Intent vs Impact: Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter

thoughtful man

When you’ve hurt someone, whether you meant to or not, what matters is how you repair the situation.

Imagine for a moment that you’re standing with your friends in a park, enjoying a nice summer day.

You don’t know me, but I walk right up to you holding a Frisbee.

I wind up – and throw the disc right into your face.

Understandably, you are indignant.

Through a bloody nose, you use a few choice words to ask me what the hell I thought I was doing.

And my response?

“Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you! That was never my intent! I was simply trying to throw the Frisbee to my friend over there!”

Visibly upset, you demand an apology.

But I refuse. Or worse, I offer an apology that sounds like “I’m sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you.”

Sound absurd? Sound infuriating enough to give me a well-deserved Frisbee upside the head?


So why is this same thing happening all of the time when it comes to the intersection of our identities and oppressions or privileges?

Intent v. Impact

From Paula Deen to Alec Baldwin to your annoying, bigoted uncle or friend, we hear it over and over again: “I never meant any harm…” “It was never my intent…” “I am not a racist…” “I am not a homophobe…” “I’m not a sexist…”

I cannot tell you how often I’ve seen people attempt to deflect criticism about their oppressive language or actions by making the conversation about their intent.

At what point does the “intent” conversation stop mattering so that we can step back and look at impact?

After all, in the end, what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?

In some ways, this is a simple lesson of relationships.

If I say something that hurts my partner, it doesn’t much matter whether I intended the statement to mean something else – because my partner is hurting.

I need to listen to how my language hurt my partner. I need to apologize.

And then I need to reflect and empathize to the best of my ability so I don’t do it again.

But when we’re dealing with the ways in which our identities intersect with those around us – and, in turn, the ways our privileges and our experiences of marginalization and oppression intersect – this lesson becomes something much larger and more profound.

This becomes a lesson of justice.

What we need to realize is that when it comes to people’s lives and identities, the impact of our actions can be profound and wide-reaching.

And that’s far more important than the question of our intent.

We need to ask ourselves what might be or might have been the impact of our actions or words.

And we need to step back and listen when we are being told that the impact of our actions is out of step with our intents or our perceptions of self.

Identity Privilege and Intent

For people of identity privilege, this is where listening becomes vitally important, for our privilege can often shield us from understanding the impact of our actions.

After all, as a person of privilege, I can never fully understand the ways in which oppressive acts or language impact those around me. What I surely can do is listen with every intent to understand, and I can work to change my behavior.

Because what we need to understand is that making the conversation about intent is inherently a privileged action.

The reason?

It ensures that you and your identity (and intent) stay at the center of any conversation and action while the impact of your action or words on those around you is marginalized.

So if someone ever tells you to “check your privilege,” what they may very well mean is: “Stop centering your experience and identity in the conversation by making this about the intent of your actions instead of their impact.”

That is: Not everything is about you.

“What They Did” vs. “What They Are”

The incredible Ill Doctrine puts it well when he explains the difference between the “What They Did” conversation and the “What They Are” conversation, which you can watch here.

In essence, the “intent” conversation is one about “what they are.”

Because if someone intended their action to be hurtful and racist/sexist/transphobic/pickyourpoison, then they must inherently beracist/sexist/transphobic/pickyourpoison.

On the other hand, the “impact” conversation is one about “what they did.”

For you, it takes the person who said or did the hurtful thing out of the center and places the person who was hurt in the center. It ensures that the conversation is about how “what they did” hurts other people and further marginalizes or oppresses people.

And it’s important for people to understand the difference.

Just because you did something sexist doesn’t mean that you are sexist. Just because you said something racist doesn’t mean that you are racist.

When your actions are called into question, it’s important to recognize that that’sall that is being called into question – your actions, not your overall character.

Listen. Reflect. Apologize. Do Better.

It doesn’t matter whether we, deep down, believe ourselves to be __________-ist or whether we intended our actions to be hurtful or _________-ist.


If the impact of our actions is the furthering of oppression, then that’s all that matters.

So we need to listen, reflect, apologize, and work to do better in the future.

What does that look like?

Well, to start, we can actually apologize.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of hearing the ““I am sorry your face got in the way of my Frisbee! I never intended to hit you” apologies.

Whether it’s Paula Deen weeping on TV or Alec Baldwin asking us to simply trust that he’s not a “homophobe,” those are not apologies.

That’s why I was incredibly inspired and relieved to see a major organization do it well when Kickstarter apologized and took full responsibility for their role in funding a creepy, rapey seduction guide.

They apologized earnestly and accepted the role they played in something really terrible. hey pledged to never allow projects like this one to be funded in the future. And then they donated $25,000 to RAINN.

At the interpersonal level, we can take a cue from Kickstarter.

When we are told that the impact of our action, inaction, or words is hurtful and furthers oppression, we can start by apologizing without any caveats.

From there, we can spend the time to reflect in hopes of gaining at least some understanding (however marginal) of the harmful impact.

And we can do our best to move forward by acting more accountably.



Originally appeared at Everyday Feminism

Jamie Utt is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. Jamie is a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator based in Minneapolis, MN. He lives with his loving partner and his funtastic dog. He blogs weekly at Change from Within. Learn more about his work at his website here and follow him on Twitter @utt_jamieRead his articles here and book him for speaking engagements here.

Photo: Eka Shoniya/Flickr

About Everyday Feminism

Everyday Feminism supports people dealing with everyday violence, dominance, and silencing due to their gender, sexual orientation, race, class, and more. Through our online magazine and upcoming online school for applied feminism, we help people apply feminism to their real lives in order to work through issues, stand up for themselves, and live their truth. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter!


  1. Todd Clary says:

    This is patent idiocy and an obvious product of more political correctness run amok. Equivocating the intent of my words to physically hitting someone in the face with a frisbee? Really? That’s the best the writer can do?

    If I say something — anything — to anyone, and they take particular offense to it they get to bring up to me directly. I might say “I’m sorry you took offense to that,” or “No, that isn’t what I meant. What I mean was x, y, and z.” And then that’s the end of it.

    There is nothing admirable in allowing someone else’s sensitivities to hijack your intentions to reverse-reengineer them to bolster their emotions. So, if I apologize, I’ll do so once. And that’s the end of it. If you need to continue your shrill vitriol because I’m not caving in to your aches and pains, you get to do that. But you’re going to do it long distance because I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what’s upsetting you this time.

    Then I’d go back to playing frisbee.

    • Mostly_123 says:

      Agreed. I think you hit the nail on the head there Todd- the errant notion that it is somehow right and proper for some to hijack another’s intentions, for the sake of their own agenda or emotional gratification; the article argues for acquiescence, under the guise of understanding & consideration.

      • Roopesh Shenoy says:

        I think these comments don’t understand the context of the article – Intentions absolutely DO NOT matter when you have said something stupid (racist or sexist for e.g.). And there are plenty of such situations where people resort to “I am sorry you got offended..” when a “I’m sorry, I was wrong, let me do what I can to fix this” is much more appropriate.

        On the other hand, it is pretty self-evident when the person who was offended is unreasonable – this article is not speaking about those situations.

        • Mostly_123 says:

          Ah, yes- but who’s to say what is or isn’t “unreasonable”? That’s the key.
          While I do agree than many people do say ‘I’m sorry you got offended’ (which is not really an apology or request for pardon at all) when they should be saying ‘I’m sorry for what I did, and I’d like to make it better’ and that’s not something that should be forgotten.  

          However, the underlying point of contention though is, according to the article here, that anyone and everyone BUT ourselves is to judge what is ‘unreasonable’ and that’s what I think is so insidious about it: There’s the implicit notion that a ‘wronged’ person simply cannot be wrong, and that simply by the virtue of being the most offended person in the room, one is therefore the rightest, most legitimate, and most entitled person in the room. That, I believe, is errant; as is the notion that one should simply & unequivocally abrogate their right to evaluate and judge their own actions, in favor of just flatly differing it to the most slighted person in the room. Pure acquiescence is not the same as real dialogue and mutual accommodation; but some people want to dress that up as though it was. It can always be made to sound very liberal, very reasonable, and very innocuous, but in the end, it’s still just a blanket call for acquiescence, nothing more. And frankly, it cannot be and should not be open-ended, unconditional, and unqualified.

          Michelle Goldberg wrote an interesting article that touched a bit on this and how it pertained to feminism’s perspectives and idiosyncrasies back in January.


    • If my intentions don’t matter, do I?

  2. WillJaye says:

    To say “intentions don’t matter” is to say that, “whenever somebody is offended, somebody else did something wrong”. People sometimes get offended over imaginary slights. People sometimes read malice into innocent statements. And there are people who seem to actively seek out reasons to be offended. Every expression of offense isn’t deserving of an apology. And demanding apologies for every offense strips other people of their integrity and their ability to speak their minds and hearts.

  3. Essentially, a well written example of emotional intelligence. From interpersonal conflict resolution to understanding the lives of others and how they navigate social constructs, Mr. Utt show how listening and empathizing can affect personal, social, and global understanding and change.

    Our words and how we use them say much about who we are. What do your words say about you?

  4. erin maynard says:

    Can’t agree here. I actually use a variant of this argument all the time: accidentally stepping on someone’s foot versus stomping on it on purpose. Yeah, either way it hurts. But ontent matters. This idea that someone, somewhere must be assigned blame for everything wrong that happens is why we have such a entitled and litigatious society. Intent absolutely matters. That’s why things are called accidents, not on-purposements.


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