Intent Vs Impact In the Workplace

Many moons ago when I was just out of college, I was doing my first Off-Broadway show and having a casual conversation with one of the other young actors. “What’s your dream role?” he asked. “Oh! I’ve always wanted to play Guinevere in Camelot!” I said. The young man replied, “Well I guess you could do that – in theatre for the blind.” 

I am 150% sure that he did not intend to scar me for life, nor give me the inspiration for a life in advocacy – but in fact, he did. And though I have had the good fortune to have a robust life in the theatre, playing many incredible roles since then (and many that were not originally imagined for an actor of Asian-American descent), I learned in that very moment that I might always be defined by the shape of my eyes – and I've been motivated to fight that concept ever since.

I didn't know how to respond to that young actor. And even within the last year, when a colleague that I respect and love joked about the shape of my eyes in a truly pejorative way, I still found myself unable to express how hurt I was by the joke. Instead, I went down a lonely rabbit hole of self-flagellation, berating myself for looking the way I do; painfully reminded that I have a physical trait that has sometimes been used to ridicule me or used, on occasion, as a reason not to hire me.

How can we stop the cycle of “harmless intent, horrible impact?” When finding ourselves in similar situations, what if we didn't have to bear the onus of hurtful comments? What if we could speak truth to power, while also emboldening the health of our relationships? How can our allies learn to be conscious of when their behavior might be insensitive? 

And let’s go many steps further, from micro-aggressions all the way to macro-aggressions. In extreme cases of discrimination and/or bullying based on a person’s race, disability, gender, gender identification, sexual orientation, veteran status, pregnancy status (and more), I’m reminded of what we’ve been taught in anti-sexual harassment training and how it can apply to any situation that creates a hostile workplace. From The Actors Fund:

If you experience offensive, intimidating and potentially harassing behavior, remember the three R’s - Respond, Report, Record.

  • Respond – If you are comfortable, you can tell the offending party that their behavior is unwelcome and needs to stop. Responding directly will not always change their behavior, but it does communicate that it is unwanted. Responding is not necessary before reporting harassment to your union. 
  • Report the incident to your Equity business representative, if you’re comfortable having the Union involved. By reaching out to your union rep, you are allowing your union to support you in addressing the issue. Your business representative can help you navigate your options and connect you with information and resources. By reaching out to your business representative, you are not committing to any particular action. Your union can explain to you the process of addressing the issue with your employer and provide support. 
  • Record – It is important to document each incident of harassment, noting information concerning the situation such as what happened, what was said, when it occurred, where the incident took place and who was present.

Actors’ Equity also has started partnering with Lighthouse Services, Inc to provide a confidential online tool to report harassment. Online reporting supplements (rather than replaces) speaking with a business rep or seeking assistance from The Actors Fund. More information can be found here:

The theatre is a complicated, wonderful place in which to work. We form intimacies quickly. A level of trust must be established in order to do our best work. What if we could also establish enough trust to talk with one another in ways that can illuminate intent vs. impact, expressing and receiving this kind of communication with compassion and respect, and working towards a greater understanding of the many layers that are involved in bias and discrimination? What if we could all ask ourselves, “How can I be a better ally?” What if answering these questions can move us toward preventing situations from escalating to the point of becoming an untenable workplace where “The Three R’s” need to be implemented? I’d like to think that it’s a start. 

If each one of us can be the ambassador of our own truths, maybe we can start healing these unspoken but very real rifts, together. I think it’s worth trying.

Originally published in Equity News, Summer 2019.