We’ve been thinking about call out culture for a while now (here’s one example of what might be seen as a “calling out” of people with privilege). We’ve read think pieces that argue that call out culture in social justice circles is toxic and that we need to be more strategic about how we call out people’s troubling behavior, while others counter this notion that it is call out culture that is toxic rather than racism, sexism, or rape. Like other folks we’ve talked to about this topic, we were especially struck by the tone of some of the conversations we witnessed our students having online. We were sitting around, thinking to ourselves, with fingers on chins, “Oh, these young people, if only they’d learn how to be kind on the interwebs.” As we talked about more about it, however, especially in light of some of the reactions we’ve gotten to some of our blog posts, we came to some different conclusions.
We think that the binary between call out and call in culture is not nuanced enough. If we want to move to “call in” culture, what exactly does that mean and what needs to happen so that people can understand that we’re ‘calling in’ and not ‘calling out’? What if people don’t want to be called in? What if no matter how gentle or strategic you try to be, people feel called out? What if there’s a long history of someone feeling silenced or trying various ways to point out troubling behavior that gets ignored (“calling in”) until words and frustrations explode on Facebook or other social media?
One way to think about this that brings nuance, we think, is to remember that context matters for how and when we point out troubling behavior or language that reinforces racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic structures, policies, and systems. One context that we think a lot about is intergroup dialogue. In this context, people are encouraged to share their stories and experiences; the goal is not to convince people that they are right or wrong. The participants are not presented with a host of data or statistics. However, they are encouraged to situate their personal experiences within larger structures, to consider the impact of their words on their fellow participants, and to stay open to how their path to college and in college was made easier or more difficult because of the access their identities afforded them or not. And it is the job of the facilitators to help participants do this kind of work–to ask difficult questions, to point out patterns in what had been said, to push back. The facilitators are there to notice not only what is being said but also what is not being said, body language, and so forth. Agreeing to be a facilitator or to be a participant in this context means that you’re taking on a particular responsibility to being open to critique and to being generous and productive with how you push back. However, these responsibilities are not ones, we think, is fair to expect students, particularly students who hold marginalized identities, to take on all the time on campuses in all contexts.
We admire the work that some folks have taken on to have difficult conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with them, and perhaps even dislike or hate them. For example, Dylan Marron who has conversations with people who have written hateful, personal comments about him online. Or the musician Daryl Davis who, for decades, has taken on the work of talking with people in the KKK and has convinced many to leave.
We don’t think it’s possible, though, for everyone to do this kind of work or that it’s fair to have the expectation that our students will do this difficult work especially in contexts when they haven’t agreed to do so. While in the context of intergroup dialogue and in classes we teach, we do ask students to listen differently, to be generous in their critiques of readings and each other, we do think there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to call out individuals in a public way.
What is difficult, though, is figuring out when and why that’s necessary or appropriate. We’ve been asked the same question about some of our posts. We’ve been asked, given that we work at a small college, what was our goal in naming specific experiences in our blog posts?
As we were writing, we thought that in not naming people but naming behaviors, we were not individualizing it. We believed that by placing particular interactions within structure, we might make it possible to shift behavior, or at least make it possible for other people to see our perspective more clearly.
In the conversation that follows we dig in a bit more into the question of context and goals when it comes to “calling out.”
Adriana: I’ve been thinking about how helpful it has been to me to think about higher education as a white space, through Sara Ahmed’s work for example. Spaces are racialized and therefore can be felt as less productive, less welcoming, depending on your background. Then I couldn’t help but see Carleton through that lens, on behalf of my classes and my students, and I think that’s what we try to do with our blog. We’re not trying to get people to believe what we believe. We’re discussing our own experiences: this is why our worldview is this way, and here’s some research for why we think our worldview is not just the two of us. Then maybe you (the reader) could shift your point of view a little bit.
Anita: Right. It’s our experiences of these interactions. But there is the other person in the interaction and clearly, they see it differently. One could argue that the way we’ve written about some of our experiences was ungenerous, unkind, unproductive. They could ask what was our goal in writing about moments that are specifically about Carleton and some of our colleagues, because even if we don’t name specific people, we’re talking about faculty meetings, we’re talking about White faculty, for example. What was our goal in presenting our side of the interaction?
Adriana: What do you think our goal was?
Anita: I think it was as simple as [or as complicated as!] interrupting that White space, the White take on things. Or this notion that we don’t have a problem. That we’re not a White space. We were pushing back on how we (the college community) don’t tend to name things. We don’t name Carleton or faculty meetings as these White spaces. We were interrupting that happy space, the happy Whiteness.
Adriana: It’s the killjoy moment. That’s the complicated part of call out culture. In being the killjoy in the moment, we may not intend to be so interruptive that things get shut down in particular ways. Of course, they never get shut down at the heart of the machinery. They get shut down in these junky, clunky ways that preserve the machinery,and that makes sure that the center keeps on running. We might think we’re being judicious and thoughtful about our call out but simply because it’s a killjoy call out, it gets perceived in these really painful ways for people. When students do it on Facebook, we’re sitting here, judging, and saying, “Why don’t you be a little bit nicer?” but maybe the students have tried to be nice and it got the same results for them as it has for us.
Anita: I think of the way that people were surprised by the blog, surprised by the tone, surprised by “what? You’re not happy here” or perhaps some people who felt called out might have reacted with a “but they never said anything to me!!” For our students, maybe by the time they get to Facebook (and sometimes this history is hinted at in their FB exchanges), they’ve already had these clearly unproductive exchanges in person. And then they get to this place where they’re frustrated not just by a particular moment but by a whole history of moments and they jump to pretty cutting language in their online exchanges. In the same way, even in the faculty meeting we talk about, there was a build up, there were earlier moments in which you tried to intervene, you had tried to be heard in person, and you weren’t heard. Again, if it was just that moment, we wouldn’t have written a blog post about it. But it’s hard to make visible that history of why that particular moment felt so frustrating. We do try to situate that moment in a history, in a structure, but perhaps that does not seem as obvious to others as it does to us. So then our post comes out in this way that people are surprised because they haven’t felt like we articulated our experiences of those moments to them in person or we have articulated it but people haven’t heard us.
Adriana: Then we do it in this somewhat direct way, in this culturally unacceptable way. It’s not that it’s wrong or vulgar. The fact is that it’s blunt and public makes it culturally inappropriate, and that means it gets read as spiteful, unproductive, personal, vindictive, ungrateful.
Anita: But what can you disagree with when we write about our experiences? You can disagree with the fact that it wasn’t your experience but how can you disagree with our own interpretations of our experiences? Which is what I think is happening. Saying, “But that’s not what I meant” negates our experiences, it negates our interpretation, it negates the impact. In a world where everybody has equal power, we could have just said, “Oh, this is what I heard when you said this” and the other person would say, “Oh, I hear you, though that’s not what I meant.” But a lot of the times institutional power works in ways that we don’t even get to say that. Somebody says something, you object, but just in your head, or with your friends. You don’t actually feel like you have the power or the wherewithal in the moment to respond directly. What we’re trying to think through is what happens in interactions where there are clear institutional lines of power; with faculty, for example, it’s between tenured or untentured faculty that often map onto differences in broader societal power because of race, gender, class, etc. Because if they are my peer or my friend, then there are different ways of calling out that are possible when there isn’t a power imbalance.
Adriana: I mean, you just call me out directly. [laughter]
Anita: But we don’t have institutional power over each other. I assume that students also call each other in more gentle ways among their friends.
Adriana: The perceived violence of the call out is exacerbated when there’s greater power imbalances involved.
Anita: Yes, it’s about power but also about a lack of relationship. For us, and in the intergroup dialogue context, this is why you build a sustained relationship.
Adriana: Maybe in these FB convos, they are not interested in sustaining relationships and maybe that’s okay. Why are we afraid of moments that are not about building community in particular ways? I’m thinking of Miranda Joseph’s study of LGBTQ organizations, where she tracks how in their work, these utopic dreams of how things should be get in the way of actually doing the work of building community.
Anita: At Carleton, there’s this rhetoric of how we are already a community. It’s not an utopian goal. It’s presumed that it’s already there and so we don’t have to work at it. So by challenging what happens at Carleton, we’re breaking community rather than believing in it. But what we’re saying is that for some of us, that community doesn’t exist.
Adriana: Yes, there’s a superficial sense of community. But there’s a difference between choosing each other and thus calling each other in, and this idea that somehow just because we’ve all chosen to be in this place, we are part of a community. You know me. I’m an optimist. I’m into this idea of bringing people from all over the world and saying we want you to choose each other; think of yourselves as belonging to each other. There are ways that the institution tries to build that community, in orientation, at the beginning of year. But it’s also this idea that you’re now at Carleton. And you should get along. Or you will get along.
Anita: Why do people come to college? If you come to a small college, are you buying into some part of it’s going to be this utopian community? We’ve talked to some women of color alums who felt some level of betrayal of that idea because the community didn’t work for them, it didn’t support them.
Adriana: And for faculty, just because we have chosen to work at this place, there’s an expectation that we’d get along, we’d be friends. We are just choosing a job, a pretty good job, but it’s a job. It’s not like someone said, hey, there’s this utopian community, and you see that in the brochure, it looks amazing, and that’s why you get a job here.
Anita: No, but collegiality is a part of how we’re reviewed. And collegiality often gets translated to not challenging the institution or at least not challenging it in a way that actually changes anything. For faculty, it’s the notion of collegiality that’s invoked that ends up silencing dissent and for students, it’s the notion of community.
Adriana: I think the language of community gets used for faculty, too. When people speak up, sometimes the response is, “Don’t you remember our values about civil discourse?” Students are told that healthy exchanges of ideas is good. Civility is valued. But we don’t talk about social justice in our official statements about the college. We don’t state explicitly that we believe in justice, that we believe in racial equality.
Anita: Yes. And there’s no guidance about what to do when when different values clash. Yes, we value free speech and we value non-discrimination but what happens when those values clash in a particular incident? Is it a balance? Does one get valued over another?
Adriana: Part of that fake binary between call out or call in culture is related to this idea that we have a desire to build community, to build towards something we want to see. But what happens when there are differences in what we are building toward? It’s not like we all have the same ideas of a an utopian community. There definitely wouldn’t be enough crying in your utopia for my taste! [laughter]
As you might be able to tell from this post and our exchanges, we are still thinking through our ideas about the “call out/in” culture. We would love to hear from you how you’ve been thinking about these issues, within a college campus context, and also about how you’ve been navigating these issues once you’ve left that context. Please comment here if possible so that other readers can see your ideas!