On Calling People Out
Calling people out is an important and necessary act, but it’s also really difficult. I’ve been on both sides of the equation – the one being called out and the one doing the calling out.
I think it’s especially difficult in advocacy or justice circles, when you’re dealing with people who are pretty well-versed in anti-oppression work and/or who might feel that they know everything there is to know and are above making racist or sexist or homophobic comments.
But the truth is that none of us are “above” that. We all make mistakes. We all live in a systemically racist, patriarchal and heterosexist society. We have sayings in our everyday vocabulary that we may not even realize are problematic:
“Lowest man on the totem pole.”
“I got gypped.”
“That’s so gay.”
There’s a whole discourse around dark/light imagery and how the word “dark” or “black” is almost always used to denote something negative or evil.
“Black sheep in the family”
“The dark side of America”
And those are just some of the ones I hear people in justice work use, or that I’ve used myself flippantly in conversation.
A few weeks ago, I got called out. While I meant to say something along the lines of “don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” instead I said, “don’t know who’s territory it’s in” because I was thinking along the lines of things being territorial, when it comes to different areas of work. Because sometimes in my workplace things get territorial, as they can in most workplaces.
And I got called out on it. The person I said it to phoned me afterwards and called me out. And I got that sinking punched-in-your-gut feeling. Because I was wrong. I’d made a mistake. But even worse than that – I hadn’t even realized it.
We all make mistakes, and I’ve made my fair share of them, but I’ve started to at least recognize when I say something with racist undertones, especially in an Aboriginal context as I try to move towards Right Relations. I don’t say “let’s have a pow-wow” or “the lowest man on the totem pole” anymore because I know better. I used the totem pole expression while I was at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last month, and as soon as the words left my mouth I realized what I had said. And I apologized profusely; the person I’d said it to was very gracious, saying we all make mistakes and that these problematic sayings are embedded in our culture. That doesn’t make it right – that doesn’t make it ok – but it also doesn’t mean that we’re inherently racist – or homophobic or sexist – for using these expressions. It just means we have something to learn.
Ironically, I had this link opened in one of my tabs on my work computer. I saw it again a couple of hours after my communications blunder, as I was going through my ever-increasing open tabs, closing those I no longer needed (yes, I’m one of those people who opens a new tab when I see something interesting, and then often forget to go back to it). It’s an article about calling people out and how to do it well; it links to a video that talks about the difference – and importance – of talking about what a person did rather than what a person is. “What you said was racist” versus “you’re racist.”
And I know all of that. So why, when I get called out on something, do I automatically jump to the “I’m a horrible person!” response? I’m not a horrible person. Few people are horrible people. I can be thoughtless – which I was today. I can be moody or tired or a whole range of things. But they don’t make me a bad person.
And the person who called me out is definitely not a bad person. Nor am I when I call other people out. Sure, I felt badly today when this happened. I felt hurt, and it was not because the person calling me out hurt me. No, I hurt myself. My thoughtlessness hurt this person – made them feel uncomfortable – and knowing that hurt me. I hurt me, and I have to take responsibility for that. And a little hurt is a small price to pay for a great learning, a learning about being more sensitive to the language I use.
I’m grateful to my colleague, my friend, for being brave enough and secure enough in our friendship and our professional relationship to call me out. I’m sorry for my thoughtless comment in this instance, but even moreso for the thoughtless comments I’ve likely made in the past – for the times my language has hurt other people and I haven’t even known it. Language is a powerful tool. And like all powerful things, it’s something we need to take care with.