I recently had the opportunity to call someone out for using a phrase that made me uncomfortable as a transgender person. For context, this was someone I didn’t know on a liberal-minded, well-intentioned Facebook group. Even given this environment, I had to brace myself for the response. I was not expecting any kind of slur or insult; I was expecting defensiveness. Indeed, while the response I got acknowledged that the poster had made a mistake, there seemed to be a reiteration of their support for the trans* community in a way that came off as defensive to me.
Among liberal, well meaning folks, a common response to being called out is “Sorry to offend, I didn’t mean it that way. Also I’m still a good person! Look at all my ally credentials!” To me, this is absolutely exhausting. When I call someone out, all I care about in that moment is enlightening the person who made a mistake to their mistake. I am not making a character assessment. If you want to prove to me that you support me, do it with actions, please – and make sure you’re taking actions because they’re the right thing to do, not because you have something to prove!
An ideal response to being called out looks more like this: “Oh, I’m so sorry I said that – I didn’t understand before, but now I do. Thank you for letting me know, I will do better next time.” or “Oh, I’m so sorry I said this unhelpful/harmful thing. Thank you for letting me know. Can you help me understand what about it was harmful so I don’t repeat this mistake?”
If this is how everyone responded to being called out, I wouldn’t have to brace myself for someone’s response, even among well-meaning, liberal people. I would feel welcomed, accepted, and valued, and I would know that I was not seen as a combatant outsider, ruining people’s self-image, whose approval must be earned.
This defensiveness that I have encountered comes out of a carefully cultivated self-image as a Good Person (TM), who is never homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, abelist, classist or anything else embedded in dominant culture, despite being straight, and/or cisgender, and/or white, and/or male, and/or able-bodied, and/or wealthy. Being called out challenges this identity, and we are tempted to then reassert this self-image on whomever called us out. On top of that, many of us feel deep, paralyzing shame about our privileges, which blocks us from examining them fully.
The truth is that, no matter what your race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability/wellness level, financial situation, or any other identity-related status, we are *all* given the same messages from the media. See my previous post, On Being ‘Other’, for some examples of homophobia and transphobia present in our culture, which I internalized as a queer and transgender person. You do not have to be queer to internalize the homophobia all around us. If you are queer, however, you’re more likely to notice it everywhere. If you’re straight, you also internalize these negative ideas about queer people without realizing it or asking for it, but you aren’t faced with those ideas constantly. Your sense of well being does not depend on your ability to counter those ideas and reframe your understanding of sexual orientation. If you are cisgender, you are also subjected to screwed up ideas about transgender people, but again, your well being does not depend on your ability to identify those ideas and counter them. You can remain blind and sane, free of self-loathing taught to you by the culture you live in, even as your blindness perpetuates harm.
Many queer people become experts on homophobia, because they have to. If a queer person calls you out on something you said that was harmful to the queer community, trust them as you would an expert in their field, instructing you as a willing apprentice. The same goes for racism if you are a white person. If you are white and a person of color calls you out for doing or saying something racist, trust that they are experts and know what they are talking about. It is natural to feel defensive – white people have been taught that unintentionally doing something racist (which we white people do all the time) = *being a racist person*, which is a false equivalence. We white people do and say things borne out of unintentional, unconscious racism *all the time*. Just as we all are given subtle (and not-so-subtle) negative messages about gay people (again, see my previous post), we are given negative messages about people of color. For people of color, their emotional well being requires them to notice these messages and counter them. For white people, our sense of well being does not – we can remain blind and sane at the same time. We are free to blindly perpetuate racism while believing – and asserting! – that we are not.
When it comes to race, on top of the negative messages we receive about people of color, we are also taught that white people are default, ‘normal’, and objective. We white people feel we somehow have enough perspective to decide when a problem is dealt with. We might be called out on our racism, and then point to all the not-racist or anti-racist work we are doing elsewhere, and decide that whoever is calling us out just doesn’t know us, or is crazy. This completely invalidates the experience of whoever is calling us out, which is not ok. If we are doing anti-racist work, great, we must keep doing it. This does not mean we are doing it perfectly. This does not mean we don’t make mistakes. It does not mean we are doing *enough* of it, and we always should continue to listen deeply to those who call us out.
When I, as a transgender person, call someone out for using the wrong pronouns, or including too many unnecessary personal details about someone, or anything at all, and the person I’m speaking to responds by pointing to other work they’re doing, it suggests that what just happened was somehow unimportant, and makes the conversation about them, rather than about my feelings, which were usually the ones that were hurt. This is also what is happening when a person of color calls out a white person, and that white person becomes defensive about how not-racist they are. We have all got to get better about this, on every front.
Now, I am tempted to apologize for the frustrated tone of my post, even though it’s relatively gentle, because I was socialized as female and taught by society that my anger and frustration is inappropriate, and I should be nice and accommodating all the time. I have also been taught as a person who experiences oppression that I must be nice and compassionate all the time in order to win allies, as if I must first prove my worth as a human being before I am eligible for support, as if my real feelings of anger are unimportant and bad. But you know what? My frustration is valid! And so is yours! Let’s use these valid feelings to press for change!