I recently attended the Women of Color Trailblazers Leadership Conference at Mount Holyoke College and had the most insightful experience while hearing Dr. Loretta Ross explain her thoughts and theories regarding call-out culture in social justice movements (but specifically on college campuses).
I, as well as my friend next to me, felt a deep resonance from Loretta’s words because we both have had unpleasant run-ins in what can be dubbed the "call-out" culture rampant at MHC.
Picture this: You’re in class and a social justice topic is being discussed. You raise your hand to give an opinion about the role you feel allies play in the movement. Someone else hears you and shoots their hand to tell you that 1. You’re wrong and 2. Allies should play a limited role because x,y,z and so on, and some people snap their fingers and aggressively nod. Maybe you said something problematic and that person has every right to disagree with you. But I would argue that there is something inherently problematic with call-out culture, when it begins to police and shut down other people, often times in detrimental ways.
On setting the record straight for activists that call-out people:
The movement does not work for you, you work for the movement
The social justice movement seeks to dismantle oppression in all its forms and intersections and is supported by activists and allies that fight for this unified goal. But we must understand that while some of us have our survival and the survival of our people at stake, the movement is not for us individually, it's for everyone collectively. This guiding principle is necessary when we consider calling-out someone.
Loretta argues that calling-in, in its most basic form, is deciding to bring someone into the movement through conversation. Calling-in by nature is meant to engage. It is not angry or impatient. It seeks to educate, to create dialogue, to make folks join the movement. When we call-in, we are working for the movement.
I'll tell you what I first thought when I heard this: are you really gonna hit me with some respectability politics bullshit? Are we about to tell oppressed people how they need to go about in dismantling their oppression? Are we going to make oppressed folks responsible for educating their oppressors? Are we having the audacity to assume that all folks are suddenly on some imaginary train called “the movement” where we happily dismantle the monolithic oppression monster?
In short, no. Our righteous anger is valid. I am speaking from a place of experience when I say that I have been silenced by men of color in my community who think there is no space for my voice because I am a woman. I have had white people outright reject my experiences of discrimination because the concept seemed so foreign. I have visited vigils that commemorate stolen lives and bodies claimed by our oppressors. I know that the constant violence and attack on oppressed people creates a social PTSD, which as a result has instilled skepticism in our everyday actions as a method of survival.
Those feelings and experiences are not up for dispute. They are real. But what Dr. Loretta presents is that if we are calling-in, truly calling-in, then it must be done by someone willing to promote the goals of the movement through a concept called “bridging.” When you act as a bridge, you connect that person to the movement, not against it. It’s important to note that we are all at different social locations. Perhaps someone is not up for bridging, nor should they be, and if that's the case that is okay. But for our movement to grow and "change hearts and minds", some of us must be.
Where the calling out happens: a public setting vs. a private setting
This one is especially relevant for allies.
When you go about calling-someone out in public, who is it for? What is the purpose?
Often times, especially in the elitist university environment, calling-out has become less about working for the movement and more about hearing "snaps" of approval and feeling an audience stroke your ego.
Again, distinctions are useful: snaps when a person shares a lived experience -- a moment that takes immense courage and vulnerability -- those are clearly snaps of encouragement and support (to the speaker and their narrative).
But snaps about aggressive language policing, especially in a classroom setting, are less productive. I question these snaps precisely because social justice is meant to work for the oppressed. Therefore, we cannot hold everyone to standards of being "up to date" with the latest academic jargon that, by definition, is incredibly limited in accessibility.
Furthermore, if someone is calling-out because they specifically want an audience, I question whether it is truly for the learning experience of a group or rather an opportunity to show everyone how smart you are.
Your need to have people acknowledge how "with-it" and "down" you are for our causes does not by any means excuse public shaming, alienation, or any other detrimental behavior towards another person.
I am very skeptical of people that enjoy having an audience, especially when it is an ally trying to prove themselves. It’s worth considering whether you can address the issue and call-in the person in private.
For these criticisms and recommendations to work, we must use our good judgment. And always, when in doubt, we should look towards creating dialogue.
We can’t wait for people to cozy up and positively confront one another, but we can certainly call each other in
There are buzzwords at MHC that make many of us roll our eyes. The phrase “positive confrontation” gets bandied about as if it were a cure-all solution to our our college induced woes. It’s tossed around because most students fall back on two extremes: either you’re in conflict with someone but completely refuse to talk about it so you go to campus police instead of engaging with that person OR you have probably witnessed someone get verbally attacked for not-knowing something. We would think positive confrontation could alleviate this but it seems to have been swept over the heads of folks who feel silenced, or refuse to speak their mind.
Calling-in offers you a way to address these issues. Calling-in is a medium we can use (if we’re willing and able) to teach others what we know without shutting them out completely. Also, the word “positive” strikes me as a way to sugar-coat confrontation. Calling-in does not necessarily mean there will be confrontation (which isn’t bad) and it is certainly less intimidating.
Final thoughts (through sayings)
“The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.” - Audre Lorde
We need not use the strategies and tactics of our oppressors against each other. These tactics serve to perpetuate the viciousness of oppression and it does nothing to dismantle it, which is the goal of social justice.
“We are here to call-in both sets of experiences because we are here to fight binaries.” - Dr. Loretta Ross
Calling someone does not mean you are right. It only means you want to share your understanding of a topic with someone else. That is the best we can hope for. Assuming you are right by extension assumes that the movement is a one-platform, single-ideology movement. This assumption ignores that there are various theories, methods, and types of activism, and that even among social justice circles, people with the same end-goal (to destroy oppression) differ in how they seek to achieve this.
“Hurt people, hurt people.” - Sandra D. Wilson
Oppressed people know how to hurt each other because we experience and suffer through our pain on a daily basis. Even so, you can be angry at injustice and not be angry at people.
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Finally, if you’re interested in hearing this through a workshop by Dr. Loretta Ross herself register here.