What Does ‘Calling Out’ Really Mean?

Calling out is a vital tool for working against oppression in our day-to-day lives. It is however, often misused by people who don’t directly experience the oppression.

For me, ‘Calling Out’ simply refers to when you witness someone doing or saying something that upholds oppression (e.g. sexism, transphobia, racism), and you go ahead and advise them of this. There are nuances to this interaction however, and choices to make around delivering the calling out. Do I do it publicly or privately? Should I be mindful of how I say it? What would I like the outcome of this to be?

I seek to explore this process, and be clear that it matters who is doing the calling out and why, especially in the realm of:

  1. Protecting yourself
  2. Standing in Solidarity/Being an Ally
  3. Public Shaming
  4. Within your close community

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You might know the feeling. You’re on social media, and you read something that upholds oppression. You feel your insides boil, and you need to decide whether you’re going to say something or not. A good place to start is examining your reasons for doing this, and the part you have to play in the situation.

Some key questions you may consider are:

  • Was it said directly at you? Do you need to defend yourself?
  • Was it said in a safer space, thus compromising the safety of the space?
  • Do you have enough time and energy to advise this person they’ve done something offensive, and deal with any follow up questions/conflict?
  • Will this person be ultimately willing to learn from your feedback?
  • If you let this go, will they keep saying harmful things in the future?

If the answer is yes to any of the above, you may go ahead and decide that you need to call them out.

  1. Calling Someone Out to Protect Yourself

If you are from the group that is being oppressed by what was said, know that you aren’t obligated to educate anyone, or to call them out privately or politely, even if they had ‘good intentions’ or ‘didn’t mean it that way’. You’ll probably already have tried many manners of calling people out, only to experience fragility and defensiveness. Here are some key reasons for calling people out publicly and frankly:

  • You pause the conversation, in case anyone else was about to (perhaps inadvertently) uphold oppression.
  • You avoid entering into an isolated and potentially manipulative environment via private conversation.
  • The emotional labor and time you spent in calling them out is available to a maximum audience.

An example of someone calling out publicly to defend themselves is Australian feminist Clementine Ford, and her recent public exposure of the abuse she received from a man on Facebook. She made a public post tagging the employer of a man who had called her a ‘slut’, and this resulted in his employment being terminated.

People have criticized her for not ‘toughening up’ enough, and a mansplaining male ‘feminist’ even lectured her on how she was being divisive. The former ignores the impact of microaggressions (or in this case, flat out aggressions), both on the individual and how they work to uphold larger systems of oppression. The latter works to reinforce super problematic respectability politics, claiming that “the mission of feminism is to make these men change and starting fights with them is only making that mission harder.”

People are often confused as to why those from marginalized groups would be hostile towards groups and leaders they are trying to win over (in this case, women towards men), but I think this fails to recognize how many civil rights movements in for example, US history, have gained momentum — through not very ‘respectable’, often violent and disruptive protest. Check out Matt Baum’s take on this:

Further to this, her reasoning behind calling him out publicly was to show him and other abusive men out there that there are consequences for being oppressive. The ability to call people out on abusive behavior is often smothered by other forces such as victim-blaming & gaslighting, and the erasing of experiences through, for example, putting emphasis on intentions as opposed to impact or ‘toughening up’. Further to this, some people claim that it ‘violates free speech’ to call people out on being oppressive. This first of all ignores the fact that critique is a form of free speech, and that some speech is genuinely harmful, and thus comes with consequences.

“Freedom of speech… is not the glorious, consequence-free paradise they imagine in which they get to say whatever they like to whomever they like while enjoying the luxury of that person silently taking it with no pushback. For too long, speech on the internet has been consequence free.” — Clementine Ford: Why I reported hotel supervisor Michael Nolan’s abusive comment to his employer

Some key things to keep in mind when crafting your calling out message to protect yourself:

  • Minimize time and effort spent. Try and find an article on the topic, so that you won’t have to rework concepts that are readily available. Alternatively, give the person you’re calling out some key words to look up.
  • Know what you’d like out of the interaction. An apology? A commitment to anti-oppressive behavior in the future? A clear message to be sent to others who are intentionally abusive?

If you are calling out someone who you know wishes to stand in solidarity with you, remind them to not be defensive, or point them towards instructions on how to respond when being called out.

2. Calling Someone Out to ‘Be an Ally’

But wait! Before calling someone out, please consider. Are you from a group that is directly affected by what was said, or are you doing this on behalf of another group? For example, if you’re white, be wary of rushing to publicly call another white person out for racism. You could be seen as doing so for political points, ‘cookies’, and to distance yourself from your privilege (eg ‘I’m not like these white people’). This is known as ally theater, and is highly offensive as it centers the person with privilege in the conversation, and makes it about them and what a ‘great ally they are’. Or worse, perhaps you’ve been called out before and would enjoy calling someone else out, to pass on the ‘shame’ and distance yourself from that experience.

If you genuinely want to help other white folks be less oppressive, and there are certainly ways to do this:

  • Amplify the voices of people of color (PoC). This could include sharing articles written by PoC, or relaying what other PoC have said publicly and giving them credit.
  • Acknowledging your privilege, and using ‘I’ statements. Move away from saying things like ‘This is offensive to PoC”, as that would be speaking for the experience of people of color. Instead say “I have been advised this is offensive to PoC, and wanted to let you know as well”.
  • Leverage your distance from the situation to stay calm, have compassion, and consider speaking to that person privately. You have the circumstance to speak to them privately, and at length, in a way that may be isolating or dangerous for someone with less privilege than you.

That last recommendation isn’t to tone-police you (which isn’t applicable here anyway — you have privilege), it is to acknowledge that the oppressive remarks will not have the same violent affect on you as a person who is part of the oppressed category. While you may have good intentions of getting angry in solidarity with PoC, what you’re doing is appropriating PoC anger when you also have the ability to step away from it. Use your privilege to encourage people from your group to listen to those from a marginalized group, and don’t make it about you, your feelings, or your knowledge.

3. Calling Someone Out To Shame Them

If you enjoy calling people out, you’re doing it wrong. The sole reason for calling someone out should never be to ridicule them publicly. As discussed already, there are legitimate reasons for people experiencing oppression to not call someone out privately, and if allies wish to speak in solidarity to these people, they need to be wary of the space they take up and be conscious that calling out privately is certainly an option.

To only call out to embarrass others is to appropriate and misuse a vital anti-oppression tool, and it sparks critique of what is, in my opinion, an important way for people who are marginalized to defend themselves.

For example, when someone called Justine Sacco published a racist tweet, people started ridiculing her publicly, and writer Sam Biddle retweeted it to his 15,000 followers and eventually published an article about it titled “And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s P.R. Boss.”. He described that “the fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious”, and it led to her life being upturned, including losing her job.

Of course her tweet was racist. But it was also out of line and incredibly offensive for a bunch of white people to hide behind anti-racism in order to bully someone. As discussed before, it’s important to know what you want from calling someone out (an apology? To discontinue the behavior? To demonstrate to others that you won’t take outright abuse?) and that people with privilege need to not use it as a tool for being derogatory and arrogant towards others.

4. Calling Someone Out In Your Own Community

And what about within your friendship circles, at work, or in activist communities with similar axis of oppression?

This course of action is personal, varied, and not so clear cut. Ultimately, calling out in this arena is an act of giving and self-protection. It’s you putting yourself on the line to let others know they’re being inadvertently hurtful, and if you’re from an oppressed group it’s awful to experience oppression AND having to explain it to people. It is important that moderators of online spaces, leaders of groups, and managers of work environments foster an environment of humility and open-mindedness, so that when you speak up, you’re supported in making your environment less oppressive.

When speaking to people you trust or who are from the same marginalized community as you, it can be useful to consider how best to ‘call them in’ in a compassionate way, as detailed in Ngọc Loan Trần’s article Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.

“…when I see problematic behavior from someone who is connected to me, who is committed to some of the things I am, I want to believe that it’s possible for us to move through and beyond whatever mistake was committed. I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us.” -Ngọc Loan Trần

That said, trust needs to be built, and as the disclaimer on this article puts it:

“Disclaimer: WHITE FOLKS: Please don’t take any of this as your okay to act a fool and expect POC to not get angry. We have EVERY RIGHT to get angry when you f*ck up. And we have no obligation whatsoever to put your hurt feelings above the impact your behavior causes. This post is specifically about us calling in people who we want to be in community with, people who we have reason to trust or with whom we have common ground.” — Mia McKenzie

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Calling out is a crucial tool for making spaces safer, and it’s important to be aware of which ways are best to engage, based on who you are and what the situation is.

Holding each other accountable is not about ‘being politically correct’. It’s about acknowledging that we live in a kyriarchal society with many intersecting oppressions, and that we can do small things in our everyday lives to work against upholding these oppressions. Perhaps if we make enough safer, accountable spaces in the world, one day the world may be a safe space for all.