Last week, I facilitated the first session of my Anti-Racist Book Circle for White Activists. We devoted the session to laying the foundation for the rest of our work together and set guiding agreements for how we will relate to one another. Amongst other agreements, we agreed: “We call each other in.” 

In response, someone asked, how exactly do we call each other in?

We recognized that we didn’t have immediate answers to the question. So we decided to grapple with it, and I committed to writing a working document on how we call each other in. This article is the result of my thinking over the past week. 

Before I Begin, Why I’m Writing This For White Folks

Please note that my thinking here is particularly for white people who want to call in other white people. I’m doing this because I believe that we white folks have a responsibility to learn how to call each other in so that non-white folks are not burdened with the emotional labor of doing so. I also do not think that it is my role as a white person to police the language of Black folks or other people of color or to ask them to find nicer ways to express themselves.

If you’re a person of color reading this, I hope you’ll find value here and not feel too excluded when I write things like “we white people.” My intention is to name the responsibilities of white people. I hope my words reflect this intention.

First, a definition: What is “calling in?”

It can be easier to define something by what it is not. “Calling in” is the opposite of “calling out.” Calling out is criticizing someone for engaging in behavior that another person finds offensive. Calling out is attacking, alienating, publicly shaming, humiliating, or shunning another person. Calling out is often performative, public, and done to demonstrate one’s “wokeness.” Over the past decade, calling out has grown so rampant in social justice circles that “call-out culture” has become a wide-reaching norm. 

When I asked folks on Facebook how they would answer the question— How do we call each other in?— several pointed to the work of Loretta Ross. Ross is a veteran reproductive justice and human rights organizer who is currently writing a book called Calling In the Callout Culture. I highly recommend watching her recent keynote speech: Calling in Not Calling Out and reading her articles: “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture is Toxic” and “Speaking Up Without Tearing Down.”

In her speech, Ross explains that callout culture is yet another symptom of white supremacy. To paraphrase Ross: White supremacy is an ideology that says that anything different— including different ways of speaking— is a threat and a danger that needs to be eradicated.

Callout culture weakens our movements. When people feel like they’re being put in a box or aren’t being heard, it shuts them down. When would-be activists get admonished for “saying the wrong thing,” they hesitate to speak up in the future out of fear of making mistakes. When organizers who agree on mostly everything but might have some small differences deal with these differences by exchanging harsh words, it destroys trust and breaks the fragile bonds between them. As Ross says, in a moment when we face a greater existential threat to our democracy than ever before, we are wasting our anger on each other.

According to Loretta Ross, whereas calling out is holding someone accountable for the harm they do out of anger, calling in is holding someone accountable for the harm they do out of love. 

Calling in is naming when someone says something hurtful in a way that has the potential to educate the other person and build our movements. Calling in is about doing the often uncomfortable, often behind-the-scenes work to change peoples’ perspective and behavior and, ultimately, strengthen our movements. When you trust that you are safe to make mistakes and that, rather than randomly calling you out, people will hold you accountable with love, it becomes much easier to learn and grow.

Next, Twelve Steps to Calling Someone In

In writing this piece, I came up with twelve. That’s a lot of steps! And, I’m sure that there are plenty more steps that I haven’t thought of. In this article, I will share the first three steps with you. Next week, I will share the rest.

Step One: Ask yourself: Is it true? Kind? Necessary?

If you’re thinking about calling someone in, the first step is to discern if what you want to say is true, kind, and necessary.

Sometimes, our triggers have nothing to do with what the other person actually said or did. Rather, we get triggered because of how we’re interpreting or misinterpreting the other person’s words or actions. We’ve gone up the ladder of inference and are making assumptions about what their words or actions mean.

Because of this, when someone says something that triggers you, the first step is to take a step back and look at what’s actually happening. Ask yourself: What did they actually say or do? And, what meaning, assumptions, or conclusions are you drawing from their actions?

For example, let’s say you’re triggered by someone’s posture or facial expression. They may habitually frown or hold their hands on their hips or hunch their shoulders. That may make you think that they’re gruff or lazy or don’t like you. But their posture may also have absolutely nothing to do with you, and your interpretation may be completely inaccurate. 

If you’re close to this person and your relationship matters to you, it may serve you to check your assumptions with the other person. That might sound like: “You know, I realize that I’m getting a bit triggered in reaction to something you’re doing. Would it be okay if I checked that with you? …Okay, yes? Thanks! You know, when you hold your hands on your hips like that, I think it means that you’re disagreeing with what I’m saying. Is that right? What is actually going on for you?”

Other times, you might just observe your triggered reaction, realize that you have no idea what’s going on within the other person, and say nothing. Often, it’s more helpful to say nothing than to insist that everyone conforms to the same posture or language.

If you’re trying to decide whether to speak up or not, I invite you to ask three simple questions I learned from my training as a Simplicity Parenting facilitator: 

  • Is what I’m wanting to say true? 
  • Is it kind? 
  • Is it necessary?

A note about the question “Is it necessary?”: Personally, as a white woman, I believe that it is my responsibility to call in my fellow white people if I hear them saying something that could be hurtful to a person of color. I believe that if we want to transform systems of white supremacy once and for all, it is indeed necessary that we white people do the important work of calling each other in. And I believe it’s our responsibility to do this in a kind way so that we can build the movement.

Step Two: Decide Whether to Address Publicly or Take it Offline

Call-outs are typically public. However, it can be very triggering for the other person if you bring up what they did or said unexpectedly in the context of a group meeting or a public Facebook thread. Naming what the other person did in full view can trigger shame and make it likely that they’ll shut down. It can also feel unfair to name what the other person is doing when they have no chance to respond.

Because of this, I invite you to ask yourself: Is it worth it to name this in the group setting? Or, might it be even more useful to take it offline? 

Sometimes, it’s best to name what is happening at the moment. Perhaps harm is being caused at the moment, and it needs to stop. Or the transgression is against the entire group and the bond needs to be repaired while the group is gathered. Maybe you don’t feel safe taking the conversation offline. Other times, you might be part of a group, like my anti-racist book circle, that shares a guiding agreement that we’ll be a space to practice calling each other in if necessary. 

Often, however, the call-in would be more effective in a one-to-one conversation. If you determine that this is the case, Loretta Ross recommends “putting a post-it on it.” If someone says something that you feel needs to be addressed, approach them after the meeting and invite a conversation.

Keep in mind that deciding to take the conversation offline doesn’t make the conversation any less necessary. It means that you need to dedicate time outside of the meeting or the Facebook page to have the conversation. Yes, this takes time. And, change happens through relationships. Our movements are built through relationships. If you are committed to calling in when necessary, it will require you to invest the time.

Step Three: Invite Further Conversation

I invite you to pause right now and ask yourself how you would want to be approached if someone were to take issue with something you said. How would you want them to bring it to you?

I don’t know about you, but I know that I would feel jolted if someone came up out of the blue and publicly said, “You did this! Or you did that! You messed up!” That approach creates a physiological response in my body that makes it hard for me to hear what the other person is saying.

Instead, it feels better to most of us humans when someone invites us into a conversation. That might sound something like: “Hey, something you said didn’t land so well with me. I’d be grateful to talk more with you about it. Would you be receptive to some feedback?” 

In Loretta Ross’s article for educators, Speaking Up Without Tearing Down, she offers several call-in conversation starters. These include:

  • “I need to stop you there because something you just said is not accurate.”
  • “I’m having a reaction to that comment. Let’s go back for a minute.”
  • “Do you think you would say that if someone from that group was with us in the room?”
  • “There’s some history behind that expression you just used that you might not know about.” 
  • “In this class, we hold each other accountable. So we need to talk about why that joke isn’t funny.”
  • “I don’t think I understand what you’re saying, so can we talk some more?” 
  • “Can we stop and explore what is happening now?”

Your turn!

I invite you to grab a piece of paper and a pen and jot down your responses to the following questions:

  • Was there a moment recently when another white person said something that you found problematic?
  • How did you respond?
  • How would you like to respond?
  • Think about how you’d like to respond, then ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? 

Grapple how to respond until you feel like you can say a wholehearted “yes” to each of these questions. You might journal about this, talk to a friend you trust or take a walk with the questions. Then, do your best to make a plan for how to respond. Next week, I will share nine more steps you can take to effectively calling the other person in.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please share your takeaways, questions, and suggestions in the comments below. Thanks in advance!

Much love to you,

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