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Calling-in Versus Calling-out: “Throwing Out My Activist Armchair”

By Jennifer Mahan, Chapter Leader at University of Balitimore School of Law

During If/When/How’s  Supporting & Centering People of Color (SCPOC) Working Group Retreat, I was afforded the opportunity to spend a weekend in Dallas, Texas, as a member of the White Co-Conspirator Working Group, collaborating to build relationships with law students committed to reproductive and racial justice. We crafted community agreements, set intentions for the weekend, and shared our hopes as well as our hesitations.

If/When/How believes — and I believe — that racial justice is reproductive justice. As a group we worked to better understand and speak to the different levels of racism (personal, cultural, institutional), as well as explored how racism is perpetuated on law school campuses. We devoted time to identifying habits that support White supremacy in our life, law school, and our If/When/How chapters. We worked on developing skills such as active, empathetic listening and countering defensiveness. We closed out the weekend by bringing the Student of Color and White Co-Conspirator working groups together in order to state our needs and create commitments for ourselves, chapters, and law school communities.

While crafting the community agreements, a new concept was explained to me: “calling-in versus calling-out.” Calling-out describes the act of publicly naming instances of oppressive language and behavior. What makes calling-out toxic is the nature and performance of the act. Calling someone “out” is typically a public performance in which a person self-righteously demonstrates their superior knowledge, shaming an individual for their oppressive behavior. Despite the fact that a person may utilize calling-out with the intention of engaging in social change or justice, calling-out is itself a form of oppressive behavior. Calling-in is a proposed alternative to call-out culture that entails having a private, personal conversation with an individual who has used oppressive language or behavior in order to address the behavior without making a spectacle out of it. Calling-in recognizes that people are multi-faceted and that an instance of oppressive behavior does not define the totality of who we are. We as humans make mistakes, and calling-in can be a powerful tool to address those mistakes and create space for real change and positive impact.

Learning about “calling-in versus calling-out” and placing a label on these acts, I began to understand the ways in which some racial justice organizations, especially those comprised of middle-class white folks, have a history of calling-out oppressive language. I came to the realization that I too had been guilty of participating in call-out culture. In fact, at times I felt that calling others out for their oppressive behavior was the courageous and “right” thing to do. I can admit now that my prior belief and behavior was short-sighted. There is a more compassionate and productive means of bringing attention to oppressive behavior. If white folks genuinely want to combat white supremacy, then we must engage in the difficult and impactful work of calling each other in.

The act of calling-in doesn’t have to be the end, but the beginning. Today I am throwing out my tired, old, hand-me-down activist armchair. Instead of sitting back and critiquing others, I commit myself to take on some heavy lifting and practice calling-in instead.

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.