The Good Intentions of White People

Even the best intentions can perpetuate racism.

Many years ago, I read an article by philosopher of education, Audrey Thompson, in which she wrote, “Our morality can be one of the main obstacles to racial change.” Cleveland Hayes and Brenda Juarez similarly argue, “The problem of whiteness is not a problem of evil but a problem of good.”[i] This jolted me, a white woman who has been studying moral philosophy, moral development and moral education for over 30 years. When I came to Syracuse and started working in the School of Education, I started to research and inquire how good white intentions can engender defensiveness and denials that will derail conversations with students, parents and colleagues of color about their experiences with racism and white complicity in that experience. I had to remind myself that what I was reading and studying, mostly from generous and courageous scholars of color, no one was saying white people should not have good intentions but rather these scholars were calling for critical reflection around white good intentions and their effect on BIPOC experience. On the surface, to want to help others is such a good thing and often praiseworthy. But I was beginning to realize that good white intentions can often, even unwittingly, perpetuate patronizing forms of racism that keep hierarchies of power and privilege in place. In a powerful New York Times letter, “Dear White America,” George Yancy[ii] invites white people to let go of their white innocence and honestly engage with the problem of good intentions and the complicity they might hide. It is not comfortable for white people to read what Yancy wrote, but it helps to also remind oneself that James Baldwin tells white people, “It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.[iii]  Important critical analysis of systemic oppression can be thwarted by presumptions of innocence.


I think it is important to remember that racism is not only about holding hate in your heart or consciously believing you are superior because you are white. Racism is about a system of marginalization that one can be upholding even through good intentions.


One example that I often address with my white future urban education teachers is to critically question any beliefs/feelings they have about “saving” their students. We talk about how “white savior complex,” something so common in movies that focus on white teachers in urban settings, reinforces the idea not only that the white teacher is the hero, but that there is something wrong with their students that requires saving by white people. It is to understand urban students as having a deficiency that only you can fix. White teachers don’t intentionally try to hurt anyone but good white intentions often have that effect, especially if white teachers protect their good intentions instead of being willing to explore what the impact of their intentions can be. And a white teacher might be able to acknowledge that people of color are less privileged and yet not see oneself as playing a role in their experience. Help, one Black graduate student once told me, was not the same as justice. Unless white teachers are willing to critically reflect on their good intentions, their ability to examine how they might be complicit and what to do about it will be blocked. And if you can’t name injustice, you don’t have to do anything about it.  When white people do not critically examine their good intentions, and their potential hindrance to justice, they conveniently remove themselves from the responsibility of addressing injustice.


REFRAME. My wonderful teaching assistant always reminds me how helpful it is to reframe something I am thinking and to see it in a different way. Reframing a call to examine systemic racism not as an accusation but instead as an appeal to consider what white people might not know or might not want to know can break some of the deadlocks that are linked to preoccupations with good intentions and shift the focus to the impact of those good intentions. Instead of bringing conversations to an end, such a shift can open up educational moments of growth that make broader understandings of racism possible for white people. The challenge for white people is to shift the focus from intention to the effects of their doings and listen to what people of color say those effects are.


We can see another example of white emotional investments in goodness in how some white people responded to the justified anger expressed in protests around the country in response to the murder of Black bodies by the hands of the police. Some white people felt shock, fear and then retreat when they heard the powerful statement made by Tamika Mallory’s State of Emergency speech  in which she explains her reasoning for the protestors’ response to police brutality, and the discourse around “looters.” THE NEED TO REFRAME: How can white people move from shock, fear and retreat in order to hear the message behind the anger? What would happen if white people understood that rage can unsettle us, jolt us, but also teach us something important about others as well as learn something about ourselves? How can white people stay in the moment of discomfort instead of trying to escape it in order to learn something about the experiences of others as well as something not easy to hear about ourselves that might change how we see things? In her profound essay “The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde addresses how white woman respond when she speaks with clear and meticulously articulated anger about her experiences in feminist circles. White feminists exhort, ‘Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.’[iv] To which Lorde replies, “But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?” White people have to learn to shift their attention away from a focus on the tone in order to hear the message. And when I refer to white people in this reflection, I am not excluding myself.


It is not comfortable for white people to have good intentions challenged. It is not easy to hear the message behind anger. But that discomfort is nothing compared to the causes of the anger that marginalized groups experience daily. Also, it helps to remember that anger is not usually the first resort but a tool that might be a consequence of one’s voice not being heard. Imagine how much we can accomplish together towards social and institutional change if white people stop focusing on white comfort and our good intentions, and instead try to understand what has to change and how we have to change for there to be a more just society. Elizabeth Denevi offers white people something to seriously ask ourselves, “What if being called “racist” is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation?”[v]


[i] You showed your Whiteness: you don’t get a ‘good’ White people’s medal Cleveland Hayes & Brenda G. Juárez 2009 International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 22:6, 729-744


[iii] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1962/1993): 5-6.

[iv] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984) 125.

[v] Elizabeth Denevi, “What If Being Called ‘Racist’ is the Beginning, not the End, of the Conversation?” In The Guide for White Women who Teach Black Boys, eds.,Eddie Moore, Jr, Ali Michael, Marguerite Penick-Parks (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2017): 74.