Intentions & Impacts

A recent mention of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Big Bend reminded me that a neutral policy can have a racist impact.

I worked at a non-profit that sold an annual family pass; free entry for a household and any out-of-town guests. After a decade or so, family was re-defined: only household members. After the change, we encouraged the entrance staff to confirm that a group presenting a family pass represented members of a single household. One day a clerk asked the ‘household’ question of an adult with a child. The woman answered that she was a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the child was her ‘Little Sister’. The clerk said that the family pass did not cover the child. The member noted that they would not have been questioned if they had the same skin color.

I was brought in to defend the policy: “The membership information clearly stated . . . (etc.)”. The policy’s intention was not racist; but its implementation had a racist impact. Did this have a happy ending? Not really. We did not charge admission for the child. I reminded the admissions clerk that mixed-race households exist. But first, the three of us—Big Sister, Little Sister, Policy Enforcer—had a calm but totally unnecessary private conversation about The Policy (that no doubt spoiled the joy of the outing).

One aspect of working to become an anti-racist institution is considering policies, and the possibility of racist consequences. Unintentional racism happens. A well-meant intention doesn’t excuse the impact.