Intention and Accountability in Racial Justice Work

Intention and Accountability in Racial Justice Work

by Krysten Cherkaski

Last week, I was tasked with sharing my completed case study – a written reflection on my social justice practice that considers personal, interpersonal, and systemic dynamics – with the other fellows, Tieranny and Monica, and Marie, our supervisor. As I sat in the Scarritt Hall parlor on Tuesday afternoon, reading through words I had toiled over the night before, I was struck yet again with the theme that I could not escape while writing: the place of intention and accountability when one embarks on the journey of anti-racist work. As I mulled over the specific event for which I had decided to focus my case study in our group, I was met with a never-ending spiral of questions: Does intention really matter when one’s actions are racist? Who is to be held accountable when a racist thought or action is enacted? What expectation and responsibility should be placed on white people in these moments?

These questions become even more complicated when one considers all the forces that collude in order to keep us silent in the face of oppression. In my case study reflection, I described hearing an insensitive comment in the workplace, but remaining silent as so many white people do. I was simultaneously fixated on my status as an intern, a seemingly disposable member of a work environment, and my own privilege and whiteness which allowed for me to remain comfortable in my own silence. The work of vocalizing descent against the comment was left, as it all too often is, to one of the few Women of Color in its presence. When I recanted this event back to Monica, Tieranny, and Marie, our conversation led to a discussion of the responsibility of white people in these situations, a responsibility to be aware of our privilege and to hold each other accountable when we say or do something harmful or problematic.

This responsibility, however, requires more than simply a commitment to speaking up when we hear something harmful or ignorant. It requires us to wrestle with how we frame intention and action. Often, we shrink when a friend or loved one, someone we deem a well-meaning or compassionate person, makes a racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic comment. We tell ourselves that they didn’t really mean to be offensive, they couldn’t mean to be offensive; their intention was not to harm. We shy away from holding an honest conversation with that person out of fear of hurting their feelings or making them feel like the enemy. The real enemy, after all, is the actual racists or homophobes, the one’s we encounter who regularly use slurs or those in power who enact legislation to render marginalized communities powerless. What must be reconciled is the fact that white supremacy manifests in the most insidious of ways, it is an evolved and intelligent system that can be as blatant as a burning cross or as nuanced as your well-intentioned progressive friend making an insensitive joke. Both manifestations must be interpreted as key components which keep the system intact.

Essentially, the group and I arrived at the conclusion that there are many moving parts to consider when one examines their own whiteness and the responsibility that comes with such examination. Holding each other accountable means looking beyond intention to investigate the ways in which white supremacy dwells within all of us. We cannot let our fear of conflict stop us from dismantling a system that we white people quite literally created. In fact, we must acknowledge how said fear, and the subsequent silence it leads to, is an exercise of privilege in its own right. Conflict is uncomfortable, that cannot be denied, but the ramifications and legacy of white supremacy are far more uncomfortable than a conversation between you and your friend regarding a comment they made.





Krysten CherkaskiKrysten Cherkaski is a 2016 graduate of Fresno State University. She is currently a Belle H. Bennett fellow at Scarritt Bennett Center where she is exploring social justice at the Nashville Food Project.