THE BLOG
07/22/2014 03:59 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Getting Better at Getting Called Out

It's uncomfortable. It feels like it comes out of nowhere. But sooner or later, if you're living in an even moderately diverse environment, you're going to get called out. And how you respond is going to be really important.

For anyone late to the party, getting "called out" is the polite way we describe someone saying something along the lines of "that's a racist/sexist/ageist/homophobic/ableist/________ist thing to say/do" in response to your words or behavior. And lest you think I'm engaged in purely hypothetical musing here, I've been called out twice in the past week for saying racist things.

I'll refer to racism specifically here (because as a white woman who grew up in overwhelmingly white mid-Michigan and now living in Chicago, this what I am dealing with most often when I get called out), but this guide can easily be applied to any other systemic oppression (trust me! I've practiced!).

Getting ready:

I own the fact that I hold racist beliefs. I hold these limiting, disempowering ideas in all sorts of places and ways. Some of them are so far tangled in my identity that I can't even distinguish them. I might tell you I don't believe them because I don't want to be someone who does. Others pop easily from the surface in a conversation like effervescent bubbles from a freshly cracked soda. I also own the fact that the work of participating in society, and more specifically my community, relies on my dismantling and dismissing these falsely held ideas and replacing them with clearer thinking and better living. And while I'm by no means especially good at knowing which of my ideas and beliefs are rooted in racism, I'm getting better at getting called out on them when they come up, and along the way I've collected some strategies that I find helpful -- a guide to getting called out, if you will.

One more thing:

Some of us have already started to bristle here. Even the acknowledgement that we could or should be called out is enough to get us #NotAllCaucasians-ing. If that's where you find yourself today, please consider calmly closing this article. There is nothing for you here. Your time is valuable. There is no sense wasting it reading this (please also enjoy the small gift of this article's own author referring to it as a "waste of time").

Getting Better at Getting Called Out

1. Pause. This one is a no-brainer, but the first thing that helps me when I'm getting called out is to take a moment to mentally prepare myself to hear difficult, unflattering things about myself. My knee-jerk reaction to hearing something about myself that I don't want to believe is to dismissively pronounce the notion to be absurd. "I'M NOT A RACIST!" my mind screams. Instead, pause. Just wait a few seconds until that screaming voice in your head goes hoarse and knocks it off.

2. Ask "Why?" And not in a "why would anyone dare accuse me of something so unflattering?! THIS IS BANANAS!" type-of-way. But really wonder, "why would another person risk unpleasant and potentially even hostile interaction with me over this?" In both of my recent call-out experiences, the people calling me out were close friends. So since I know that they care about me and our continued interactions, I have to believe that they are calling me out because (a) they were hurt by my words in a way that connects to oppression they've experienced, or (b) they care about our community and don't want others to be hurt (either via the specific thing I said, or the way it contributes to larger, systemic oppression - sometimes both). Thinking through why someone would call me out and discovering that it almost definitely has to do with making the world a safer, more inclusive place helps me to feel that being called out is more about participating in making a better world together, and less about (not at all about) calling me a horrible person.

3. Assume they're right for a minute. Remember that your experience/intention in saying what you said isn't the whole truth. Since you paused, you avoided saying "No! I wasn't being racist! I was just blah blah blah!" Now comes what I find to be one of the hardest parts of productively getting called out. You've got to set down your point of view as the irrefutable Truth for a minute and be open to your friend's perspective being the Truth. I find saying "I'm open to this conversation -- I'm open to the possibility that you're right and that I did/said/believe a racist thing." to be both super-cheesy, and really effective for putting me in the right frame of mind to receive what my friend has to say. I take a deep breath, remember that because I asked "why" I know that my friend is probably taking a pretty big risk and it must be important to her, and I decide to care more about what she heard than what I said for a minute.

4. Listen. Another would-be no-brainer, but it's especially hard to be a good listener when someone is sharing their frustration with what you did or said. It's also hard to be a good listener when you feel like you were misunderstood. But rather than shrug off your friend's concern or suggest that he's being too touchy/sensitive/PC, why not just listen -- really listen to what he's got to say? Don't just wait for your turn to talk. In fact, don't worry about talking at all. Getting good at getting called out is mostly the work of becoming an excellent listener. My friend is calling me out not because he wants to hear what I have to say, but because he wants me to hear what HE has to say. So simple, but it helps me to keep this in mind so that I can remember that my main job is to listen.

5. Respond (optional). This should be the shortest part of the encounter, and should be a genuine response to your friend. It should NOT be the last word of the conversation, and should NOT be the rationale for why you said what you said and how it's actually totally okay, and your friend just misunderstood, and doesn't she feel silly now?! This is the part where you thoughtfully check in with yourself and discover how you're feeling. Are you sorry? Say you're sorry. Are you frustrated? Say you're frustrated. Are you nervous/sad/overwhelmed/disappointed? Say that. Calmly and succinctly say how you feel, assuming that your friend is right, assuming that you're both working on making the world better though this encounter, and with no expectation that your friend needs to drop her frustration to deal with your feelings and make it okay for you. And then be quiet again and leave space for whatever else she might want to say (see #4 above).

That's it! You did it! Excellent job getting called out! Congratulations!

THERE IS NO #6! I know. It feels like something is missing. It's the part where I explain to my friend that I was misunderstood and that I'm not a bad person and that I would never in a million years want him to think that I am "like that." Bluntly put, it's the part where I dismiss my friend's experience and perspective in favor of my own. Where I effectively say, "I heard the vulnerable way you tried to make the world a better place but I insist that it stay the way that it is! Also, I AM IN CHARGE OF THAT!" It's this almost unstoppable instinct -- the cultural imperative -- to make sure my privileged point of view "wins the argument" and is never "misunderstood" that necessitates me getting called out in the first place. And I did not travel all this way just to arrive where I started!

Is there a time and place for meaningful dialogue about race/misogyny/body shaming/whatever where we consider possible misunderstandings among diverse points of view? For sure. Should it serve as the privileged hijacker of a conversation where I'm getting called out? NOPE. So remember, THERE IS NO #6!

So there you have it! My trail-worn guide to getting better at getting called out. Let's end up somewhere different and (fingers-crossed) further along than where we started.