Validate the intent to witness the impact

3 Dec 2018 7:43 AM | Jim Macedone (Administrator)

Validate the intent to witness the impact

by Uma Dorn

In the polarization of values within the current political climate, there is little common ground that allows for understanding each other. As a woman of color who teaches a diversity course to graduate students — often on different sides of the political spectrum, I have continued to work toward creating a space to encourage and to engage in dialogue. However, I have been met with a construct described as white fragility that often circumvents the space in subtle, and not so subtle, ways. 

DiAngelo (2018) describes white fragility within the framework of “protective pillows” where the “insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress (p. 55).” I would argue that along with race, other privileges (able-bodied, heterosexuality, high socio-economic status, high education, etc.) also provide us with pillows of privilege that insulate us from discomfort. The comfort or discomfort that pervades the spaces of racialized conversation and conversations around privilege often works to align with privilege creating tension around discussions related to identities. 

I have struggled with engaging students to understand the impact of -isms (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc)/micro-aggressions on the receiver. Microaggressions are an insidious byproduct of -isms, they are subtle assaults, insults that are directed towards marginalized identities (more often due to lack of awareness). I am often cognizant of my own reactions around the defensiveness and the fragility that arises from bringing awareness to these aversive interactions when they occur. My reactions often begin with anger and are overlaid with feelings of grief, hurt, and hopelessness.  As part of an ongoing research project in understanding the complexities of teaching such a class, I intiated a new intervention – instead of beginning the dialogue with the impact of the microaggressive or racist/sexist comment that was directed towards me, I began by validating the intent of the person committing the microaggression. The fear that folks with privileged statuses often have, is that of being labeled as racist/sexist/ableist and the implication of being forever “bad.” In working to validate the intent, I hoped to remove the focus from them being a “bad” person, and shift that focus to understanding the impact.  When I first considered this intervention, I had a visceral reaction that I was in some ways aligning with racism/sexism etc. However, my ultimate goal is change and my experience was that bringing down defenses is important to support the change process. The caveat being that, with most of my interactions of microaggresssions, there is no real mal intent, in cases of mal intent I would not validate the intent.

Here is an example of the intervention:

Micro-aggression/racist comment: You are smart for a person of color. 

Validating the intent: I know you meant that as a compliment and that you see me as smart (empathy with the intent), AND

Voicing the impact: I am feeling hurt by that comment. 

Witnessing the impact: The validation allows the person to hear everything along with the validation and to witness the hurt (most of the time).

Here is what I experienced and observed:

  1. I felt more empathy for the person who micro-aggressed –I was able to connect with them in a way that decreased my feelings of anger, hurt, and grief. 
  2. I went from feeling separate from the person to empathizing with their intent (which varied based on the micro-aggression, racist, sexist comment). 
  3. I was able to share and express my feelings rather than defending them.
  4. I felt like they heard me and understood the context of my feelings. 
  5. I was able to have a dialogue around the micro-aggressive nature of the statement rather than being sidetracked by a discussion about the person’s character.
My hope is that as individuals engage in this type of dialogue it creates a stronger relationship/alliance for further feedback/sharing of the impact in later interactions. This also reduces the fear of shame associated with admitting our own micro-aggressions and for an expansion of understanding for both individuals. 


DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility : Why it's so hard for White people to talk about racism. 

Boston: Beacon press.

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