Why demonising 'call-out culture' perpetuates racism
By silencing BIPOC when they speak out, we uphold the oppressive structures we need to dismantle.
Photography Craig Bernard
It’s been over a month since the video surfaced showing the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the days that followed, it seemed everyone had formed an opinion. Some bowed in remorse, referring to America as 'so fucked up'. Others leaned on the too-familiar devil's advocate when it comes to any story of Black people vs. the police -- 'what did he do?'. But for Black folks, emotions ran high. We’d seen this before, and had watched public concern fade out with the news cycles, like water in the bathtub turning cold.
The subsequent weeks brought protests and memorials across the world, alongside news of more Black deaths and police brutality. Not only had our social media feeds turned into a hotbed for news and protest resources, they became a breeding ground for stories of racial abuse in all industries, from all walks of life. It felt like the contracts of silence had been torn apart. I felt hopeful, as I saw countless BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] share stories of racial discrimination and violence, while demanding accountability. But it wasn’t long until I noticed various posts and articles circulating, each with different versions of the same headlines: “The Cruelty of Call-Out Culture”, “Why Call-Out Culture is Terrible.” The point was clear.
One article in particular stood out. It was an August 2019 New York Times op-ed by Loretta Ross entitled “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture is Toxic.” While I admire Ross’s work, I had to ask myself why this article, published almost a year ago, was being unearthed and reshared now. Ross’s reasoning is sound: blame and public ridicule do not encourage growth and education. But the choice to share such an article, which critiques the nuances of ‘call-out culture’ at a time when Black people were swimming through a sea of triggers, traumas and emotional exhaustion, struck me as not only an insensitive oversight, but as a blatant act of self-protection. I could almost hear the rebuttals: “Well, this Black feminist said calling out toxic!” And many white people still tend to view the opinion of a single Black person as representative of all.
"[As POC,] we don’t typically critique the ‘small things’. Instead, we pick our battles. So if we are shamed for speaking up, not only to ‘call out’ racial discrimination, but to address other forms of abuse such as microaggressions, this pressure to remain silent will only serve to fulfil the prophecy of oppression, allowing its cycles to repeat themselves."
I began to consider the sudden sharing of these articles as ‘call-out-shielding’. On my timeline, this manifested as excavated photos of white folks posing with Black folks, photos of Black celebrities, the dismal black square, and in my inbox, well wishes from complete strangers and random dinner invites from distant acquaintances. I even had a friend from high school offer to send me coffee money via e-transfer. It was distressing to see so many so quick to jump on these subtle and not-so-subtle acts of woke-washing and white saviourism.
Not only did I fail to see the productivity of these actions, but they all had the same sour aftertaste. They felt like defensive measures spontaneously enacted to preclude the dreaded ‘call-out’, or, in the case of my high school friend, unsolicited forms of reparations. As a Black woman living a relatively stable life in a metropolitan European city, I didn’t need the money, and even if I did, three euros wouldn’t get me very far. Emmanuel Dzotsi from the podcast Reply All, covered the topic of these uninvited e-reparations on an episode called “The Least You Could Do”, and when similar things started happening to many Black friends, we began addressing it through our posts and stories. If no one had stated the case against all of these strange, ineffective methods of support, our self proclaimed allies likely never would have seen the issue.
99.9% of those occurrences mentioned above acted without realising that they could be perceived as disingenuous, because how could they know? We don’t typically critique the ‘small things’. Instead, we pick our battles. So if we are shamed for speaking up, not only to ‘call out’ racial discrimination, but to address other forms of abuse such as microaggressions, this pressure to remain silent will only serve to fulfil the prophecy of oppression, allowing its cycles to repeat themselves. It allows the stereotype of the “angry, aggressive Black person” to live on, far beyond this movement.
" If allies are to remain teachable, then acknowledgment must be made and criticism must be readily embraced. To be an ally is to never stop unlearning and learning, to use one’s privilege to defend and amplify the voices of the marginalised and oppressed, and to strive for impactful action while calling for others to do the same."
Counterproductive gestures of care are some of the most difficult to dissect, because more often than not, people simply don’t want to hear that their help isn’t helping. They get defensive. You are called toxic for ridiculing their efforts, for bringing up their pasts, for calling them out. And Black and brown people are frustrated. Because we want to see meaningful and lasting change and not be demonised for asking for it. Over the last month, these incidents of ineffective and/or performative allyship haven’t just been online. I’ve had my voice requested as the spokesperson for a brand’s ad campaign, only to have the rep call me unprofessional for attempting to negotiate terms. I began to hear from BIPOC friends, who had been offered unpaid modelling jobs or volunteer consulting gigs to speak about racism. I’ve even had my abuser stand two meters away from me at my city’s BLM protest, waving in my direction. There I stood, tall and proud to be with my community as we screamed for our protection and equality, and feigned a smile, waved back, and tried to brush it off. All these situations could perhaps have been prevented, had their perpetrators received criticism from a brave BIPOC or white ally for any prior unsettling behaviours. Confronting trauma is a crucial step toward healing. Performative allyship, hypocrisy and the failure to account for past mistakes do not allow this healing to occur.
As the collective uproar for justice fades from our feeds, we must not move back as we attempt to move forward. By now it’s understood that the goals of this movement are to defund and demilitarise corrupt policing systems, redistribute wealth within our communities, and to collectively envision a safer future for Black, and eventually, all non-Black POC. But what lies at the centre is the fight for liberation from systemic racism and white supremacy -- globally. If allies are to remain teachable, then acknowledgment must be made and criticism must be readily embraced. To be an ally is to never stop unlearning and learning, to use one’s privilege to defend and amplify the voices of the marginalised and oppressed, and to strive for impactful action while calling for others to do the same. If the road to liberation is riddled with counter-productivity and lack of accountability, then from where I’m standing, calling that out is just about the only logical way to sustain real progress. It’s going to be tough, but we owe it to us.