On Calling In When We’re Called Out: how to be aware of and interrupt the default of white centeredness and white fragility
“In a sense, the battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of white people in this country. The fight against racism is not something we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved as if our lives depended on it because, in truth, they do.” — Anne Braden
This quote by Anne Braden speaks to the necessity for me as a white person to continuously work on my practice of anti-racism. As a white person, I have unconscious and conscious patterns of white supremacist thought and behavior I must unlearn. White supremacist thoughts and behaviors show up for all of us in almost every aspect our lives because most of us are raised with a white-centered worldview, even if we have grown up or spent a lot of time in multi-racial settings and communities.
You and I are not exempt from being made aware of our white supremacist behaviors at any point in time. Seeing racism as a binary in which there are “good” non-racist white people and there are “bad” racist white people is a way in which white supremacy is reinforced and defended. This binary is false and is one of the most harmful aspects of white centeredness. We are ALL impacted and conditioned by white supremacy. Robin DiAngelo addresses the harm of this binary idea by pointing out the reality that racism exists on a continuum that we move along with stops, starts, backslides, and forward progress. Recognizing that we are always on this continuum regardless of our work and experiences leads white people to more clearly see how white supremacy impacts us all.
In this article, we attempt to share practices that we as SURJ members have been learning so we can disrupt behaviors that may perpetuate further harm against BIPOC people. One key lessons is reframing the experience of being called out for our white supremacist behavior as a gift and opportunity for change.
Impact over intention
I have had experiences of being called out for comments, actions, and decisions that had a negative impact on BIPOC friends, clients, coworkers, and communities. When these instances occur, I react. That response usually ends up being one of my typical stress reactions (intense emotions, defensiveness, stonewalling, avoidance, silence, etc.). Often, I see myself and other white people responding to being called out by BIPOC individuals through denial and escape or focusing on our own “good” intentions instead of the impact of our actions.
As my work of anti-racism continues, it becomes increasingly essential to develop skills, tools, and communities of support to keep me and others in the work — emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Anti-racist educators, organizers, and leaders have given us more information and specific tools for interrupting our own white centeredness and white fragility in order to call ourselves into the work when we are being called out by BIPOC communities for any harm we as white people may cause.This is essential so that we may recognize the opportunity calling out gives us to dismantle our white supremacist conditioning so that we can be more effective and less harmful in the work for justice — which benefits us all.
Leadership and Committees of the SURJ Springfield-Eugene chapter have held these values of calling in, mutuality, and shared humanity as essential to their practice, and we have compiled this article as an offering of experiences and resources to support other white people strengthening their skills by de-centering whiteness in response to being called out by BIPOC community members.
Identifying and Reacting to a Call out/Call in
Let’s get clear what we’re talking about. “Call outs and calls in are both methods of calling attention to problematic, harmful, and oppressive behaviors with the ultimate aim being changed behavior and the making of amends” (Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy, p. 162). Calling out is generally done publicly (and can be appropriate when intending to create pressure, such as with a public official or someone in a position of greater power). Calling in is generally done privately (Saad, 163).
As white people, we are not comfortable being called out or called in (even when we are seeking to do better). This is often due to white fragility and our perception that we are being misunderstood and attacked, which leads to our fight or flight response taking over. White fragility is “a state in which even a minimum of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (Saad, 42). Related to white fragility, white people may also get caught up in our own intentions and feelings to “do no harm” which leads to us shutting down our ability to listen and process information. It takes practice to develop awareness of white fragility and build distress tolerance in order to manage our nervous system’s response. Reprogramming our nervous system is nuanced and complicated and can include many strategies such as:
- Practicing grounding or somatic exercises that build awareness of our breath, surroundings, and a sense that we are not in danger.
- Reading examples of being called out or in as white people committed to anti-racism in order to increase our exposure and educate ourselves so we become more aware from the beginning.
- Talking with an accountability buddy or joining a group like SURJ to find a community who can help you to process the experience with someone else’s support.
- When we’re more aware of times when we’re being called in or called out, we can name what is occurring through mentally noting, “this is me being called out” or talking to an accountability buddy who can help identify the experience for us.
- Reframing our reactions to being called out to help us shift the story in our minds, and to help us listen, learn, and move forward. Being called out or called in is “an invitation to become aware of behaviors and beliefs…hidden to you, and they are an opportunity to do better.” (Saad, 164). Reframing these experiences as invitations or learning opportunities (instead of personal failure, someone being mean, etc.) allows us to tap into growth and transformation.
- Attending workshops with educators and organizers on anti-racism.
- Learning active listening and non-violent communication skills.
- Journaling along with a book like Me & White Supremacy (the journaling process can be therapeutic in releasing the pain of harm we have endured or caused related to white supremacy in a space with others also doing their own work to dismantle internalized white supremacy).
- Continuing to show up and do the work, which builds upon itself into more awareness and more capacity to show up. This is not about perfectionism, but about showing up, and continuing to learn and unlearn in the work for justice and community.
De-centering whiteness means becoming aware of specific patterns of unconscious behavior white people have that cause harm to BIPOC. In particular, tone policing and white fragility are rampant in white liberal communities like those in the Pacific Northwest. When we are called out or in, we must pay attention to tone policing in order to be able to accept feedback.
“Tone policing is a tactic used by those who have privilege to silence those who do not by focusing on the tone of what is being said rather than the actual content” (Saad, 47). Tone policing doesn’t even have to be said out loud — we can do it in our heads to dismiss people, especially BIPOC individuals and communities. And we do it everywhere: social media, TV/music, work, family, school, neighborhoods, sports, etc. Understanding tone policing helps us respond to being called out by BIPOC community members who need us to pay attention to the harm we are causing without prioritizing and centering the comfort of white people. Tone policing reinforces white supremacist norms about how BIPOC are supposed to show up — and values white people’s feelings and ideas of proper expression over concerns of BIPOC individuals.
To talk about one’s pain without expressing pain is like asking someone to be a robot — so expecting BIPOC to express concerns about the perpetual and often lethal harms of racism and white supremacy without expressing emotion is asking them to dehumanize themselves. All humans have feelings that must be attended to. So understanding tone policing will help us accept feedback.
How to Listen
Listening for feedback is an act of working against our own white fragility. It is a necessary part of the anti-racist work of white people. The following interview with Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, explains why and how white people can listen and avoid the default of the false binary regarding racism (that only bad people are racist).
Final Thoughts, calling us in again
This article is the result of ongoing anti-racist work by SURJ chapter members and leaders, including de-conditioning, learning, growth, and attention to the generous resources of books and other learning tools from BIPOC educators and community leaders. We invite you into this work because this work is possible — it is personally and culturally transformative, and it is necessary for the dismantling of white supremacy. Here are some reminders for us to remember:
- BIPOC people “don’t expect you to be free of your conditioning. We need you in the struggle.” — Robin DiAngelo, Video/article “What is My Complicity: Talking About White Fragility”
- Mistakes are inevitable; keep going. This is an ongoing process, not a quick resolution. This kind of responsive listening is an ongoing commitment.
- Sustained effort to be accountable is how trust can be built; that is, how behaviors and beliefs that are unconscious can be recognized and disrupted so they do not perpetuate harm. This process is central to being in the struggle for justice as white people.
- “Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the response to error that counts.” — Nikki Giovanni (Saad, p. 162)
- Don’t de-legitimize BIPOC individuals’ concerns, period, for any reason, including because you don’t like the way the concern is being expressed, or somehow think there is an over reaction or an unfair charge against you, and they don’t know you, don’t understand your intentions. Don’t center your own discomfort over listening to what is being said.
- Look at the historical context of the situation: such as the history of policing and mass incarceration disproportionately and generationally impacting BIPOC communities in this country, evidence of systemic anti-Black racism that criminalizes Black bodies, and of a so-called justice system historically rooted in slave patrols.
- Recognize there is a good reason why the BIPOC community members voicing their concerns don’t trust us because of the realities of systemic racism they face every day, including denial of those realities by white people.
- Validate their concerns. Do the work to genuinely understand.
- Make sure never to forget to communicate this message: “Continue to let me know.”
- Crucial: change the question so that you are not stuck in the false binary thinking that bad white people are racist and good white people are not racist. Change the question from “if” or whether [I’m racist or not] to “how” — how was I shaped by the system of white supremacy? What can I do to interrupt that conditioning?”
- Be alert to defensiveness that “functions to maintain racial status.” Do not allow that defensiveness to determine how you will or will not connect with others. Do not let your feelings de-legitimize BIPOC individual’s concerns. Remember the emotional labor endured by BIPOC individuals that has gone into them raising these issues to begin with.
- Be aware that you will feel uncomfortable, and don’t let that discomfort shut you down. People’s lives are at stake.
Many resources are available to support us in de-centering whiteness so that we can simply do better work for community building and justice. Those that were specifically referenced or directly informed this article include:
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
- Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
- So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- Video/article “What is My Complicity: Talking About White Fragility,” with Robin DiAngelo (from Learning for Justice issue 62, Summer 2019): https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/summer-2019/whats-my-complicity-talking-white-fragility-with-robin-diangelo
-Kelli, SURJ Springfield-Eugene Messaging Committee