I’m leading a group discussion circle on “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad. I’m taking the journaling challenge daily throughout February even though I’m not white. If you happen to be white, why not take the challenge? If I can do it, you can do it too.
Day 20 Questions (from the text):
1. What have you felt, thought, said, or done when called out/in? How have you centered yourself and your intentions over BIPOC and the impact of your actions?
2. If it has not happened to you yet, how do you think you will react when it happens, based on your level of self-awareness, personal antiracism work, and white fragility?
3. When you have been called out/in, how have you handled apologizing and making amends?
4. What are your biggest fears about being called out/in?
5. Think back over the topics we have covered so far in this book. What behaviors and beliefs most get in your way of being able to respond appropriately to being called out/in?
In week 3 we’ve reached the section on allyship. As this section by definition cannot apply to me personally, I will share some observations that may be helpful for my allies and would-be allies.
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Part 1 : On Callout Culture
Despite what I just said above, this particular day’s journal entry can apply to me, and it has. About two years ago I found myself in an online keyboard war with another community leader. I first called them out, then they called me out for, among other things, calling them out. What ensued was a multi-day social media skirmish that had people pointing fingers, stepping down from leadership positions, leaving groups. It was messy and taxing all around.
But after all that was done, and everyone was exhausted and depleted of fight energy, something happened. We began listening to why the other party felt the way they did. Like, really listening, with the aim of understanding and not rebuttal.
As it turns out, it took a few weeks for the dust to settle and the trust to heal, but we ended up burying the proverbial hatchet. We even began supporting one another and joined forces to heal the damage we had done to our respective groups and the community as a whole. No, this did not mean that we saw eye to eye on every issue or even the issue that originally sparked the disagreement. But we acknowledged that there was an opportunity for everyone to grow and learn from it, space for everyone in the community, and what we had in common (our passion for social justice) could take on multiple forms and fill multiple niches at once. And that there was room for everyone at the table without toes being stepped on.
And speaking of toes being stepped on, I am going to steal the author’s analogy of accidentally stepping on someone’s toe to illustrate the concept of impact vs. intent. It’s as brilliant as it is simple. In case you missed it — when we are called out for our behavior we often get defensive, often pointing out that our intent was not to do harm, but to do good. We get defensive. Sometimes we refuse to apologize. Now imagine a scenario where you accidentally step on someone’s toe and behave in a similar manner. It makes absolutely no sense. I am going to keep this metaphor in mind going forward.
Impact > intent.
Notice I said when not if you are called out — if you are doing it right and taking risks and making mistakes (as per day 15) you will at some point get called out for doing so. As you should.
Don’t misunderstand me though — when someone calls you out it’s perfectly normal to feel:
- personally offended
- attacked or wrongly accused
- like you want to abandon your efforts
All of these are normal feelings when you are the focus of a call out (or call in). But remember that neither your feelings, nor your intentions necessarily invalidate the point of the person making the claim. Take time as you might need to to sit with these feelings and question why they are manifesting. Examine them. Take as long as you need. Then examine why you are being called out by listening to the grievances posed to you, to what the person calling you out is trying to get across to you. Question whether or not they have your best interest in mind (they may), or possibly the interest of someone your behavior may have hurt, even unintentionally.
Part 2: On Cancel Culture
While we are on the subject of callout culture, I feel it is important to also mention cancel culture. To illustrate how I feel about it I’d like to tell you about my involvement with white power Freddy and Bucks County Batman.
Back in my Crossfit days of yore, I would spend each and every lunch break at the gym with several coworkers and other gym enthusiasts from nearby places of employment. We were a pretty tight-knit group, we encouraged one another through the grueling workouts, talked, joked, laughed. It was all great fun.
Enter white power Freddy.
We did not, of course, call him that to his face. He worked with one of the gym members that had been in our group for a few years. This person invited Freddy to work out with us one day, and much to everyone’s surprise (including the person who had invited him), Freddy sported a rebel flag tattoo on his shoulder which he was able to cover at work, but not in a tank top.
Needless to say this did not go unnoticed, but it did go unspoken, except for in private company, away from the gym.
As if the ink was not a dead giveaway, his entire demeanor set my Spider-sense off. At one point he said something in passing disparaging Sub-Saharan Africans as calmly as if he were talking about what he had for breakfast. I soon would learn he was an ex-cop — mostly by the way he talked about “those people” in the “inner cities” where he had done police work. I never revealed to him what I did for a living, but he knew my co-workers in the group worked for a tech company. One day, about three weeks in, he asked me:
“Hey man — you work with these guys, right?”
“What do you do there?”
I could see the wheels turning in his head. I knew exactly why he was asking, and I was tempted to say something like “I sweep the floors” or “I restock the cooler” just to mess with him. But as that would not reflect well on folks who earn a decent living in those ways, I leveled with him.
“I write code.”
The wheels in his head continued to turn as he took a minute to process this information.
“Huh.” Was all he said.
I wanted to say back “Yes, Fred, Black dude writes code.” I refrained.
Fast forward several months. Fred is consistently showing up to work out with us. We carry on as we always have, wincing inside whenever Fred decides to go sleeveless, or when he wears the NRA shirt with the logo fashioned after Major League Baseball, only instead of a baseball bat the figure is pointing a rifle. Sure, it was completely cringeworthy, but our only real recourse was to not work out with the group like we had been doing for several years, and we all felt that to do that would be a worse trade off than enduring Fred’s casual racism.
Besides, as the months and years went on, Fred started to change. The chip on his shoulder meted away with the seasons like so much ice. He opened up and stopped trying so hard to prove himself or vie for our approval. He, at some point, somehow learned how not to say racist shit like he did when he first joined the group, or at least learned enough tact to care enough to not do it in our presence.
After about two years in, he revealed to us that he HAD changed, and that our group was entirely responsible. It took two years, of working out with this guy every day, but he, on his own, changed his behavior and I’m willing to wager his outlook as well. And no, he couldn’t change the ink on his arm, so we all agreed to continue looking past it.
Oh, and we didn’t call him white power Freddy anymore.
Now, it is proven that proximity to people who differ is the fastest way to overcome personal bias, and in this case that proximity was facilitated by our small gym group and mutual willingness to tolerate difference. I understand that in a lot of cases a scenario like this is unlikely to materialize organically, and even less likely to last the two-year duration that it seemed to take for lasting change to occur. We got lucky with this one. But just ask Daryl Davis, or the folks responsible for a reformed Derek Black — this can be an effective, if time consuming way of countering racial intolerance.
I’m telling you this tale to point out — you’ll hear people say that cancel culture is toxic, that it destroys lives and doesn’t leave people able to recover from mistakes they’ve made, sometimes from years ago. And I would just like to point out, that similar to callout culture, cancel culture should have the aim of changed behavior from the offending parties. If ample evidence of improved behavior exists, then maybe it’s time to consider some restorative justice. As the saying goes — reward the behavior you want to see.
Case in point — one time the organization I co-lead was having a family event, and we decided to enlist Bucks County Batman to come entertain any children present. When we announced his upcoming appearance to our group, people pointed out to me that in the past he had been a supporter of the “All Lives Matter” movement, which is in direct conflict with what the organization I co-lead believes and our message. People informed me that during protests in Philadelphia the year before he was supporting the police that were trapping people on the highways, as well as cops that were attacking protesters, and that he was called out by other local cosplayers as a result.
The first thing I attempted to do was verify these claims. But then I stopped, realizing that this was a chance for Batman to show people he had possibly had a change of heart and attitude. He knew what we stood for, and he was willing to drive well out of his way, for free, to join us in our cause, which he did gladly, politely, and without incident.
My point — if we rule out anyone who has ever misstepped or done anything “wrong” forever, then we miss opportunities for them to learn, grow, and change. That’s the entire reason we are here. What’s more, none of us can clear that bar, not me, not you, not even Batman. If we cast aside those who misstep (intentionally or unintentionally) on a permanent basis, we may alienate future allies. Just something to chew on.
So while both callout culture and cancel culture both play an important role, so does knowing when to call off the cancellation.