This story, like all modern tales of woe and triumph alike, begins on Facebook. I share it in the hopes that I might be able to help someone out there work through the difficult experience of getting “called out.” This post has been much harder to write than the others I’ve written so far. I appreciate you for being here. Thank you for bearing with me…
I follow a woman named Ijeoma Oluo* on Facebook. She is a Seattle-based writer who focuses largely on issues of systemic racism and intersectional feminism. I highly recommend following her. She is brilliant and insightful and brave. Her work deserves to be supported. She is a black woman who says things that are difficult for a lot of people to hear, and they are things that absolutely must be heard. (I realize as I write this that I kind of have a crush on her. So what? What’s your point? Shut up.)
Recently Ijeoma made the following post while she was visiting Portland, Oregon (shared here with her permission, which I obtained via Facebook message):
As you can see from this screen shot, there were 245 comments made. I read through all of them. I read through the threads. Many white people commented, thinking they were being helpful. One white woman pointed out that Ijeoma didn’t know what the intentions or mindset of the kid or the parents were. Another white woman shared that she has a daughter with Autism who does things like this often, and how embarrassing it is. I thought, She makes a good point. Some kids with certain disabilities respond this way to change, and strangers are the ultimate change.
And then I made a comment. It was along the lines of many other people’s comments, about what a teachable moment this could have been for those parents and their kid. I am both an educator and a parent, so I’m big on teachable moments. As most supportive commenters said, I too expressed that the situation should have been addressed right then. But I went one step further: I said that if it were me I would have seized that teachable moment and engaged my kid in a conversation about it, right then, in the elevator, with the targeted person included if they were willing to take part.
A couple minutes later, someone called me out on my comment. They said, “This is so gross. You don’t get to use other human beings as your teachable moment…” etc. Later, they shared the comic below (click the link!), which I had actually seen before but clearly needed the reminder. It provides a very important perspective, please check it out:
Let me tell you how it felt to get called out this way. To have my comment called gross, to be accused of using other humans for my own gain, especially on the page of someone I admire.
It felt like a punch in the gut. It felt awful. I know not everyone responds this way. Some people always think they’re right and don’t feel a need to listen to other people’s experiences and opinions. Some people are able to have these discussions and not take things personally. I am a people-pleaser (though becoming less so) and a highly sensitive person, which makes it easy to fall into guilt and shame, and then the voices start: You are the worst. Everyone hates you.
So look. I understand defensiveness as a first response. I also understand slipping immediately into guilt and shame as a first response, which is the other side of the same coin. I don’t think having those feelings is a problem–our feelings are our feelings, after all. We need to recognize them, be honest about them, and feel them. What matters is how we respond to those feelings, and the problem comes when we dwell in those feelings and feed them. Defensiveness generally either shuts down a conversation or turns it into an unproductive argument, from which no one learns anything or shifts their thinking. Guilt and shame allow us to excuse ourselves of responsibility, let us play into the victim role, and ultimately also causes shutting down of the conversation, or worse, our own involvement with important issues. When it comes to white people engaged in tough conversations about issues of social justice, each of these reactions is a form of white fragility.
My chest was tight and my stomach hurt, but I knew I needed to just hear the comment. So I did. I apologized that my words were hurtful even though that wasn’t my intention (Fuck our intentions by the way. If our words are hurtful our intentions do not matter unless we can recognize and acknowledge our own part in being hurtful.). I deleted my comment because I did not want words of mine out there that could hurt. I took responsibility publicly and said that this had turned out to be a teachable moment for me. And it was. And although I was disappointed in myself for making the comment in the first place, I felt OK about my response. I have grown at least enough to take responsibility at times like these. That I feel good about. Which is not to say I deserve a fucking gold star. NO ONE IS GOING TO GIVE YOU A GOLD STAR FOR BEING A DECENT HUMAN.
Would I have preferred that the person who called me out did it in a “nicer” way? Would I have appreciated it if they were more careful with my feelings? Of course. I’m a human being. But ultimately, and please hear this people: The fact that this person was angry and that they expressed themselves in an angry way in no way lessens what they have to say, and it does not give me the right to shut them out. I want to repeat that. You do not have the right to tell people how to feel. There are a lot of people out there who have been hurt and continue to be hurt by generations of oppression and injustice. People are angry. They have every right to be angry. Tone policing is just another form of fragility. So while I do appreciate people who can have these conversations without name-calling or insulting people, I will not refuse to hear someone just because they weren’t “nice” to me. Now, I will say that this was a person I do not know personally and I think these conversations tend to be more respectful among people who know each other or when people speak in person, but it doesn’t.fucking.matter. That person had something to say and they were angry, and that anger was directed at me in that moment. And that’s OK. Within a person’s anger is often something we need to hear. Hear it.
The other thing I learned through this particular exchange and reading through the comments was unrelated to the specifics of my comment and how to respond to being called out. The comments of the many other white women in that thread trying to explain Ijeoma’s experience to her (as well as my comment about what I would have done), were irrelevant. The first woman I mentioned above ended in a blaze of defensiveness and finger-pointing, saying something like, “Oh, so only people who back you up and tell you you were being mistreated are allowed to comment?” (ugh.) The woman with the daughter with Autism was much more respectful, but she continued trying to explain herself and where she was coming from and who her daughter is and what her struggles have been, and why she thought everyone in this thread should listen to her. In doing that, what she was doing was centering herself and her own experiences in a conversation that wasn’t about that. These comments were irrelevant because this post was not.about.them.**
White people, this will be hard to hear, and I know that to be true because I am a white person for whom it is hard to hear. We have a habit of putting ourselves at the center of every story. We have a habit of centering ourselves, and therefore our whiteness. I am certain that neither of the women I used as examples here intended this or consciously thought about it. But Ijeoma’s post was not about what those parents were thinking or what the child was thinking. Her post was about the hurt she experienced at those parents’ non-response to their child in a situation that could easily be construed as racially motivated. Her post was about her experience, a black woman in an elevator with a white family, a white child who was openly rude to her, and two white parents who brushed it off entirely. Where they were coming from is irrelevant. Whether the child had Autism is irrelevant. Your personal experience is irrelevant. If you want to learn something from it, think about how you would respond to your own child, and don’t respond the way these parents did.
Ijeoma shared this experience on her page because that’s what her page is for: sharing her experiences. She shared an experience that was hurtful to her. She even later shared in the comments that she cried after the incident. It did not matter whether those people were actually real-life bigoted assholes. It mattered that they didn’t see that the situation could have been interpreted as such by the black woman in the elevator with them and they did nothing to address it. It mattered that she was hurt by it. And when she shared her experience, she was met with white people centering themselves (again) and trying to explain it away. This was not the place for disagreement or explanation. She was not trying to start a discussion about why they may have acted that way. She was expressing herself, and what she needed was support and understanding. If she needed anything from us, white people, it was to know we were listening.
My comment was intended to convey how I would have handled the situation differently, which also led me to some honest reflection. Why did I need to make that comment in the first place? To set myself apart from those parents? To make sure people knew that I was not that kind of white person? Not that kind of parent? Did I really need to make that comment on a black woman’s page? What was my motivation if I’m truly, deeply honest with myself?
Through my honest reflection (not just after this experience, but others as well), I have realized that I am absolutely guilty of contributing to the #notallwhitepeople narrative. In other words, I do want to set myself apart from “those” white people. In the age of Trump this is especially true. I accept that some of that is about my own ego. But I also genuinely give a shit about other human beings, and these things are not mutually exclusive. I recognize that white supremacy runs this country. I want to be a better white person. I want to be an anti-racist white person. An ally. An accomplice. A warrior. That is true and genuine for me. That means being willing to look honestly at my own mistakes, my own shortcomings. We all have them. We are humans. It’s important to keep these things in check while also recognizing our shared humanity and being able to forgive ourselves and others along the way. Plus, speaking up is important to me (silence = complicity), so I have to be willing to accept that when I do speak up I might make mistakes and then I must take an honest look at myself. I also have to be clear about when I really do need to speak out, and when I need to be quiet and listen (Ijeoma’s post was not a time I needed to speak out). Because what I do want to set me apart from “those” white people is not that I’m better than them, but that I am willing to be honest about my own whiteness and the ways I contribute to white supremacy (we all do, you guys. Not because we are bad people, but because we all live in it). In order to do that, I need to be listening.
So. Here’s the tough truth: Those of us who are serious about being allies, or accomplices, or social justice warriors or whatever term makes sense to you, must be prepared and willing to be called out when we say or do something someone finds insensitive or hurtful or misguided. We must be able to get past our own fragile feelings and find a place of honest introspection and reflection. And just as importantly, once we take time in that place, we must stick around. Because if we are true allies and accomplices, we don’t run away when someone says something that hurts our feelings. We don’t give up. We face our truth, take responsibility, and move forward better, humbler, more honest people. We listen. And this, committing to honestly looking inward and sticking around, this will be revolutionary.
*Here’s a link to Ijeoma Oluo’s personal website, which has links to her published works. Read. Support. Pay for what you read when you can.
**Brilliant advice: If it’s not about you, don’t make it about you. Not every story about a white person fucking up needs to reflect every white person personally, and you don’t need to explain it away.
Here is an article from Every Day Feminism that discusses what I have tried to cover in this post, but much more better: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/09/called-out-acknowledging-oppression/
The image used in this post is from a public flick’r stream. Here’s the source page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosengrant/ The photo is labeled for reuse.