4 Ways Our Good Intentions Go Wrong on Race and Poverty


In our previous conversation (ie blog), I mentioned two kinds of meetings, the comfortable and the uncomfortable.  While most of us likely relate to the comfortable meetings, I still spend some part of most meetings, feeling uncomfortable.  And it’s not because I don’t know what’s expected of me during the meetings.  In fact, it’s the very opposite.  I DO know what’s expected – I bristle at the social norms that keep me in check, the voice that helped me get in the door:  Don’t make too many waves.  If you are going to say something that might be construed as even slightly radical, lead up to it gently.  Don’t expect anyone to support your comment.  You have to make it palatable – they won’t know what to do with it.  (I suspect my POC peers have heard that voice, too.)

As a colleague commented, “If you want to talk about race, the conversation always shifts to poverty, or some other subject that is easier to talk about.”  All. The. Time. I pick my battles, make a path.  It’s the long-view, and a longing for, an arc that bends toward justice. If you have instigated this shift, let’s be clear:

A conversation about poverty is not about equity.

We know Race and Poverty are intimately linked. Even when we intentionally create spaces to talk about racism, yes, someone will inevitably shift the conversation from race to poverty. This redirection does four important, counterproductive things:

  1. It whitewashes the nuanced experiences of people of color and the context of power.

White folks want to empathize with historic hardships by focusing on how they and their immigrant ancestors (in the US context) moved up social and economic ladders. But this rush to inauthentic empathy bypasses a necessary acknowledgement of power.  It places no accountability on systems that intentionally divided families, segregated resources, and stripped cultural identity.  It reduces race from systemic to personal, demonstrated by using “race” and “ethnicity” interchangeably.  It’s hard (but possible) to bear witness to the reality of injustice and not insert oneself as a victim – lest someone mistake you for the perpetrator. (You are not one or the other, it’s more complicated than that.)

  1. It allows us to disengage from self-reflection that may uncover racially-based implicit biases (that we all have).

No one wants to sit uncomfortably with sympathy that borders on pity (or charity); and even less people will risk making a comment that could be construed to as racist.  Racism is so personally and politically charged that many people feel it isn’t a suitable topic for polite conversation. If we deny that racism can be, and is too often, institutionalized (with and without individual racists) we default to individual anecdotes (see #1 above).  Institutionalized racism is our way of life.

  1. It reinforces a dominant narrative of individual merit that undermines social and systems change.

America’s promise is that hard work will be rewarded; people get what they deserve.  By saying different people have different outcomes, we can simultaneously rationalize our privilege and uphold our values of diversity.  The flip side of this philosophy means: if you don’t have something, it is because you don’t deserve it.  It is the false promise of meritocracy.  This line of reasoning positions cultural diversity (what we are raised with) as a tolerable, however inaccurate, explanation for disparities.  With this frame, Asians become model minorities and African Americans become criminals.  Regardless of the stereotype, it never works in our favor in the long-run.

  1. It appropriates the space by asserting that the conversation is not inclusive of all people, of all experiences, of all forms of oppression.

And we are back to having the All Lives Matter conversation.  We say all, but what we usually mean is most – and generally most is not even most people, it’s most efficient – and most efficient based on an assumed universal experience.    Perhaps a better approach to “all” people, is targeted universalism which pays attention to how groups are situated differently with regard to resources, access, and opportunities in order to counter marginalization.  We are all human, but our lived experiences vary and evolve.  Give us space to be more than one thing: to be a woman and a person of color, to be an immigrant and deaf, to be religious and gay.  We are complicated.  This requires a heightened, not simplified, awareness of intersectionality across identities and communities.

Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about race.  Uneasy. Unfun.  We can start by unraveling what our discomfort does to redirect the issues.  When we interject Poverty over Race, we move away from, not toward, equity.

P.S. There’s probably more than four ways good intentions go wrong on this, but you know, deadlines and word limits…  I’ll let you help list them in the comments or just leave an emoji – cheers.

Sida Ly-Xiong is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Francesca El-Attrash

I’m really glad someone is taking the time to use this forum as a platform to talk about the uncomfortable issues behind race and identity in the US. You have a follower in me, Sida!

Karen T

#s 3 and 4 on your list make the most sense to me. I remember a woman telling me that she didn’t go to college because she did not have a responsible adult in her life at that time, to help her through the process. That had never occurred to me! There are a lot of reasons others didn’t/don’t get the same opportunities.

Sonia Chakrabarty

Another incredibly powerful piece. Thank you for forcing us to acknowledge ways good intentions can go awry. I look forward to your future pieces.

Rita Vaz

Is there such a term as reversed racial discrimination? I am the only Asian American employee in a Federal Agency field office and fellow black minorities have turned on me to subject me to intense and merciless harassment. I feel powerless and bewildered that management is so reluctant to ensure and prioritize my safety.


good choices are definitely important, but this assumes that everyone has the same choices, and the same consequences. the educational field has done a great job understanding and reframing this as the Opportunity Gap and the Justice system is finally starting to realize that it doles out different consequences for similar “bad choices” – both education and justice are seeing these play out by race.