Last week, I shared that I’d led the first session of my Anti-Racist Book Circle for White Activists, and together, we were grappling with the question of what it looks like to call each other in. I promised to create a working document with my current thoughts on the topic, and the result is this blog post. 

I shared How to Create a Call-In Culture: Part 1 last week. You’ll find a definition of calling in there as well as steps one through three. This is the second part, and here I’ll share steps four through twelve with you. Enjoy!

Step Four: Settle Your Body

Our bodies speak louder than our words. If you feel settled in your body, the other person is more likely to feel settled, too. If you don’t sound accusatory, the other person is less likely to get defensive. If you are calm, the other person is less likely to go into fight or flight mode. They are more likely to learn from what you’re saying. To learn more about how to settle your body, click here.

Step Five: Share That You Believe Their Intent is Good 

Several years ago, I took a training in Facilitating for Racial Justice at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. One of my big takeaways was on the difference between intention and impact. We can assume positive intent while holding each other accountable for our impact. White folks often unknowingly say things that have a hurtful impact without any intention to cause harm. In order to help ourselves and fellow humans learn, it is important to acknowledge both intent and impact.

If you believe that the person you’re calling in had a positive intention, name that. The other person is far more likely to be able to hear what you’re sharing if you explicitly state that you want to call them in because you care about them or know they have a good heart. 

Step Six: Share That You’re Learning, Too

In call-outs, the person who is doing the calling out often takes on a sense of authority or a patronizing tone. People have a hard time learning when they’re talked down to. 

Instead, imagine yourself sitting side by side with the other person on a park bench, looking at the problem together from an equal vantage point. If you’re a white person talking to another white person about racial bias, you can do this by making it a shared white people problem. If it feels accurate, you can acknowledge that you’ve been doing a lot of learning yourself and might have even said or done something similar before you started learning. 

Step Seven: Focus on the Behavior, Not the Individual

When I was growing up, my father often told me: “I love you, but I don’t like what you just did.” That’s the same energy that can be helpful in a call in. Call-outs are often personal attacks: “You are an idiot! You are so offensive!” In contrast, focus on the person’s behavior, not who they are or their moral character.

When naming something that felt hurtful, name exactly what the person did or said. This is the pure data that you observe, not your assumptions, conclusions, or interpretation of the data. In other words, you might say: “I’d like to talk about when you did X or when you said Y…” 

Also, keep in mind that you might have misinterpreted what the other person said or only have part of the data. Because of this, it can help to give the other person a chance to clarify what you heard them say. That might sound like, “What I’m hearing you say is…” Then, rephrase what was said, and ask: “Is that what you’re intending to say?” 

Step Eight: Share How You Feel

Many years ago, I was at a women’s circle where there was one Black woman and everyone else was white. The Black woman shared about her experience with racism, and immediately afterward, a white woman jumped in and said that she didn’t believe that the Black woman’s experience was all that bad. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what she said. I do remember how the white woman’s words made me feel. Kind of punched in the gut, tense, frozen, so uncomfortable. Luckily, a friend with much more experience calling in other white people spoke up (this was definitely one of those moments in which something needed to be said at the moment). Again, I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember the relief in knowing that someone had said something. I also remember feeling really guilty that I felt frozen, didn’t know what to say, and stayed quiet. 

This circle was a pivotal learning moment for me. In processing afterward, I realized that if something like this ever happened again, I would share how I felt. One of the reasons I didn’t speak up was that although I knew something needed to be said, I didn’t want to presume that I could speak for the Black woman. However, I later realized that I could speak for myself. 

If someone says something that feels hurtful to you, and you feel safe doing so, share how their words made you feel, and if someone says something that you believe would likely be hurtful to another person, name your discomfort too. When you say, “I feel hurt by your words” or “What you just said made me really uncomfortable,” it can help the other person to take pause and hear you at a deeper level.

Now, there’s a bit of a paradox here: You might worry that naming how you feel is centering yourself. It’s true that as white people, part of our work is amplifying the voices of people of color and moving aside so that people of color can be heard. However, it’s also true that part of our work as white people is to call in other white people so that the emotional labor of doing so doesn’t always fall on people of color. And, it’s also true that people are much more likely to hear us if we share how their words make you feel. 

Your task, therefore, is to be mindful of how much space you take up by talking about how you feel. There is a big difference between talking on and on about how impacted you are by the other person’s words and simply saying, “When you said that, I felt really uncomfortable.” 

Step Nine: Share Why You Think What They’re Saying is Problematic

If the other person is willing to listen, ask: ”Can I share why I think that’s problematic?” Asking in this way invites openness and curiosity from the other person. Conversations can be so much more productive when there’s a foundation of consent. Most people will be willing. If they’re not, this is a sign that there might not be enough fertile soil in the other person for the seeds of your conversation to take root.

Then, do your best to share the information that you have.

Step Ten: Get Curious About What It’s Like to Be Them, and Listen Carefully

Sometimes, when you take the steps I outline above, the other person will be quick to thank you for your feedback and agree to act differently in the future. Other times, they will more firmly defend their stance. In these situations, don’t get into a debate about who’s right and who’s wrong. If you do, they’re more likely to dig in their heals and less likely to change their minds. This is not about you being right.

Instead of getting wrapped up in a debate, get curious about where the other person is coming from. Ask them about how they wound up saying what they said, thinking what they think, acting the way they acted. If you ask questions from genuine curiosity (as opposed to leading questions that belittle them or are a veiled attempt to elicit the answer you’re hoping for), you and the other person are both more apt to understand where they are coming from. When you understand where the other person is coming from, you understand better how to help them learn. And when the other person understands where they’re coming from, they’re more likely to become aware of their own limiting assumptions. More than almost anything, awareness leads to change.

Step Eleven: Offer Resources

Once you have shared where you’re coming from and heard the other person out, it can be helpful to offer suggestions of podcasts or brief articles that explore the topics that you shared about in more depth.

Doing this step well may require you to do more work. It takes time to gather information and resources that can help move a person quickly on any given issue. I am personally on a quest for resources that quickly help change peoples’ minds about racism, and I’d welcome you to send any my way. That said, don’t wait to have the conversation until you’ve read one hundred books. If you have great resources, share them. And, if not, just going through the steps above is good enough. Dedicate time later to learn more.

Step Twelve: Agree to Disagree

At some point in the conversation, it’s possible that you will run into an “agree to disagree” moment. This can be hard. You will probably want them to change their mind right at that very moment. However, it usually takes time for someone to have a drastic change of heart.  

I like to do my best to leave conversations on a good note so that the relationship is left intact, and I can bring up the conversation at some point in the future. In fact, when I haven’t been able to move someone as much as I’d hoped, I may say something like: “It seems like we’re going to need to agree to disagree for now. Would it be okay with you if I share any further thoughts I have in the future?” That way, the door stays open and you have consent to continue the conversation if you choose.

Remember, not every call-in will go well. You can only do your best and hope that your words plant a seed in the person’s heart that might take root another day.

Finally, Be Willing to Called In

If you are engaged in anti-racist work for long enough, it is likely that you will be called in or called out. When this happens, if you’re like me or like most other human beings who have been socialized in white supremacy culture, your first response is likely to sound something like, “Wait! I didn’t do anything wrong! I didn’t mean anything bad. The other person is the one with the issue.” It can hurt when our “good white ally” bubble bursts.

If this happens, pause. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, refrain from reacting immediately. If possible, don’t just take a couple of minutes; give yourself real-time, like a day or two. Settle your body. Witness the emotions that come up. When you’re truly ready to not be defensive and really listen, reach out to the other person, thank them for being willing to share, and ask if they’d be willing to engage in a conversation with you about what happened. Take the conversation offline. Take guidance from the steps I offer for calling someone in.

I would *love* to hear from you!

  • What helps you call people in?
  • What takeaways from this feel helpful to you?
  • What other questions are still lingering for you about creating a “call-in culture?”

I invite you to share in the comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Much love,

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