“Call Out Culture” and Effectiveness: On Accountability, Dragging Your Faves, and Transformative Growth
Dark Matter, a South Asian poetry and activist duo, recently made a deeply problematic statement regarding child sexual abuse (CSA) and the navigation of identity within children. [Their apology can be found here.]
The post went viral, partly because of the layers of victim-blaming often embedded in discussions of childhood sexuality, exploration, and deviancy through the entry point of sexual assault. So, the virtual dragging began and rightfully so. Interestingly, though, the folks who were the most vocal about the problematic statement and Dark Matter’s political analysis happened to be white folks.
Dark Matter has actually been called out numerous times by Black people for being anti-Black, appropriative, and transmisogynistic prior to this current bullshit. [You can find some of the call outs here and here.] So this current particular fuck-up got attention primarily because white people were harmed too. Black folks peeped the difference and the levels of all situations involving Dark Matter’s behaviors/actions and drew attention to how there is never an explicit outrage about Black pain or violence against us.
It’s important to realize how the current drags happening around Dark Matter are also layered with racism and transphobia, depending on who’s dragging them (primarily when it’s white folks or non-Black POCs). Even though mad Black people are (and have been) dragging them because of their problematic behavior, there is a different level of power in the resurgence of call-outs now that more non-Black people feel harmed and triggered.
This is not to offer sympathy, but nuance in looking at the situation through the lens of call-outs and the power, privilege, oppression and experiences each person brings in their analysis and trauma. This also complicates the accountability that could ever be offered to Black CSA survivors — in addition to the general anti-Blackness Dark Matter has perpetuated.
Let me be clear: this isn’t about defending or arguing if Dark Matter’s post was or wasn’t problematic. It was wrong as fuck. It was disgustingly uncomfortable and triggering, especially as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Rather, this is about addressing how we handle these situations where people fuck up when it comes to accountability, and about seeing folks through political and personal growth.
This isn’t about whose labor should be given to folks to witness or encourage learning, or to cultivate that growth. Rather, it’s about whether people of color are afforded the opportunity to transform and build beyond violence they’ve done.
How does this growth and space change when the person in question has a popular political and social platform? How does this fluctuate when the person in question is a non-Black person of color, but they’re anti-Black? How does this change when the person in question is also a part of the oppressed group harmed? How does this change when the person in question is Black and femme, and the repercussions are seemingly coated in anti-Black misogyny?
“Call-Out Culture” As Disposability or As Knee-Jerk Reactions to Violence?
Often, describing the act of letting someone know they’ve harmed you or fucked up is referred to as a ‘call out.’ And because call out’s are the common term for addressing violence and mistakes, there has been the cultivation of “Call-Out Culture” to refer to the general acknowledgment of violence and confrontation. But unfortunately, there has been this mix of trolling and invalidation of oppressed folks’ feelings within this term “Call-Out Culture.”
Sometimes people are referring to how call out’s play out – whether it be that people are seen too sensitive, that people who “make mistakes” become disposed of, or that people who call out are portrayed as drama seekers–which is inherently femmephobic/ feminizing feelings/ invalidating. There are clear layers of respectability politics that exist within the critique of call out’s because confrontation is seen as non-empathetic, a power play, or unnecessary. Call out’s have always existed, we just gave them a different name in the context of oppression and identity politics. We call it a culture now because the world at large is simultaneously moving into a new political climate where structural violence is being recognized on an individual and institutional level.
In recognizing how this culture has presented levels of nuance and complicated interactions, it’s important to look at examples of how call out’s have evolved into being something so stringent and politically shifting that it involves the entire community to be a witness or a participant. A good example of how call out culture can be complex is when Kinfolk Kollective, a Black cultural blogger, was called out for transmisogyny.
Her status read, “Floored by how many trans women engage in misogyny.” If you didn’t catch what was transmisogynistic about the status, it’s the fact that she made a distinction between transwomen being misogynistic rather than just referring to women. There’s no special phenomenon around transwomen being misogynistic rather than the concept that all women (cis and trans) inherit and internalize ideas of misogyny.
In this moment, we have a Black cisgender woman who clearly made a problematic status and when people called her out for it – it became a loaded ass mess. I say this because what levels of power exist within white and non-Black people critiquing a Black cisgender woman rather than Black people, specifically Black trans folks, dragging her. When Black trans folks did call her out, it became about tone policing and intent policing (and a lot of outside commentary around “we’re all Black though…“). And easily focusing on the intent of the person calling you out can turn into derailment of accountability for the mistake you made (i.e. “This is only because she has a popular blog.” or “You don’t want resolution if you don’t want to help others learn.“). Although she posted an apology, there was an issue of not addressing the transphobic comments made in her defense or in response to trans people on the status. This escalated into the argument that because KK is not a Black transwoman, how can she drag other people for the same mistakes she just made yet not checking other cis people for transmisogyny speaks to the viewership and accountability of her future work.
So long story long, shit really didn’t end up resolved for anybody. There were entire political analyses dedicated to this situation in addressing transmisogyny while also trying to make room for cis Black women’s struggles (example here which KK also endorsed). It became very uncomfortable because like I said in my article, #BlackTransLivesMatter: How Black Cis-Women are Part of the Problem, “Our humanity as Black ciswomen is more accessible because Black transwomen’s distance from gender conformity is further than ours. That means our humanity is based upon the dehumanization of Black transwomen, hence our ability to enact our privilege and carry out this violence. Our ostensibly comfortable navigation of gender is based on the erasure of our Black trans sisters, and our silence and complacency in this reality is even more violent.”
Black femmes and women are consistently denied the opportunity for transformative justice or the space to make up for their mistakes and violence. (Re: Anti-Black misogyny rules everything around me.) So in this situation, it’s realistic and evident that KK did not take a certain accountability while also experiencing simultaneous violence and disposal. Black women can still be checked and dragged when necessary and when done away from mixed company. But how do we do that when public platforms make it harder for Black women and femmes to hold each other accountable without invasion or voyeurism? How can we focus on the space for Black cis women when there were Black transwomen who were harmed in the status and comments and are still hurting from that harm done by Black cis women? How do we focus on a “call in” for the political growth of KK when the intent behind the comments is in question before addressing transmisogyny first? Who does the labor fall on when Black femmes and women are not receptive to feedback and accountability? What actions are we expecting of KK in order to ordain her as accountable and growing politically? If we don’t have answers around our expectations, does that mean we’re just dwelling in the dragging, unmotivated to hold space, or does it denote inability to move forward?
You Could Really Get Fucked Up: Call In’s Ain’t About Being Comfortable
Speaking of political and personal growth, call in’s are often suggested as a methodology for addressing violence and allowing for learning through building. It is constantly suggested as a response every time a call out happens, and it is constantly uncomfortable how subjective call in’s look. In the communities and groups I’m associated with, the most circulated article and reference concerning the call-in method is Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable by Ngọc Loan Trần (a non-Black trans person of color). This article has served an important foundation to many community conversations about the concept of call-in’s and how we can cultivate other tools and strategies for accountability and building.
Now I want to clarify that I’m actually here for the concept of a call-in when it’s possible, and through an anti-Black lens, but there are so many layers to why call-ins are bordering on respectability politics and political best-friendship. Tran says, “I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up; we stray, and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.”
As beautiful as this sounds in theory and in the necessity of our communities of color, it doesn’t seem to work this way in real life ever. Especially between Black people and non-Black people of color, in addition to the intersections of colorism, fatphobia, ableism, gender and sexual identity, language, and overall anti-Blackness. Most of the time, call ins require some level of trust, humanization, and familiarization amongst all parties in addition to an assessment of the levels of trauma within the situation. Most of us don’t speak the same languages; you won’t understand Black proverbs forewarning you of these hands unless you understand Black culture. More importantly, most of us are trained not to trust anyone to make up for their violence to us when we’re trained to believe that white supremacist capitalism is a mentality of me vs. everybody.
It’s necessary that we politicize call ins in ways that allow for more nuance in what a call in looks like. For example, instead of looking at call in’s as a tone policed, “calm”, “kind” way of letting someone know they fucked up – let’s look at Aleeyah Porter’s response to being called a nigger by a white girl. This video and meme went viral as a form of empowerment and entertainment, but there are clear examples of call ins she used before she punched this racist ass white girl in the face. She asked for clarification: “Are you running up?” and “Who the fuck are you calling a nigger?” She clapped her hands and stepped forward to signify that this girl had her all the way fucked up. And in her direct action (she’s a political organizer for this shit) of hitting this racist white girl in the face, she was demanding humanity and respect in the face of anti-Black violence. That was a call in that led to a call out because this white girl wasn’t trying to be saved (and arguably she’s not savable in the context of white supremacist violence), she wanted to be right and seemingly in control.
Now, there is no call in for white people in my eyes but let’s pretend like we can call in white people. Aleeyah tried to make it rain accountability for this white girl, but the white girl wasn’t receptive nor could she understand the language of “you got me fucked the fuck up”, aka Black femme survival. So how do call ins work through hood politics, re: Black cultural methods of survival? How do call ins work when Black people are constantly targeted for being too mean, too angry, unforgiving, cold, and inherently violent?
How do call ins work when holding space for your transformation equates to not beating your ass? How do call in’s work when the world is constantly physically violent to Black people and our response to be physically violent back is often the only way we can regain any sense of power or humanity? These hands are included in strategies of survival and a response to violence. But if we’re too busy policing through an anti-Black lens, call ins will never work for the most vulnerable or for the people who will never have access to those forms of respectability in a violent ass situation.
Dragging Your Faves Doesn’t Mean It’s Love Lost
In the examples I mentioned, I know each of us has seen some level of call out and call ins online and in person that have left us uncomfortable and confused. In so many ways, we expect communities, alliances, and love for each other to fall apart when someone fucks up – especially when it’s someone with a large platform or someone we deeply invest in. Dragging your faves signifies disposal similarly to how we view the idea of “call out culture”, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Community building requires us to acknowledge that we will all fuck up, and continue to fuck up because our political growth is based in the strategic and intentional unlearning of white supremacist violence. This is not excusing fuck ups because of the expectation that they will happen but rather an understanding that our love for each other can only develop from the unveiling of violence. We are trained to navigate our interactions and experiences with each other through violent means. We’ve inherited a world that embeds us with nonconsensual access to bodies, unprovoked sexualizing of bodies, perverse and violent ideas of gender performance and presentation, heteronormativity, inaccessibility as standardization, antiblack political understanding, and white supremacy as truth.
Our political and personal transformations are often only possible when we are presented with identities and experiences that differ from our own. This collision of our growth and our ignorance leaves us vulnerable and uncomfortable, and constantly puts at a position where we either see ourselves as the teacher or the student. But what if we didn’t continue a binary of power and knowledge? What if we admitted that we aren’t always right or wrong, but always in the political gray? Let’s acknowledge that although we feel powerless everyday, that our access to identity and decolonization makes us feel powerful – sometimes so powerful that we find ways to wield that power against those who haven’t found their way yet. Let’s acknowledge that sometimes when we’re dragged, we take the political growth with us but dispose of the person who had to sacrifice to give it us. Let’s acknowledge that sometimes we can use social justice language as a silencing tactic when it’s convenient. Let’s acknowledge that we’re still figuring it out because we never had access these conversations or knowledge on a daily basis. Let’s acknowledge that we are always unlearning while also building what we do know to be truth. Let’s acknowledge that our experiences do not exist in a vacuum. We can harm others while we are under the foot of oppression. We can learn from others even when we’re uncomfortable with the circumstance of the confrontation. We can be uncomfortable and still be worthy of that growth. We can deny learning and still come back and grow. We can fuck up wholeheartedly and still deserve growth even if it’s not seen by those we hurt. We can drag people, hope they grow, and still not want to be present in their life. We can do these things and still want to build community. We can love people without giving our labor to them. We can drag with love and still not fuck with you. We don’t have to fuck with someone and we can still want them to get free. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
I don’t have a lot of answers but the questions presented in this piece are imperative for dialogue and action in constructing community. The most important thing we can do is be uncomfortable. There is no growth in stagnancy or complacency. If we cannot be pushed to new bounds politically and personally when it comes to how we hold people accountable, share our feelings, break down our hurt, and create community – then we are only doing ourselves a disservice. It is up to us to keep trying, to keep building, and to keep questioning. Our labor can only help us move towards liberation.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, agender, Black fat femme writer, artist and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet and the creator of Free Figure Revolution, a body positivity organization. She is currently working on her M.A. in Africana Studies at Morgan State University. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford.