The journey continues!
In the months that I have been blogging about my thoughts and experiences with call outs and “CANCELLED!” and public shaming and related elements, things have continued to morph and change to the point that blogs that I wrote a few months ago already seem outdated. It’s more chaotic than ever out there, for a variety of reasons. But what is most striking to me and to many others with whom I’ve been conversing about these matters is how impossible it feels to keep up with everything: not just the terms, but with the larger-scale ideas that ___ group wants/needs ___. I just saw yet another discussion re: queer spaces and trans-activism that had trans people ‘splaining to other trans people about how they were doin’ trans wrong… even though they were, you know, actual trans people, too.
It was almost like some of them didn’t recognize that there was more than one way to be trans, not to mention an activist.
One person commented about their own frustration, noting “OP seems to think that each individual speaks for the entire community, and so when she gets contradictory opinions she is just like ‘can’t you all get on the same page?!’ rather than recognizing that person A may have different experiences and feelings than person B.” (I included their quote rather than paraphrasing, because they said it better than I could, but in the mass of links and resources, I’ve lost the original source. I’m sorry, person out there. Your words are important.) Whether it’s in various writing groups, or in student clubs that are meant to be safe and essential spaces, in online places or in physical gatherings, diverse groups of people continue to be baffled, hurt, alienated, silenced, frustrated, and shamed because of who they are, how they feel, what they’ve personally experienced, and what they are struggling to understand.
Even by others who ostensibly are going through the same things.
LINK: I can’t keep up with trans-activism, the community is impossible to please and I’m tired of it.
LINK: I am transsexual.
This isn’t just minorities silencing whites. This is trans people shaming and silencing other trans people ostensibly for transphobia/as TERFs, POC telling other POC that their experiences are invalid, women telling other women that their voices don’t matter, people telling allies that they’re not really allies, and people not really talking with or listening to others unless they repeat the exact same talking points. How is any of this helping anyone at this point?
Again, let me restate for the millionth time, I am NOT saying “everyone is so sensitive/offended these days” or “ugh, SJWs!” or anything like that. I am looking for all of the nebulous, unclaimed, unspoken, or unnoticed spaces in between two extremes, and space where various narratives are validated rather than erased. These issues aren’t either/or. It’s not simple. All ___ don’t want/need ___. There is no one right, conclusive answer.
I left off last time discussing rhetoric and terms that have been shifting in meaning or have been misrepresented, and, hell, by the time I publish this, the terms may have changed even more from when I first started making active notes for this blog project almost a year ago. Not to mention, things like “microaggression” and “triggering” and “cultural appropriation” don’t mean the same things to all people, and even people within a specific minority or system don’t agree on what it means or what harms, if any, it causes, and who should be held accountable for it.
It turns out that “cultural appropriation” doesn’t exist in the same way in other cultures, so calling out cultural appropriation, ESPECIALLY on behalf of another group, is its own kind of problem. Sorry, second and third generation ___-Americans who have never lived in your parents’/grandparents’ country of origin, you may not actually understand how your culture and American culture is viewed in the contexts of, well, that actual country compared to America.
Remember “My culture is not your goddamn prom dress”?
Let’s remove the “shaming teen girls” element, even, and just look at the “colonialism” of this act of a girl wearing a cheongsam to her prom. The pictures and call outs went viral, and everyone had a strong opinion on what was/should be happening. Some insisted that no traditional garment should be worn outside its cultural contexts under any circumstance, be it sari, dirndl, kilt, or headwrap. Others claimed the “real” problem was the girl and her friends posing in what looked like a mocking bow (but actually had nothing to do with anything Asian-related at all). The high school senior was named and shamed and told that she was everything wrong with America, was perpetuating systemic oppression, was selfish and oblivious, was racist.
Interestingly enough, many actual Chinese people, however, didn’t see it as a problem, or feel like their culture had been appropriated or misrepresented.
The cheongsam (also called a mandarin gown or a qipao) has a long history, but was recently worn and whose style influenced late 90s fashion; you could regularly see Hollywood celebs in these.
Post-trend, the dresses, and other (*cough*) Asian-inspired fashion, were then easily found in thrift stores, which is where prom-girl found hers. You could and can also buy them in every Chinatown in America, manufactured and sold by Chinese shop-owners and Chinese people. I know at least one little girl in the early 2000s who got one and wore it because it was like Mulan. To her, it was like wearing a Cinderella or Snow White dress: she was dressing up as her favorite Disney princess. So… who got to define what a garment meant, to whom, and under what circumstances? Did “fashion” change things? What about the fact that the prom-girl who wore this dress chose it for its high-necked “modesty” rather than its usually-perceived clinging silhouette? Is it “just a dress”? To whom? For what? Under what circumstances?
And yet when asked, repeatedly, Chinese people, Chinese woman, people actually in China, found the teen’s choice of a dress not only NOT offensive, but respectful.
What is a problem or “offensive” or “harmful” in America isn’t necessarily problematic in other countries, and forcing American versions/definitions of activism, racism, culture, and systemic oppression on everyone else via these kinds of call outs actually creates MORE cultural oppressions, silences the same people it’s supposedly trying to speak up for and defend.
At the risk of looking like Buzzfeed and Bored Panda and other content generated sites, let me crib directly from Reddit:
South African here. Don’t freak when you hear people call themselves ‘coloured,’ and don’t call a coloured person black (or god forbid, mixed race). …Coloured means mixed race, and it’s a real source of identity for a lot of people since it used to be very legally defined. Black means who you’d called ‘African,’ and white is white. Trust me, you don’t want to accidentally insult someone on a racial basis in South Africa lol.”
I can vouch, both after having traveled there, and having many colleagues from different African nations and/or who have worked extensively in African countries/communities. Yes, quite a few African people will identify as “coloured.” Someone who identifies as “coloured” would be offended if you called them “black” or “mixed race” as we might in America, because those terms have very different connotations and historical/legal meanings in African contexts. (The racism there, too, is disturbing, but that’s its own discussion, best undertaken by not-a-white-American-tourist.) Identities are described with different terms in different places, and it’s not up to one nation to determine what is “racist” or “offensive” or “problematic” in others’ contexts, even if it’s triggering or painful to them.
In recent years, I’ve seen multiple American students insert themselves into international situations, and start correcting other people on what their identities actually are, even beyond telling a South African person that “coloured” was a racist term. I’ve seen American students, some POC and some not, insist that male students from India don’t understand intersectionality because of their male privilege. (You might want to look up “caste system”?) Or senior scholars who grew up in and left Albania and Poland being told they didn’t understand systemic oppression. (Yeah, their lived experience of communism was NBD in terms of systemic oppression, right?) Or scholars who are/look white, but grew up in Japan or Taiwan and are fluent speakers in those language being told their studies of Asian literature or history or culture is appropriation, a scholar from Uruguay being told he doesn’t understand the history of Imperialism.
One colleague is from South Africa, of Chinese descent. She was born in South Africa. She is a citizen of South Africa. She lived her whole life in South Africa until she went to grad school. She identifies as “South African.” She speaks Zulu, Mandarin, and English, but she also was taught by mostly American teachers in South Africa, so she speaks English with an American accent, which also confuses some people. And yet she has had black Americans inform her that she is “not really” South African because she is not black. She’s Chinese because her parents are from China. Or maybe “Chinese-African.” Plus she sounds American, so has privilege. Or something else. And that she is racist for trying to claim black/African/“native” identity. This isn’t just dumbshit white people going “Oh, how can you be African when you’re not black?” either. These are black Americans imposing their own American definitions of blackness and race on places of origin. ‘Splaining. Silencing. Shaming.
They’ve told her, essentially, that she doesn’t get to define herself, and suggested they know better than her who and what she is.
Many of these students/scholars I’ve seen have remained oblivious to the idea that different countries have different kinds of classes and class systems, different understandings of race, even as they claim to be intersectional themselves. They’ve conflated “African” with “black.” They refuse to have any discussion on the matters, as well, because THAT is “silencing them,” and that’s just another way of imposing systemic oppressions, and, as black people, they don’t need to listen to white people who should “stay in their lane” anyway and too bad if it makes us uncomfortable-
(Let me repeat, once more, in case you’ve forgotten: I am NOT suggesting this is what “black people” or “POC” as a whole do. I’m pointing out the problem when an identifying member of ___ group purports to speak on behalf of ALL ___ people, or impose definitions of ___ on all ___ people.)
Who gets to define a thing? Who gets to define whether or not someone is legitimately who/what they identify as? Who gets to define something is sacred, cultural, offensive, respectful, racist, harmful, valuable, a joke, whatever, when all of us have different perspectives and lived experiences, FFS?! If no one can agree on one definition, then whose definition is the right one?
In fact, the very terms at the core of call outs and activism are undergoing real scrutiny, and there’s no one approved-of definition of things like “diversity,” “race,” “gender,” “disability,” social classes… and that should actually be a strength. We SHOULD be able to explore the contexts of a term, or a cultural perspective, or an ideology, and see how something shifts when it’s placed in a different nationalism, or within a different social group.
In fact, the term “diversity” itself is problematic.
Its dictionary definition is “showing a great deal of variety” but it’s now being used in America, particularly, to mean “not white.” This implies that white people are somehow excluded from diversity. Even that being white is wrong/bad/a problem.
“Not white” is not the same thing as “diverse.” Furthermore, white people can be diverse.
I’ve been seeing more discussion about how saying “diverse” in place of “black” or “people of color” or “LGBTQ+” ends up erasing so many identities, as I’ve experienced personally and seen happen to so many others as well. Much like “privilege” and “intersectionality,” these concepts aren’t and shouldn’t be reduced to a binary of “white” and “nonwhite”… but they often are. Diversity is more than just American blackness, and in many cases, a group of all-black people is not very diverse at all. I mean, have you ever been a white agnostic East Coast girl, surrounded by a group of black Christian women in the South? That’s more homogeneous a mixture than glue.
Diversity can be age. Class. Different areas of a specific job field. Disability (and yes, that includes anxiety, depression, panic, which is not the same thing as “white fragility”) and neurodiversity. Financial situations. Whether or not English is your first language. Weight. Different life experiences. People with children and people without children. Different religions and religious beliefs. People from different regions. Different levels of literacy, technological experience, physical fitness, cooking skills.
Furthermore, whenever someone uses “diverse” to mean one specific type of diversity when someone else means a different kind of diversity, it always turns into more call outs and shaming for not using the same terms and types and points of reference. Person A’s starting point with diversity might be race, and Person B’s starting point for diversity might be gender, and Person C’s starting point for diversity might be economic disparity, and none of those things are “right” or “wrong,” they just are.
It’s okay to talk about race by name, and to name other areas of diversity and intersections. It’s okay to say “We need more women of color in this field” instead of “We need more diversity in this field.” It’s okay to say “I’m looking for more POC/disability representation/older MCs in romance novels” instead of “There needs to be more diversity in romance novels.” It’s okay to say “I want to see black actors cast in the roles of black historical figures,” “Are there any rom coms that depict bisexuality in a healthy way?” “When are we going to see a plus size queen crowned on Drag Race?” “It would be great if there were more gender-nonconforming style and beauty influencers on YouTube.”
“Diversity” is also being heavily policed — yes, I’ll use the term, “gatekeeping” — via people who think they have the rights to demand others somehow justify their rights to participate in a discussion or have a voice. I’ve mentioned before the assumptions of “No white person should ever speak about race!” when THAT in itself assumes that said white person isn’t the parent/child/sibling/spouse of a POC, that they may not be part of a race-based community or neighborhood, that they may not have been invited or included by other POC. Or, as the comments on the pics above stated, that whiteness is somehow something bad/wrong/invalid in and of itself.
This kind of gatekeeping goes even further: the people I know who aren’t out publicly/at work who are assumed to be straight/cis, and are then told they are homophobic for taking part in Pride activities… people who have complicated racial and cultural backgrounds that are not obvious… people, especially white women, with invisible disabilities… abuse and trauma survivors… people with a myriad of identities and relationships that inform who they are and their own diversity… all told that they are not qualified nor welcome to participate in discourse, that their voices are not relevant, that they aren’t ___ enough to meet a group’s approval.
Shutting down discussions and silencing people via call outs because you don’t recognize that the white lady is disabled, is married to a black woman and raising black stepchildren, is the adopted child of a mixed race family, is actually a POC but you just didn’t “see” it at first, teaches at a socially and economically disadvantaged school, is a lawyer who volunteers time at the local prison, is trans, etc. IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. No one owes it to you to explain or justify why they are discussing issues related to race and diversity.
AND THAT IS NOT THE SAME THING AS A NONBLACK PERSON SAYING “I’VE EXPERIENCED RACISM TOO, Y’KNOW”!
For a million reasons related to privacy, safety, personal unsureness, economic dependency, employment status, and so on, someone may not be able to or want to disclose their identity as a ____ to you. They may not want to disclose it at all. They may not have figured all of it out for themselves yet. They may or may not be ashamed, who knows, but that is their problem, and they are in the middle of dealing with it. But no one gets to demand that another person identify themselves or disclose personal information, for any reason.
Chaz Bono, back when he was twenty-something Chastity in the ’90s, used to do a lot of talks at colleges. When she (as she identified then) came to ours, she gave a blistering talk about coming out. “Why are you not out to your parents?” she demanded of the audience, which included a lot of queer students who had identified themselves with raised hands, singling them out. “Why are you still in the closet? You owe it to them to come out!” She insisted that every queer person HAD THE RESPONSIBILITY to come out, to live truthfully as gay, to confront their parents with the reality of who they were, to force the issue if necessary, and if not, they were actively harming people who were already out by forcing them to bear the responsibilities. Um. Hello? MANY OF THOSE STUDENTS WOULD NOT BE ABLE TO AFFORD COLLEGE WITHOUT THEIR PARENTS’ SUPPORT AND THEY’D BE KICKED OUT IF THEY CAME OUT! “That doesn’t matter,” she insisted. What was more important was coming out. “You need to be out to your parents. You need to be out. Why are you not out? That’s no excuse!” Really? The rates of suicide, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution amongst gay teens/early-20s Americans at that time would indicate that there were serious, life-threatening consequences for many who came out who WEREN’T the child of rich celebrities.
I’m guessing Chaz now might have very different perspectives of that, and it would be interesting to hear what he thinks… and I want to to point out that he should not be “cancelled!” for having said such potentially harmful things to other LGBTQ+ people 20+ years ago when he was in a very different place re: identity, either. His perspective as a child of celebrities–one a Republican mayor and congressman, the other a gay icon–isn’t necessarily one of clear-cut “privilege,” either, as he had to negotiate four decades of identity fully in the public eye.
But the point is, not everyone CAN identify themselves as ___ at your demand, even if you think it’s “harmful” or “irresponsible” or whatever that they don’t, for a variety of reasons that ARE NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS. It’s not for you to decide.
But just because they aren’t identifying as ___ in this particular place/time/situation, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have any experience with diversity.
It’s important to recognize that sometimes when people bring up “diversity,” they/we aren’t talking about diversity. You’re discussing diversities, plural. SO STOP FUCKING ERASING PEOPLE WHO DON’T MATCH YOUR OWN GODDAMNED SPECIFICATIONS.
In fact, maybe even consider that it’s none of your business if the lady raising children of color is raising them with the kind of “culture” you think is appropriate, or if a random suburban teen is white but wants to be a rap star, or is learning Korean because they love K.Pop, or has started attending services at a Hindu or Buddhist temple. Maybe it’s none of your business what someone wears and why, or what restaurants they go to, or if they read/don’t read books by POC, or if they do other things like not shop exclusively at size-inclusive stores or pronounce it “Bar-tha-lon-a” or call their same-gender partner “my partner” instead of “husband/wife” like you think they should, and you think that is awful and offensive and merits a call out.
Maybe instead, just… MYOFB for a change.
Interestingly enough, because of other academic work, I’ve been doing a deep dive into theories re: rhetoric and rhetorical studies, and thinking about call outs within this framework, too. Even before I first started these blogs, I looked at call outs as a certain kind of strong, active “speaking out” action against injustice, and that was why it makes it harder to raise questions about the effectiveness, or even the accuracy or validity, of a call out.
Now, by applying certain theoretical framework, it’s possible to define call outs as very specific kinds of rhetorical performances that demand rhetorical performances in return that simply are not humanly possible, and even more, have specific steps and components. It is not about creating dialogue or understanding at all. Call outs, as a genre and an action, are essentially about that performed “rightness,” and, accordingly, people performing call outs have no interest in discussion or dialogue at all, so there is no “right response” possible, ever. This often sets recipients for failure and pain, which may not always be warranted, much less effective.
Some people like to seize on an incident or person and claim moral high ground, and use that as an excuse to perform big, public call outs (often with media attention, the support of a group, or just the smug certainty that they are “right” and the other is “wrong). But we also have to ask, at what fucking expense?
For example, The Cosby Show has been pulled from TV/streaming services, because Bill Cosby is and has always been a raping piece of shit… but A Different World is still on. Is that okay? Why? Actor Geoffrey Owens contended with bullshit mockery for working at Trader Joe’s, in part because pulling The Cosby Show meant he no longer got residuals, and he’s just one of the whole cast. So now we have multiple black American actors suffering. Is that right? Does that help? Why or why not? Is it, should it be, a simple cause-and-effect response? As things age, even without a rapist asshole criminal behind a show, EVERYTHING is going to show signs of racism, sexism, and other problematic shit. “Cancelled!” may make a satisfying short term solution for some, but it’s not adequate for all things, at all times, is it?
For another “cancelled!” example, literally:
“But a landscape in which a handful of online critics can hound an author into retracting her own work is something much more foreboding—and hardly one in which new and genuinely interesting voices are likely to thrive.”
Or, as one of the few articles I’ve found actually looking at the problems with call outs puts it:
“In many ways, holding each other accountable has come to mean punishing each other. Sometimes it feels like we’re all competing on a hardcore game show, trying to knock each other down to be crowned the movement’s Best Activist.”
Not all call outs are created equal. Not all are necessary. Some are just assholes performing rhetorical strategies to make themselves feel powerful and smart and centered. There needs to be distinctions regarding call outs instead of the assumption that they are all right and just and useful.
Some things justify, even desperately need, a call out:
Some things do not.
But it’s more. There are so many reasons besides an -ism why someone might say something problematic or not know the most recent terminology or do something that seems offensive or harmful, and I don’t mean “I was on ambien/my account was hacked, therefore I posted all of these racial slurs.” I mean plain old human missteps, confusion, nervousness, cultural differences, a misunderstanding, a physical action that has nothing to do with you at all.
Things that are sometimes valid reasons, not excuses.
Maybe it’s not always someone enacting a system of oppression and violence against another person when they mistakenly called someone “Garcia” instead of “Rodriquez.” Maybe they read the wrong line on their notes, and someone with the surname Garcia is on there, too. Maybe they have a friend who has a name that sounds similar to yours, and they flubbed. Or they’re tired. They have a headache. They’re dyslexic. Hard of hearing. They’re not presenting in their first language. Maybe something bigger than your name or this talk is going on in their lives: they’re dealing with a health crisis; their partner or child or parent or best friend has cancer, they are stressed and emotional and not focused. Maybe they have a disability you aren’t recognizing; I have a friend who’s recovering from brain trauma after a car accident, and she struggles with short-term memory. If she has to ask “What was that again?” or forgets/flubs someone’s name, it’s not a sign that she’s ignoring ___ or doesn’t care about ___ . It means she’s struggling with a fucking brain injury.
Part of my social anxiety is that I have a lot of trouble keeping names and faces straight until I’ve spoken with someone a few times, and believe me, I already feel horrible and ashamed about that. If I mix up a couple people, it’s not necessarily because “all __ people look alike to me.” I also struggle with words when I’m exhausted. This means big gatherings or conferences are often a stress-pile of me trying to remember how/if I know who and from where, because it’s a mass of names and faces without contexts.
So no, my needing a moment to remember a POC’s book title or mixing up their name is mild aphasia, and something that happens with white people’s book titles and names, too. It’s not an egregious act of silencing and racism on my part. I get that Person A may react to it that way, and be justified in their feelings. But do I need to be “called out on my racism” if I can’t remember if the person I met once briefly at a fast-paced conference last year is Maria Todorov, Maria Salazar, Maria Sandoval, Marie Turner, or Natalie-Marie Garibaldi? (No, those aren’t names of real people. C’mon. It’s a similar situation to something that happened IRL, though.)
You don’t know what someone else’s story is when you make knee-jerk assumptions about someone else’s harmful/racist/offensive actions, when a person tweets something you think is insensitive, or when someone looks nervous and keeps turning around, or because the old white lady held her purse close when someone walked by, or someone moved seats on the subway, or you think they’re laughing at you or grimacing at you or checking you out sexually. It might not actually be about you and systemic oppression at all. They might have just taken an upsetting phone call. They might be smiling because they just had a great conversation with friends. Their bag was slipping, so they pulled it closer. They’re visiting this city or campus or venue for the first time, and are lost, and keep looking for a specific landmark. They have cognitive issues. They have an upset stomach and are trying not to vomit. They’re ADHD, on the spectrum, on medication that makes them foggy. It’s their birthday or anniversary or they just aced a job interview.
So their “inappropriate” or “harmful” reactions are not always a personal affront about you or me, okay?
What about the history of some of this stuff, though? What about looking at what needs to be called out as framed in our national American ideologies? Let’s poke that a bit.
One recent conversation happening on an American as well as global level is people calling out other people for using plastic. You bought water in a plastic bottle? You got single-use plastic bags at the grocery story? You are destroying the environment, goddammit! And cue pictures of sea life choked by plastic waste.
However, this environmental crisis is part of a longer discussion re: production and resource. Because know what? Back in the ‘90s in America, we were all called out and shamed for using paper, and destroying all the trees. Why were we not using more recyclable plastics?! Paper bags were banned at many stores, and people were encouraged to either recycle as much as possible or use those plastic bottles and bags multiple times first. That would save the environment!
Obviously, with more information, today we can see that switching from paper to plastics wasn’t the slam-dunk answer we thought it was a generation ago. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to be fucking retroactively shamed for it. How about we just build on the knowledge we have now? Instead of attacking everyone on social media who has a picture with a plastic water bottle or Ziploc bag in it by posting pictures of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and shaming them for being directly responsible for it, get your own ass up and take some shit to the recycling center or gather a group to pick up trash in the local park.
It’s also been a point of recent contention to call out and shame white people who say “I don’t see color.” Yes, that is incredibly problematic and needs scrutiny. It isn’t an ideology that works anymore, or for new generations of black Americans and POC in America.
But what many people, including younger black people, in America don’t realize is, this whole “I don’t see you as black, I see you as human” thing? Yeah, our dumb white asses didn’t come up with this on our own. We didn’t consciously decide as a homogeneous pasty-white mass to inflict harm on black people by erasing their blackness at all. Actually?
We got this from listening to other black people assert their needs and identities.
In the 80s, especially, from Michael Jackson to Jean-Michel Basquiat, we heard black Americans say over and over that they didn’t want to be seen as “a black artist,” but rather, “an artist.” Stevie Wonder sat next to Paul McCartney, singing about how “people are the same wherever you go.” Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, so many of our divas, asserted that they were more than “just” their race, they were women, they were artists. Phrases like “transcend race” and “speaking to everyone” were positive things, emphasizing shared humanity and mutual respect. We were told to raise the next generations of children with those ideas, the MLK messages of “judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their characters.”
While it is no longer helpful or useful, that doesn’t mean that, in its historical contexts, it wasn’t something important at the time. It wasn’t “wrong,” it was a step, and evolved to other things. There will be more steps, and what you thought was essential today will be someone else’s painful history in 50 years, so are you prepared to be called out on that? It also means that we’ve been having these complicated discussions about what race and blackness and color and identity “should” mean in America for a lot longer than the fucking Trump administration, and the bullshit simplicity of “52% of white women voted for Trump, so you all need to be held accountable!”
According to some statistics, 81% of Christian Americans voted for him, too, so does that mean all nonwhite Christians “need to be held accountable” too? Are you willing to examine the fact that Christianity is ALSO systemic oppression, responsible for other systems of oppression like imperialism and patriarchy and manifest destiny and slavery and racism? (And BTW, black Americans, how can you continue to support Michael Jackson when he is a pedophile?)
My point, yet again, is that blaming, finger-pointing, shaming, and silencing/erasing entire groups of people, especially for actions of others or history long past, is not effective. One person does not stand in for all people of a group, nor should they be attacked as such. I mean, if you think I, personally, need to be “held accountable” for every POC’s experience of racism because I’ve benefited from white privilege, does that mean I get to hold all black men accountable for the one who broke in and raped my grandmother when she was in her 80s? Obviously not.
See how useless this kind of shit is?
Call outs are not unquestioningly some magic “speaking truth to power” action of activism. Or, in Joy Harjo’s words:
True power does not amass through the pain and suffering of others
Remember when you were a kid, and you’d get blamed for something you didn’t actually do, and how horrid that felt? I still remember all of it: the time the teacher was convinced that I was the one talking out of turn (me?!) and I was made to sit at the side of the class and watch while everyone else got to participate in a dance activity. Being blamed for someone else’s mean note about a teacher and the teacher shunning me. Having a book being thrown out of the window of a moving car because my sibling kept trying to take it from me and I said no. The countless times I’d get in trouble or even partially blamed for crap my sibling did or broke or messed up. I especially remember being confronted and shamed and made to apologize to an adult man at my aunt and uncle’s summer BBQ because he thought I was “a snob” since I was sitting quietly by myself and reading. Being confused and asking “But why-?” on more than one occasion got me backhanded, grounded, popped in the mouth, or forcibly dragged to my room. “Don’t get so defensive all the time!” was a regular thing I heard as a kid, because, yeah, it was soooo awful of me to… be placed in positions where I always had to defend myself from everyone telling me how wrong and bad I was.
Being forced to apologize for something you never did, or didn’t realize/think was wrong, is confusing, bordering on abusive, for kids. Getting screamed at and punished even more when you tried to understand why you were being punished in the first place was even worse. Adults who didn’t realize that I couldn’t’ve actually done the thing they were holding me responsible for, or making me responsible that someone else was upset with something beyond my control, was unfair as fuck.
That’s what this call out shit is beginning to feel like overall. Someone who wants to scream and yell and punish you, even when you aren’t clear on what you did that was bad and want to make sure you don’t do it again, and they can inflict pain on you but you aren’t allowed to fight back or defend yourself in any way, and every response–“Shut up when I’m talking to you!” “Well, ANSWER ME!”–only brings on more punishment, because everything you do is wrong and bad. YOU are wrong and bad.
Furthermore, as a survivor of abuse, this is what aggressive, shaming, and/or incorrect call outs feel like to me. They trigger my every past abuse. They are not effective. They do not work. I cannot respond to them in any kind of healthy or productive way. They don’t fix oppressions, either.
You (in general) do not get to decide for me what levels of “uncomfortable” or “pushed out of my comfort zone” I must endure. Just because you “speak your mind” does not mean that what you speak is unquestioningly correct, or fair, or useful, or applies to everyone. So no. I don’t have to play your reindeer games just because YOU think I should. You don’t get to decide that for other people.
I have one last anecdote for this blog post:
When I was growing up, in our neighborhood, one of the families had a son with Down’s Syndrome. I’ll call him Will. Will was 12 at the time, within the same age range of most of the kids who played outside, but he wasn’t included at first. One summer, Will’s mom visited a number of the parents and kids on the block to tell us about how sad Will was, watching the other kids play from the window or his front yard, only to be left out. She knew that kids with special needs could be an intimidating and unfamiliar thing to other little kids, but couldn’t we please consider that Will, too, was just another kid who wanted to play, and include him? Our parents all reminded us of the things we’d learned in school, the other special needs kids there, the Special Olympics and the “very special episodes” on TV. Some parents even looked up resources to help. (*At this time, the popular term was “mainstreaming,” and many special needs kids were “mainstreamed” at non-disability-specific schools to “be like all the other kids.” It was considered positive, validating, and valuable to all kids involved at that time.)
Yes, yes, the group of kids agreed that Will should be included, and that we might learn some very important things of our own from him. We would be loving and patient and open-minded, and include him, as he so wanted. We wouldn’t use certain ugly words, we would treat him like anyone else, which was what his mother said he needed, and what books advised. But we would also be aware that we needed to be gentle and careful, because he might not understand some things the same way.
We included Will the very next morning, and he ran to join the group of kids eagerly. (I was a little older, so I was usually off to the side reading and keeping an eye on my own sibling if I was there.) From the start, Will was aggressive, used bad words, and even pushed some of the smaller children; since he was physically pretty big, a couple littler kids were hurt. But we were told we had to be patient. Over the next few days, Will was still rough and aggressive, sometimes downright mean. Will broke/stole other kids’ toys, but didn’t let them near his things. He called people names and cursed. He grabbed several of the girls by their breasts, screaming “BOOBS!” and tried to get another to pull down her pants so he “could see.” He liked to take bikes from the younger kids — retrospectively because he might have been frustrated that he didn’t ride as well as they did? — and push the bikes down the hill until they crashed, sometimes into neighbors’ cars or yards.
Kids complained to their parents and were told “be patient, be kind,” and “he doesn’t understand” and “he’s special.” So we kept saying “No, Will, no,” and “Please don’t,” and “Will, that’s not nice,” and even “NO!” but nothing worked. Once, when Will yet again called one of the Asian children the c-word, said child responded with the r-word. In just a few days, all had become chaos in the neighborhood.
That Thursday, Will took one 10-year-old’s bike, and instead of “ghost riding” it down the hill, he ran back to his house, through the backyard, and hid with it. We waited to see if he’d bring it back, and, when he didn’t, we went and knocked on the door. Will refused to answer. (Not sure where his mom was at the time, but she didn’t answer the door either.) By this time, the hysterical 10-year-old ran home to report his stolen bike, but, when that kid’s parents went over to Will’s house that evening to explain what happened and get the bike back, Will’s mom evoked the mantra: “He doesn’t understand!” his mom insisted. So… you think he just gets to keep the bike he stole? The kid who used the r-word was also severely reprimanded by her, but Will “didn’t understand” that calling another kid the c-word was bad, so that was different.
Parental intervention happened, Will’s mom cried and screamed about how mean we all were and how hurt her son was, but the fact was, there was no way to include Will, specifically after the bike-stealing incident, and the other neighbor kids refused to play with him, and started playing at the other end of the street or riding bikes down to the local park to avoid him. All of the ideology or “shoulds” in the world didn’t change the fact that Will was mean, hurtful, cruel, and sexually abusive to other kids, and they shouldn’t be forced to somehow accept or make allowance for that just because Will had Down’s. Besides, didn’t his mom and everyone else insist that he be “treated just like the other kids”?
One person was inflicting pain and harm on at least fourteen other people. At our schools, there were other kids with special needs, even Down’s, who played with others, or who knew not to steal and break things. Who didn’t grab other girls’ breasts or call people hurtful names and curse at them. But the situation in our neighborhood was not the same thing. Since there weren’t any other mentally challenged kids in the neighborhood at that time, I don’t know what might’ve happened hypothetically if a non-Will kid had wanted to join in. Maybe there could have been supervised playtimes that included Will instead, and a group of other children shouldn’t’ve been made responsible for meeting Will’s needs? Maybe Will, specifically, would have thrived in an environment with other disabled kids?
But anyone insisting to those fourteen or so neighborhood kids and their parents and siblings that every single special needs kid should always be included and to not include them was evil and selfish and cruel would be denying the very different lived experience of a group of people. Calling out those kids for being ableist and excluding someone with special needs would be misrepresentation and erasure of their specific experiences, and that needed to be considered.
So yes, “speak truth to power!” and all stuff that is important. But don’t make the mistake of assuming that your truth is the truth for everyone. One ideology does not fit all. Call outs and “cancelled!” pretend that it is, and ends up floating in a sea of assumptions and generalizations and stereotypes of its own. They even end up inflicting more abuses and oppressions on others.
This means I’m back to the same points that I started with almost a year ago:
The issue is, not everyone is Brock Turner or Roseanne Barr or Harvey Weinstein. Not everyone is the internet MRA troll in a feminist discussion group. Not everyone is your racist, Trump-voting, homophobic cousin at the holiday dinner table. Most of them are just… people. Sometimes they’re a person who just did a one-time stupid thing when they were young, or had a private conversation or joke taken out of context and used as proof about some bigger oppression. Sometimes they’re someone who just hasn’t had the experience or opportunity to think about ___ yet. I’d even suggest most are people who want to learn and understand and be respectful. They just haven’t had the same life experiences as you and, know what? That’s not something that people should be called out for and shamed.
And this is why I am done with call outs. I am done with cancelling everything. I’m done with being placed in positions and situations that, to me, reenact my childhood abuses and inflict more trauma. I’m done with assuming that everyone who ___ is ___ and therefore should be ___, because, once more for posterity: THIS. SHIT. IS. COMPLICATED. There will ALWAYS be someone who says that you are wrong and racist and sexist and -phobic, that your words hurt them, or you are oppressing them. I know lots of people, and not just white ones like myself but diversities of people, end up frustrated that “No matter what we do or say, it’s wrong.”
THAT IS ACTUALLY EMPOWERING.
The inverse of that frustration is the realization that you can’t make everyone happy. No matter how careful or open-minded you are, no matter how much you “shut up and listen” and then enact what you’ve been told by POC, no matter what diverse/minority/oppressed spaces and roles you also occupy, there will always be someone ready to tell you how you’re doing it all wrong and ruining everything… and you don’t have to internalize every single one of them and feel responsible personally for fixing it.
As my therapist (have I mentioned? a specialist in racial issues, as well as a POC) finally had to say to me, “Emily. It’s not your job to fix racism.”
You’re free to recognize that no matter what you do, someone won’t like it, so you don’t have to keep trying to please everyone, or even a group of people, because it simply is not possible. If we can recognize that, we can also recognize that there will always be people in identified groups — vegans, body positivity activists, nursing mothers, gay male parents, anti-vaxxers, pro-vaxxers, the YouTube beauty community — who are unhappy, angry, frustrated… often justifiably so, but that we don’t have to take on their hurts and be responsible for them.
It’s also just down to people having different needs, experiences, expectations, perspectives, occupying different spaces, being at different points in life or in the world. And that is not always something to be shamed, punished, or called out for. That is not something that you or I, as individuals, have to be forced to fix. Hell, we don’t even have to be forced to prioritize them, if we can’t, or even if we just don’t want to.
However, most of us who are dealing with the overwhelming piles fears and anger from the state of things right now, admittedly, aren’t going to be on board with a callous “Not my problem.” We actually DO give a shit and want to work to make things bearable, fight the oppressions and oppressors.
But WHAT DO WE DO?!
My starting point is that I’m done with call outs, and I am going to live my life and make my decisions to the best of my ability, and in a way that allows for multiple perspectives, context, and nuance. I’m going to hold myself to incredibly high standards on my own without outside arbitration. I will incorporate tools that work for me, and discard those that don’t, for whatever reason. I will continue to constantly question things, and do the best I can to no be an asshole, and to make this shitty world a little better… but I am fucking DONE with being forced to perform commanded responses to everyone, and then being told all the ways in why my human emotions or own lived experiences or diversities are wrong. I’m done with someone else defining me based on their own rubrics without ever engaging mine.
Not all fragility is white fragility.
And things, even opposing things, can coexist.
I have to deal with things that are in contradiction, because that’s what life is. Yes, I can declare that Bill Cosby is an utter piece of rapist shit… AND engage with The Cosby Show as a cultural entity that was crucial in the 1980s. I can reject Sherman Alexie, Harold Bloom, and several MLA-attending academic creepy profs after hearing too many stories from fellow scholars about aggressive sexual harassment… and recognize that a scholar may have valid reason to interrogate Bloom’s critical work on Shakespeare or Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at some point, and they aren’t doing it AT me or AT women who have been sexually harassed.
And I can recognize that an individual is attacking, harassing, or bullying someone out of their own pain and feelings of powerlessness… and also choose not to engage them at all.
So can you. You get to define and decide those things for yourself.
This article here is the closest I’ve seen to anything other than “If you’re called out, you clearly fucked up so shut up and listen” advice re: responding to call outs, and it needs to be read and reposted and printed and distributed everywhere. Because
Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.
No matter the wrong we are naming, there are ways to call people out that do not reduce individuals to agents of social advantage. There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit.
You don’t need to answer an ex who keeps texting “Are you still mad at me?” You don’t have to engage your MIL who wants to know why you won’t give her a key to your house. You aren’t obligated to buy from the co-worker who has “her own side hustle” that is clearly an MLM scheme even though she “needs your support!” Even if your new neighbor is super-friendly and nice, you aren’t required to be their friend, especially if you are uncomfortable with the way they just drop by unannounced all the time or talk your ear off six times a day. You can also decide you don’t have to respond to the friend-of-a-friend who declares that you are destroying Native American culture because you burned a cedarwood bundle in your home.
We get to set our own boundaries and define ourselves. Sorry if that also makes someone “uncomfortable” but that is within our rights, even a necessity, as human beings.
I think what I’m saying is that I’m declaring call outs/cancelled culture = cancelled. For me, anyway. For you, too, if you need to.
And in my next and last post in this ongoing series, we’ll discuss ways to say “Thanks But No Thanks” to someone calling you out. It’s finally time for some practical application, my darlings.