Listening well as a person of privilege: Recognize the limitations of good intentions

Note: This is the 4th post in an ongoing series on Listening Well as a Person of Privilege. If you’ve been energized by this series, I encourage you to be on the lookout for my book “The Priesthood of the Privileged” which I hope will be out at some point in 2014.

Privileged Christians almost always mean well.  No one (or at least hardly anyone) consciously sets out to silence, oppress and dishonor diverse people.  No one (or at least hardly anyone) wants to be prejudiced toward diverse people. Even those who discover that they are biased feel pretty awful about it and want to make things right. For the most part, when it comes to treating others with respect and love, privileged Christians’ hearts are in the right place.

So why is it that many people of color feel marginalized by privileged Christians? In his devastatingly accurate account of a common black experience in white evangelical America, Edward Gilbreath quotes Bruce Fields, a black professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. “People sometimes ignore you. Or, if there is attention directed toward you, it is subtly communicated that you are not to be taken as seriously as a white person of similar status, experience, and credentials.”

When privileged people hear such reports from oppressed people, they often respond with, “But we didn’t mean to ignore them!” or “We try so hard to be really nice and welcoming to them.  I don’t get why they don’t see that.” When they do this, they make the grave mistake of thinking that intentions are (mostly) all that matter.

“It’s the thought that counts” is a belief that permeates Christian culture. Cultural psychologist Adam Cohen[i] has studied differences between Christians and Jews and found that if a married man thinks about having an affair, Christians consider this adultery, but Jews do not. Cohen concludes Christians believe that thoughts are equal to or more morally important than actions, but that Jews believe the opposite.  For many Christians, having a heart in the right place is the most important thing.

The Christian overemphasis on attitudes and intentions wouldn’t be a problem if people’s attitudes and intentions generally matched their behavior.  But unfortunately they do not. Research on the link between attitudes and behavior has consistently shown that attitudes often fail to predict people’s specific behaviors.[ii] Privileged folks with good intentions can believe that it’s important to honor diverse people and then fail to act in a way that is consistent with their beliefs and intentions.

Those who desire to listen well must recognize the limitations of good intentions. At the end of the day, whether privileged people’s hearts are in the right place matters very little if the people around them feel silenced, ignored and marginalized. Jesus spoke eloquently of love and then famously backed it up by demonstrating love in a way that resonated with the targets of his love.  Privileged people must measure the outcomes of their interactions with oppressed people, not just their intentions.

Research suggests that attitudes/thoughts/intentions are more likely to match their behavior when both the attitudes/thoughts/intentions and behaviors are specifically spelled out.[iii]  For example, a person’s attitude in favor of general health will not predict their likelihood to jog four times a week. (Plenty of couch potatoes believe that exercise is generally a good thing.) However, a person’s attitude toward jogging four times a week will absolutely predict their likelihood to jog four times a week.

If privileged people want to avoid a mismatch between their good intentions to their behaviors, they must identify both their specific intentions and the specific behaviors that correspond with those intentions. A general attitude in favor of reconciliation won’t necessarily lead to behaviors that reflect that attitude. More specific attitudes like “It’s important to empower the women of color at my church” are needed.  And the specific attitudes need to be matched with specific behaviors like developing leadership/mentoring programs that successfully target women of color and addressing cultural biases that discredit diverse leadership styles. In order to accomplish this task, both the privileged and oppressed people must work together to spell out the specific intentions and behaviors that are needed.

Following Jesus’ example, privileged people with good intentions must find ways to demonstrate them in ways that resonate with oppressed people. Good intentions alone will not suffice.

[i] Cohen, A. B. (2011). Religion and Culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 4(4).

[ii] Wicker, 1969; Kraus, 1995; Glasman & Albarracin, 2006

[iii] Azjen, 1987; Azjen & Fishbein, 1977

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