Jenny's Library

Reading Russ – Part 3

Posted on: April 18, 2013

Chapter 2 – Bad Faith

Back when I worked at the bookstore, one of my tasks – one of the tasks of every employee – was to greet every patron.  Depending on how busy we were, this could meant that an individual customer might be greeted several times – often only seconds apart – as they made their way through the store.  They reacted to this with varying degrees of politeness and annoyance.  One lovely day I even had a patron blow up at me and accuse me of…well, I can’t remember her specific words anymore, but she clearly thought the employees as a whole were only pestering so that she would leave.

I, of course, was startled, offended, and annoyed in turn at her.  Why would we want customers to leave? Do people not know that we are told to do this?  That we can get fired if we don’t?  Does she really think she is so special that we only treat her this way?

Mostly though, I was upset because she was right and I didn’t have a solution that would let me not be an asshole and also allow me to keep on my boss’s good side.

Once I had done my own venting at home, I realized this.  That it didn’t matter what my intentions had been, and that – having deliberately employed the very same tactic on visitors that we suspected might be up to no good – I could see why she might think that us constantly asking her if she needed help was a sign that we were keeping an eye on her.  An experience that, being black, she probably had to deal with much more often than I ever had.  And, unlike me, not one that she could avoid merely by switching to carrying a purse rather than a backpack.

Intent is something that is brought up a lot in discussions about harassment, sexist writing, bigoted jokes, and well – just about anything really.  It’s often said that intent doesn’t matter.  I don’t think this is true, I think intent can help determine who is capable of change and inform the arguments used.  What intent does not do, however, is trump the harm being done or mean that the person having done harm should be shielded from the consequences of what they did.Intent is not the end of an argument.  It rarely even belongs in the argument to begin with.

“…talk of sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynistic  or bigot and vague , half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.”

While short, Russ’s second chapter is nevertheless essential for defining the boundaries of the arguments of the book as a whole.  She is not assuming bad faith, nor is she discounting the possibility.  What she is doing is disagreeing with those that would accuse her of bad faith, of assuming that she means that every harm is done deliberately – either because they willfully ignore unintended hurts themselves or because it makes her an easier target…or both.

(originally published at


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