Getting Called Out is an Act of Love
Especially About Discrimination
by Destiny Pitters
Main photo from Atlassian
In public spheres, the abundance of online comments and debates about politics might have you believe that we are comfortable with ideological confrontation. It’s easy to get angry in a sea of noise about something broad, something far away and seemingly detached from you. But often, when it comes to facing the harmful behaviour we directly cause, especially to loved ones, the overall champion is silence. Most conversations that confront discrimination are steeped in a power dynamic - usually an imbalance - between a person in a privileged position and someone who’s not. So while being called out for racism is typically followed by feelings of fear and fragility (usually, though not exclusively, by white folks), it involves another kind of fear that’s shadowed by historical punishment and exhaustion for Black, Indigenous and people of colour. But the willingness to have this conversation is an act of love, and deserves to be received as one, too.
In the face of discrimination, things like silence, evasion and scapegoating are the rot that enable us to live everyday lives in a power imbalance. As tools of oppression, they’re made to make the victim feel guilty and uncertain in their choice to speak up, and this happens frequently when attempts to call out racism are made. But the dreamt-up consequences of being held accountable for racism never outweigh the real consequences of experiencing racism. Those in the public spotlight who are accused of racism, like corporate bosses, celebrities or politicians, can usually expect a flurry of social media posts condemning their actions, followed up by a poorly worded apology note or addendum to their speech, and then - life carries on, without follow-up or change of behaviour. People continue to show them their support, and the world keeps turning. But those left experiencing the brunt of racism are faced with dire consequences ranging from bullying or employment dismissal to rape and murder; hate crimes also tend to increase when these macroaggressions are endorsed by political leaders.
Really, the bar is low when it comes to genuinely acknowledging and apologizing for your own racist behaviour and engaging with how to confront this. But the popular act of denying your racism validates and further roots this society’s foundation of white supremacy. Defeating racism in our everyday interactions depends on radical honesty because race and history cannot change, and it is not the responsibility of the victim to make you feel better about enacting racism against them. What can change is your response to being called out.
A greyscale photo of Maya Angelou with her quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” From Phenomenal E.
Some like to differentiate between the acts of calling out and in, with the former being a possibly public affair with the goal of halting someone’s problematic behaviour and the latter being a private conversation focused on empathy and understanding. Whether these tools are used individually or together, both are necessary for setting healthy boundaries in the face of racism. As a Black person, for example, if I let you know that something you said or did is anti-Black – be it a joke, gesture or opinion – why should that be a bad thing? I’m inviting you to know something you may not have before, and also offer you the opportunity to be held accountable because I expect better things from you! As with any assertion of boundaries, being called out or in means that I respect the relationship we have and want it to continue to be safe. If you genuinely acknowledge the harm you’ve caused – no denying, scapegoating or waffling – it means you also value our relationship and are eager to continue it safely as well.
(But note this: if someone calls you out, this doesn’t automatically mean they want to continue being around you. At the very least, it’s an opportunity for you to do better in the future, and that’s important, but if that person no longer feels safe in your friendship, relationship, company, etc., they have every right to assert this.)
Unfortunately, I can’t count how many times I’ve confronted or watched others confront particularly white folks about racist behaviour only to be met with: “Well, I’m not a racist.” But what is a racist? Draw up that image in your mind. This deflection of racism onto a dedicated identity, a lifestyle, is what permits many people to genuinely believe they could never be racist because they don’t mean to. “I’m not like those bad guys, so why are you confronting me?” Attaching harmful behaviour to who you are fundamentally as a person is where a lot of the anxiety about accountability comes from, but marginalized groups deserve for you to get over this.
If you think racism only exists within caricatures of violence - like hate groups who are dedicated to brutality - you’re missing a lot of the nuanced harm caused by everyday institutions throughout history that got us to where we are: Black folks struggling - often statistically the most - with disability, housing, police violence, workplace discrimination, sexual assault, rape, and murder (see Sources). How did we get here? One group of angry, white American men? Maybe two? Or centuries of structuralized violence enabled by hundreds of thousands of bystanders who decided it wasn’t their problem, followed by millions of everyday interactions that fail to challenge a system skewed with anti-Blackness from the start? In truth, we are accountable to each other because the choices we make - the jokes you think are harmless or the words that you use mindlessly - affect our communities at large.
Image of a yellow protest sign raised in the sky that reads: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Quote by the late Bishop Desmond Tutu.
I remember being told that responsibility is a blessing; it is a great gift to have a community or individual to be held accountable to, from your children, partners and friends to your neighbourhood and civic or global community. Politically, of course, this logic only works if you are in a position of privilege while willing and eager to sacrifice this for the safety and wellbeing of those historically marginalized. Anyone in positions of privilege who prefers to maintain that power can simply continue negating accountability and recycling age-old oppressive practices. But know that even in power, you are never free from its negative effects: health crises, environmental instability, bullying and mental health issues, broken relationships between friends and family – many if not all of these are the results of unchallenged systems of oppression that can wreak havoc on all our lives. For what small power an individual holds in our society, choosing to disrupt these will always be an act of love.
It can be hard explaining why getting called out for something serious, like racism, isn’t actually that serious and should instead be seen as a regular and healthy part of our interactions as people. Cultivating a culture of accountability depends on a myriad of things, some more concrete like adequate anti-racist education (how are we supposed to talk about racism when most people don’t know what that means?) and some more intangible things like trust and human connection. A culture of accountability means abandoning tools of white, privileged sensibility about never being racist, which is an impossibility for anyone. Instead, leaning into hard conversations and taking a look in the mirror is where we find opportunities for love and breakthroughs, where revelations can actually arise about what it looks like to not do enough and, more importantly, how to do better.
Calling In vs. Calling Out: How to Talk About Inclusion by Maya Hu-Chan. Inc., 2020.
When to Call Someone Out or Call Them In Over Racist Behaviour by MindShift, 2020.
How Has Canada’s History of Anti-Black Racism Impacted Today’s Experiences of Homelessness? by Promise Busulwa and Emma Kaplan. Homeless Hub, 2021.
Black Adults Disproportionately Experience Microaggressions by Camille Lloyd. GALLUP, 2020.
Black Women and Sexual Violence by the National Organization for Women.
Adults with Disabilites: Ethnicity and Race by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020.
Homelessness and Racial Disparities by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2020.
The Effect of President Trump’s Election on Hate Crimes by Griffin Sims Edward and Stephen Rushin. SSRN, 2019.
Mapping fatal police violence across U.S. metropolitan areas: Overall rates and racial/ethnic inequities, 2013-2017 by Gabriel L. Schwartz and Jaquelyn L. Jahn. PLOS ONE, 2020.