating that it was the most important lesson she learned from her father. And at the surface, it seems like a perfectly healthy norm. Assuming positive intent ostensibly creates a safe space where people can voice their opinions without fear of repercussion. It ostensibly helps avoid conflict. Rather than arguing, people can supposedly talk out differences assuming that all parties are coming from a good place. But does assuming positive intent really create the safe-environment that Nooyi assumed?
As of yet, I have not found research that substantiates the claim that assuming positive intent creates a safe space, but I have found research that statements and action that stem from biases and prejudices, regardless of intent, literally cause illnesses in and shorten the lives of those who are on the receiving end of such statements and actions. This is why when I define microaggressions, I define them as seemingly small statements and actions that indirectly and subtly insult people based on race or other aspects of identity, leaving out the oft used part of the definition that refers to its unintentionally. Ibram X. Kendi, a scholar of antiracist research, goes a step further and denies the word “microaggression” all together, calling what many of us call microaggressions, racist abuse. He uses racist abuse because there is nothing micro about constantly being subjected to racist statements, and the word abuse better characterizes the biological impact so-called microaggressions have on the recipient. According to Kendi, the impacts of racist abuse include, “distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide,” but research shows that these impacts also lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and faster biological aging/shorter lifespans. Words matter. Intent does not.
Having the assumption of positive intent as a norm allows racist structures to thrive. It allows meeting participants to hide behind the norm instead of monitoring their own words for bias and prejudice. It shifts the burden of racism to mostly those who are visibly of color, who now have to bear the microaggressions/racist abuse silently because they have been asked to assume positive intent. The assumption of positive intent allows those who are not visibly of color to break out the waterworks when topics of race are raised, shifting the burden of the conversation to those in the room who are visibly of color who now have to console those with privilege and reassure them that everyone knows they have the best of intentions. If someone who is visibly of color pushes back, well how dare they break the established norms, not assume positive intent, and make this person who is not visibly of color feel uncomfortable? In other words, the norm of having positive intent decenters the minoritized individual and centers the feelings of the person with privilege. It allows participants to turn against the person who is visibly of color who pushes back against microaggressions/racist abuse hurled at them because those who push back are not following established norms. Such people are quickly labeled “not a good fit” because they were not able to fit into the norms the group established. And so the person who is visibly of color must choose between bearing the microaggressions/racist abuse or losing their job.
And so the sole focus on intent and mindset, although well-meaning, results in no change to the racist structures in place at our institutions. If an institution is to truly consider itself antiracist, intent cannot matter. Policies must change. Microaggressions/racist abuse should not be tolerated, regardless of intent. And the norms must change from including “assume positive intent” to including “call out microaggressions/racist abuse.” Is your organization ready to take this step? Let me know in the comments below.