Declaring your anti-racist intentions may make you more racist.

It is probably not a good idea to publicly declare that you intend to be less racist, or that you are trying to be less racist. Doing so may make you less likely to change, which would result in you continuing with your racist behaviours.

In a post titled, Shut up! Announcing your plans makes you less motivated to accomplish them., Derek Sivers writes:

Tests done since 1933 show that people who talk about their intentions are less likely to make them happen.

Announcing your plans to others satisfies your self-identity just enough that you’re less motivated to do the hard work needed.

In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

NYU psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer has been studying this since his 1982 book “Symbolic Self-Completion” (pdf article here) – and recently published results of new tests in a research article, “When Intentions Go Public: Does Social Reality Widen the Intention-Behavior Gap?”

Four different tests of 63 people found that those who kept their intentions private were more likely to achieve them than those who made them public and were acknowledged by others.

Once you’ve told people of your intentions, it gives you a “premature sense of completeness.”

You have “identity symbols” in your brain that make your self-image. Since both actions and talk create symbols in your brain, talking satisfies the brain enough that it “neglects the pursuit of further symbols.”

This may be the problem that Mai’a identified from her experiences conducting anti-racist workshops with white people. Teaching white people anti-racism theory may actually be harmful, because it allows them to be better racists. Mai’a writes:

its like us giving white folks all the correct rhetoric just allows for them to be able to better racists, because they are able to justify their racism using anti-racist rhetoric.

in that they are able to say things like: i realize that such and such is a function of racism and then they continue to do the same fucking thing that they just acknowledged was racist.

As Mai’a noted, this happens all the time. All the time.

A person who commented on that post, named Holly, provided a useful phrase that is relevant to the problem: “The work is not the workshop.” The problem with “learning” theory is that people are often unable to apply it to real-life situations, yet they can use their theoretical learning to “complete” their self-identity as an anti-racist, etc. This, in turn, would make them less likely to examine their privilege or the ways they oppress.

Instead of spending energy talking the talk, use your energy to walk the walk. And don’t tell anyone that you have done so.

Related links:

8 Responses to “Declaring your anti-racist intentions may make you more racist.”

  1. jwbe Says:

    >In 1933, W. Mahler found that if a person announced the solution to a problem, and was acknowledged by others, it was now in the brain as a “social reality”, even if the solution hadn’t actually been achieved.

    I guess this is the problem, that the intention to do something is already acknowledged.

  2. Bonny Says:

    For some reason I cannot agree with this, declaring my intentions has always worked for me, although those were manifested in physical benchmarks, such as grades, sleep, skateboard tricks I am going to learn, etc. Clearly this is anecdotal, as are the food logs of people intending to lose weight that I read sometimes. But in general the way I experience things I accomplish something much faster if I declare my intentions.

    I suppose one could never gauge how much progress one has made in being antiracist, and thus after declaring it believes they have made enough progress.

  3. Restructure! Says:


    Yes, I had linked a related article that clarifies this in the Related links list.

  4. thewhatifgirl Says:

    Very good to know.

  5. Kathy Says:

    Well, since this test is a general observation about people, it’s probably true, most people are not going to commit themselves to anti-racist self-improvement and committment to social justice on a daily basis. Some people probably do make a committment, I try not to take offense or feel personally attacked by this, but it is a good reminder. Thanks

  6. Another Step in a Long Journey « What If Says:

    […] A major clue as to what my be better came in the form of Restructure!’s post, Declaring your anti-racist intentions may make you more racist. […]

  7. Slumberjack Says:

    Found this to be pertinent analysis of white anti-racist intentions:

    “Even more, I expected that white people, especially those who deeply understood white privilege, would be exemplifying what it means to be white anti-racists. There would be no being ignored, held in suspicion, distrusted, counted out, or dismissed. Here white people would not be letting the door swing back in my face as so often happens when I enter or leave a room. Instead, I would have glimpses of what it felt like to be in a truly inclusive, open, and understanding place where my racial experiences were uniquely valued, and I in turn could value the racial experiences of white people who actually believed they had racial experiences. So, I was especially curious to see what that behavior looked like from white people, and I “knew” I would see it there in Pella as I descended the stairs of the Country Inn and Suites in preparation for a full day of conference presentations.”

  8. intentions Says:

    @Bonny: just a guess here, but it sounds like you’re using stating of intentions as a self-motivating goal, which is different than what the article is talking about. the dynamic referred to in the article is more like getting the reward before the hard work, rather than setting an achievement marker.

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