I am not a secretive person by any means. I speak plainly and I’m willing to share just about anything appropriate to the situation. Want to hear about Bean’s birth? Sure, I’ll tell you about all 14+ hours of castor oil, contractions, and why chocolate milk is a damn miracle. Want to know what I really think about [insert political issue here]? Let me write you a book about it (Well, or at least a blog entry), complete with obscure research. But there is one thing about me that I almost never share, and it has surprised almost everyone I know:
I am terrified of confrontation.
When I was 16, my supervisor at a grocery store called me “little girl” in front of some customers. I was furious, so the next day I went to the store owner about it, having rehearsed what I would say and what outcome I wanted the night before. I got as far as “can I talk to you?” before I started crying. Same thing when I went to the dean of students after a professor fat-shamed me in class. And when I put in my 2-week notice at my old job, even though I didn’t even turn it in to my own supervisor (because she had quit, too). Honestly, it’s hard to think of a time that I’ve had to confront someone and didn’t start crying before getting five words out.
So you can probably imagine that I have a lot of feelings about callout culture.
“Callout culture,” a term popularized just a few years ago, is “the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and language use by others.” It was originally used in the early 2010’s as a way for Black women who were attacked online to defend themselves by putting their harassers on blast, publicly. But it was not-so-slowly taken on by a variety of activists and allies as way for them to perform their “wokeness” by shaming people (often, very well-meaning people) for their missteps, via social media. Today, “callout culture” is regularly used to describe any time one person makes another person feel ashamed for saying something oppressive or harmful.
My fear of any kind of confrontation, combined with a fluctuating level of insecurity, lends itself quite readily to making me feel ashamed. When I know I have to confront someone I respect, some part of me just panics because what if they think I’m really the problem and they shame me? (Cue the crying as soon as I’ve said, “So, I think…”)
Callout culture, then, combines all the things I’m afraid of: confrontation, a person I respect, me being the problem, and sometimes, yelling. Then it also adds in a dose of “your White Lady hurt feelings (not to be confused with white tears) are not welcome” just to make sure it really goes badly for me. Even if it’s done privately (aka “calling in,”), I wind up feeling embarrassed, or even worse, ashamed.
But just because I feel ashamed doesn’t mean I’ve been harmed.
Last week, a friend had to call me out after I posted a question about Cluster B personality disorders on one of her Facebook posts. I worded it verrrrrry badly, and could have really insulted people with mental illnesses — had she not corrected me and deleted my comment first. She immediately contacted me to say she deleted the comment, and that it was ableist and insulting to her (and countless others with personality disorders like Borderline PD or Narcissistic PD). Then she added, “to be honest, you need to work on how you phrase things around hidden disabilities, especially since you work with kids in special education.”
Damn, did that hit me hard. I take my work and intersectionality to heart — I strive to be an exemplary teacher. I could feel the anxiety rising up. My eyes started to water the teeniest bit. I took a deep breath, and said, “I’m really sorry. You’re right, I need to work on that.
“Thank you for telling me.”
We talked for a little while after that, partially to clarify better ways for me to talk about Cluster B personality disorders, partially to answer my initial question, but also to simply remind ourselves that just because I messed up, doesn’t mean I’m out of the activism club. “I’m telling you this because I love you, and I know how much you love your students, and I want to help you be even better,” she told me.
This is what has been missing from the calling out debate: the recognition that when someone tells us what we have done wrong, they are doing so because they believe we can be better. Even if they don’t do it as nicely as my friend did*, even if it makes us feel ashamed, even if it makes us cry, they have chosen to tell us what we’ve done wrong so we can be better than that in the future. Being called out is an opportunity for personal growth. It’s an invitation to more deeply understand another person’s lived experiences with oppression.
It’s a chance to reinforce our commitment to our principles and the people we care about.
Another important thing to consider is that most of the time, if someone calls you out, it’s because they have experienced a form of oppression that you have not dealt with yourself. Sometimes, even in personal friendships, that creates a small power imbalance, and that imbalance can make it much more difficult for that person to confront you. They know that calling you out can backfire, and they could lose you as a friend or ally if it goes poorly. But they took that chance (and took on that discomfort) not just to point out an -ism, but to help you.
It’s the gift of a second chance.
And with that gift, we are given a choice: we can prove that we’re committed to improving and acting with greater awareness, or we can shut down.
Arguing with the person who called you out, is shutting down.
Tone policing the person who called you out, is shutting down.
Breaking out in sobs and avoiding the real issue, is shutting down.
Making the person who called you out do even more emotional labor, is shutting down.
Giving a half-assed apology that doesn’t admit fault, is shutting down.
Saying, “Wow, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry, and I will not do that again,” is affirming your commitment.
Saying, “Thank you for telling me this, and being willing to confront me. I know that can be hard,” is affirming your commitment.
Publicly admitting that you made a mistake and taking steps to fix it, is affirming your commitment.
So if you get called out – whether it was done with as much graciousness and patience as my friend gave me or not – remember what your options are. Please don’t shut down. Listen. Apologize. Say thank you. And do better next time.
Then, if you still need to, go cry. Cuz confrontation sucks.
But I’m starting to realize that it’s definitely worth it.