Disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of emphasizing “call out culture,” because I think it can draw attention away from the systems of oppression by focusing on individual behaviors. It in itself sounds really, really neoliberal. The perversion of ‘the personal is political’ is by and far one of the more annoying things I encounter, and this piece will be my one intentional exception to that. I do believe that all of us have to learn to address our oppressive behaviors, because we need to foster solidarity in our communities.
Recently I’ve come into a number of situations where I’ve called people out for some bigoted, oppressive thing they’ve said, and the way these different folks responded varied greatly. Some acknowledged what they did and thanked me for calling them out, and the other extreme end that I’ve experienced is someone writing an essay in how wrong I am and how big of an asshole I am for calling them out. Yikes. The number of folks in the in-between area are much more common, and they range from mild defensiveness to stubborn denial. This piece is more geared towards people who feel personally victimized when they are called out, as if I am challenging every aspect of their being and coming down on them with a warhammer when I say something like “Hey, the word ‘crazy’ is ableist. Please don’t say it.” To them I say: Get used to it, and no, I’m not sorry.
Yes, I do understand that I can’t control where people are coming from and where they’re at in their social justice journey. Yes, I get that some folks come from very privileged backgrounds and have rarely, if ever, been exposed to any realities of oppression. Yes, I have heard so many times that people need to be met where they’re at, but too many times do I see people not getting pushed from where they’re at. A bird’s gotta learn to fly one of these days, and if they won’t, you might as well leave them where they’re at. Calling people out is essential.
Being better about getting called out requires three things: letting go of your pride. Let it go, let it go, get it gone, ba-bye, c’est la vie, throw it aside, hang up that phone, toodle-loo, discard, breathe it out, say goodbye, forget it, kick it out, let it go. I’m serious. Take your pride and chuck it, because what we all have to acknowledge, specifically when getting called out on our oppressive behaviors, is what our pride has stake in, what it’s rooted in. When it comes to the facets of our identity which have the capacity to leverage oppression, that means their stake is rooted in oppression. What is being challenged is where we have systemic power. Is it really so bad to have that shaken up? Nah.
Learning to be humble when called out on your oppressive behaviors necessitates an exploration of one’s pride and ego. If one’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets, then it is necessary to destabilize that connection. A quick way to identify if someone’s pride and ego are invested in their privileged facets is gauging their reaction to phrases like “Cis people are awful.” If their reaction is something along the lines of, “But not all cis people!” then you likely have someone whose pride and ego is rooted in their privileged facets. Another marker of this is when people project their shortcomings onto others, or externalize their failures. They won’t hold themselves responsible because it threatens their pride and what it’s rooted in.
The second required thing is ownership. You have to hold yourself accountable and know that you’re imperfect and are going to mess up. Every single one of us has said and done something violent, oppressive, and problematic. It’s because we live in a society that’s built upon white supremacy, ciscentrism, ableism, and more. All of us have been conditioned to participate in (passively and actively) the oppression of those unlike us as well as those within our own communities. We all have to own that, and when others tell us where and how we are being complicit in this, or simply say we’re being complicit/oppressive, we need to listen. It is never on the marginalized to educate their oppressors. They are never required to name what, how, why, in which part of the world, under what hypothetical circumstances, and the specific words/actions in context that make your behavior is oppressive. It is on all of us to unpack our behaviors once we are aware of them. If we’re not aware of them, then it’s up to us to begin that search.
The last part is learning to reflect on mistakes, not dwell on them. Of all the parts, I find this one to be the most difficult. Speaking as someone who is neurodivergent and someone who has gone through sexual violence, dwelling has been and still is a large chunk of my experience. Conceiving of myself as lesser, to amplify my mistakes, and how others are correct in their positioning me as unworthy and in need of correction, denying me my mental, emotional, and sexual agency. That’s what I was taught, and I was taught to focus on these things. I have made huge strides in getting away from this mode of thinking after a lot of therapy, but I still struggle. To describe briefly the difference between reflection and dwelling: Reflection is the honesty that accompanies looking back at shortcomings, asking oneself how they could have done better and considering other variables accompanying the situation. Dwelling is the amplification of failure (whether that failure is real or fabricated by others and imposed on you), and it is harmful to one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Marginalized people, in some way or another, are conditioned to accept that they are lesser and dwell on this as though it were fact. This last piece, to me, is one that I’m much more understanding of and willing to help the person process and unpack. It is also the part that, once I notice it’s a factor, I approach with an added amount of kindness and patience. This does not excuse someone’s unwillingness to unpack, but it explains their unwillingness.
Getting called out doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. How you respond to being called out, however, might seriously suggest otherwise. If you’re serious about social justice, be ready to have your peers call you out. We call each other out because we want to do better, we want others to do better, and we want to improve our culture. That starts with holding ourselves and each other accountable for when we cause harm. It means predicating our actions on justice, not comfort.