“I Know you Didn’t Mean it, But…”

By Jean Mavrelis - 06.24.2011

If you lead off with these words, mainstream white folks will stay engaged longer and listen to your complaint or criticism or whatever you want them to listen to, without automatically shutting down, because you have protected their self image as a good person.

Use of this strategy is often problematic for members of other groups however.

For example, the other day I was speaking to a black woman who was frustrated with a white woman at work.  The white woman introduced her black colleague to her class by using her first and last name, instead of calling her “Dr. ____”

They ended up no longer on speaking terms because the black woman had called out the white woman on what she did.

I offered cultural information: “You could have avoided this break in the relationship by starting your criticism of the white woman with ‘I know you didn’t mean it, but….’”

The black woman said, following her own African American cultural prescript that infers motive from what was said and done, “I’m not willing to do that, if she didn’t mean it, she wouldn’t have done it.”

Integrity is at stake for both women.

The white woman felt that she was maligned by the Black woman characterizing what she did as “racist”.

The black woman felt disrespected by the failure of the white woman to acknowledge her position and degree—a serious omission for her and blacks generally.

She also felt –this is where race comes into it—the same mistake would not have happened if the white woman were introducing a white male colleague to her class.

She was also not willing to try to repair the situation –again a matter of personal integrity and maybe also pride–because she feels her colleague should be the one to take responsibility for what happened—after all, she was the one that made the “mistake”—whether she meant it or not.

The white woman in turn probably feels that what her black colleague did –confronting her directly and characterizing what she did as “racist” — as much worse than what she did. From her perspective, it should be the black woman who should apologize to her, not the other way around.

And so another impasse and break in relationship triggered by a failure on both sides to fully understand what is going on for the other person and probably also for themselves. Read more »