Calling In: Activism with Compassion and Boundaries

man and woman shouting

“ONLY WHERE things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear.”

– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Political theorist Hannah Arendt stated that reality is comprised of a multitude of perspectives on the same thing. What a cup actually is, for example, can be reasonably ascertained by asking a number of people with different views on the cup to describe it.

When it comes to personal experiences, things become a bit more complicated due to the fact that some people have clearer perspectives on certain aspects of reality than others. So it is for members of marginalized groups, whose experiences are notably different in many ways from the more privileged. This disparity in perspective is a difficulty that activists for social justice are constantly trying to navigate. When non-members of such communities do not gain perspective on such topics, they will likely, knowingly or not, perpetuate harm and oppression. The question of how to best go about encouraging perspective — how to communicate — is therefore crucial for the activist and the cause.

In a recent article published in Brairpatch Magazine, writer Asam Ahmad describes what he sees as a problematic trend in activist work: “call-out culture,” which is characterized by the practice of calling people out for behavior and actions that reinforce the oppression of marginalized groups. As Ahmad notes, this “performance” of calling out is sometimes the beginning and end of one’s efforts against said oppression.

When calling out, Ahmad writes, “it is easy to forget that the individual we are calling out is a human being,” leading us “to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.” Harmful acts don’t just come out of nowhere; people become who and how they are partly because of where they’ve been, and some people have lived in social justice vacuums. This does not excuse culpability — people have a responsibility to educate themselves — but humanizes the individual as more than a set of privileges to be taken down.

When we think of people who have perpetuated harm in some manner as whole, complex people, with pasts and with people who love them, we may no longer wish to simply call them out. We may choose to “call in” — which “means speaking privately with an individual who has done some wrong, in order to address the behaviour without making a spectacle of the address itself.” The goal of calling in is to have a conversation.

Calling in is a compassionate practice and an effort to advance both a cause and the understanding of those with whom we speak concerning those causes. But this practice teeters on the brink of a problematic tendency: “recentering,” which means taking issues affecting people of color, the LGBTQ community, women and other marginalized groups and making them about white people, non-LGBTQ people, men, etc. It involves refocusing one’s attention on people with privilege rather than amplifying the voices of those without.

In a response to Brooke Sopelsa’s controversial Huffington Post article on the importance of not making straight people walk on eggshells, Dori Mooneyham writes, “maybe if you were constantly asked questions about your genitals you might begin to understand why some of us are already over this ‘we need to teach everyone as gently as possible so they can be better people’ schlock.” Mooneyham, a transgender woman, notes that she is not anyone’s “teachable moment” and, while people do need to be educated about systems of oppression, “real education should make you uncomfortable with what you previously believed to be true, otherwise you’re not learning anything.” Some eggshells, then, are necessary.

Also relevant in this vein is Alternet writer Kali Holloway’s article on the problem of white people expecting black people to “teach” them. This role of teacher “entails charitably and unselfishly engaging questions, assertions and doubts from white people who’ve previously done precious little thinking about racism and privilege, but often have quite a bit to say on the topic.” In this sense, calling in can manifest as subjecting oneself to all manner of ignorance and feeling while obligated to approach it with grace. “When POC refuse to take on [the] dual role of spokesperson and resource library, they’re often accused of having shirked an assumed responsibility.” Holloway points out that it is current and potential allies’ responsibility to educate themselves.

I don’t read Mooneyham or Holloway as being opposed to calling in. I see their insights as things to keep in mind when developing one’s approach to calling in. They point to what the activist attempting to call in should be careful of. The eggshells Mooneyham calls for, I believe, are respect for personal boundaries (i.e. no genital questions), and both she and Holloway point out the importance of not assuming responsibility for another’s education. One can plant a seed in another or offer some insight, but: 1) that is an individual’s choice, not a duty; and 2) what the other does with said seed or information is not your responsibility. Perhaps these insights also point toward one way in which allies can be helpful: to serve as the “resource library” for others rather than leaving the educating entirely up to members of marginalized groups.

Our experiences and our perspectives will always hold to Arendt’s “utter diversity.” But calling in gives activists a way to share and spread perspective, bringing people closer to looking at the same thing. This does not, however, mean that activists should drop their personal boundaries, run themselves into the ground trying to educate people who aren’t doing the work on their end, or never get angry. Nor should such things be expected of them.

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