The most painful critique I’ve seen so far of white people trying to get involved in anti-racism work is that we’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Much like the other highly-competitive aspects of white culture from working to mating, we enter the realm of social justice looking for our own glorification. We seek gratitude for actions that are long-overdue and not especially helpful. We demand leadership roles and recognition despite our ignorance of the realities of life outside our bubble. We expect our activism to be emotionally easy; after all, heroes aren’t supposed to experience struggle, doubt, failure, challenge, or rejection. Most damning of all, we turn our backs on the very people we claim we want to help as soon as they express emotions we don’t like: anger, disappointment, skepticism, betrayal. I see the justification for these criticisms every time I look in the mirror. After nearly half a century of living in this country as a white person, it’s no surprise. But what’s to be done? How are we to disengage from our roles as oppressors long enough to truly hear what’s needed from us? I think there are two pieces to the answer: changing how we respond to criticism and changing what we ask of each other as white anti-racists.
When I speak and act like an oppressor despite my best intentions, I have to change my response to being called out. This isn’t easy. My whole life I’ve been taught that merely intending not to be harmful is enough to protect me from accountability for the harm I do. “I didn’t mean to,” is a magic mantra, perpetuating the illusion that harm is somehow not harmful unless it’s driven by personal malice. In conversations with men about feminism I use the analogy of a dude backing out of a driveway and running over a pedestrian he didn’t see. Does “I didn’t mean to,” stop the bleeding? Even if the driver stops the car and gets the victim to a hospital and there’s full recovery, is that the same as if the damage was never done? We white people–whose privilege enables us to inflict serious harm with no consequences–have got to start realizing that we’re at the wheel of a dangerous vehicle every time we open our mouths. If we’re serious about reversing racism in our culture, we must first acknowledge our failure so far. If our ideas about annihilating racism were correct, racism would already be defunct. Since it’s not, our first and biggest step must be acknowledging that the knowledge and expertise we need is not our own (which has failed), but that of the people most harmed by the structures we’ve erected to protect our privilege. That’s what we’re being called out to do. As long as we insist that the crumpled bodies and lives in the wake of structural racism are less real than the self-congratulatory delusions of those (us) who benefit from the crumpling, we are legitimate targets for bitterness, frustration and rage. We can’t begin to earn credibility as fellow travelers toward justice until we acknowledge that our preferred worldview is as false as a flat earth, and start listening respectfully to the people who have known all along what is happening and why.
Once we embrace our new role as students of reality rather than students of our own comfort, it becomes immediately clear that we need to talk to each other in a different way, which opens up a whole new can of worms. The task of engaging oppressors in dismantling oppression is not an easy one. White people, like any dominant group, rarely welcome the idea of giving up their privilege. Not only must we relinquish the beloved fictions that we’ve been fed under the guise of history, but we must face the brutal fact that racial injustice has been inextricably woven into the fabric of our culture since slaves first set foot in Jamestown 398 years ago. We have to recognize that there is no other factor as powerful as race in American inequality, and then take a long, hard look at the collusion in blindness that made that happen. Conversations between white people on these subjects are laced with anger, fear and denial—all signs that they’re getting very close to a nerve. How can we speak and listen to each other in a way that derails anger, fear and denial and promotes insight, curiosity and change?
One method is replacing “calling out” with “calling in.” Instead of pouncing on each other when we blunder into racist habits, what if we invite each other to deeper inquiry? Instead of labeling each other as “racist,” what if we ask each other “How do you think you could take your analysis a step deeper?” Instead of competing with each other to see who is more “woke,” what if we serve each other as rearview mirrors to show each other what damage we’re doing or about to do? This takes a different kind of discourse than typical political argument. On the one hand, it refrains completely from personal judgement. No one gets called names or attacked. On the other hand, it requires a kind of quiet, intractable persistence that challenges our expectations of how conversations are supposed to go. To call each other in to deeper analysis, we have to get good at listening to what people actually say. Then we have to formulate meaningful, provocative, open-ended questions that allow for nonjudgemental exploration. We have to trust that people are capable of figuring things out for themselves. We have to remember that the goal is not to win an argument but to create uncertainty and openness in place of entrenched and unexamined opinions. For me this means biting my tongue sometimes; I bless the people who bite their tongue for me.
Being called in isn’t easy, but it is a far less painful experience than being called out. When skillfully done, it propels me directly into learning mode. It reminds me that feedback is incredibly valuable in my journey, particularly when it challenges my assumptions. It frames the caller-in as a collaborator in my growth, not an opponent or a judge. It focuses my energy on potential weaknesses in my thinking rather than the need to defend myself against attack. Being called in reinforces my commitment to dismantling my assumptions. It makes me ready to be called out the next time with a more open mind. Calling someone in reminds me of how far I still have to go with my own racial blind spots. It may inform or deepen my own analysis because of new insights my partner reveals. Because calling in demands vulnerability and openness on both sides, it allows for mutual exploration and growth.
White anti-racism activists love to call each other out, and I’m no exception. Maybe it feels good to be on the giving rather than the receiving end for a change. We must, however, look further than the immediate rush of catching someone in a microaggression or a glib racist cliche. We must recognize that each of us is a part of the vast cloak of white supremacy that enfolds our society, and we must work together to fling it off. Calling each other in can be enormously powerful between white people as we come to terms with the magnitude of the work that lies before us. As we experience the therapeutic discomfort of being called out by those most harmed by our failures, we can call each other in to the ongoing work of transformation. By holding each other firmly accountable for the things we say and do, by owning our own mistakes and letting others help us explore them, we prepare ourselves to enter the struggle as we truly are, not merely as we’ve imagined ourselves to be.