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How to Stop Getting Called Out

December 27, 2011

mrr_342_cvrThis column was written by Support New York Network member Jess Silk and appeared in the November issue of MAXIMUMROCKNROLL.

Have you ever been called out? Are you a man who keeps getting called out by feminists who “take things too seriously” or “take themselves too seriously”? Are you a white feminist who has felt paralyzed when women of color questioned the inclusiveness of your efforts? Are you a white person who gets defensive when people of color bring up racism? Do you like to “mansplain” how things really are to women? Have you ever really said or thought a sentence starting with the words “But some of my best friends are…”? Do you ignore or mask your class privilege? Do you think people are “too P.C.” when they call out your language? Has a trans or non-gender-conforming person told you their preferred gender pronoun, but you can’t seem to use it because you don’t “get it” or you want to talk the way you’re used to? Are you a hetero person who gets weirded out when your queer friend asks you to hang out in queer spaces? Did you, hypothetically, get called out for drawing a transphobic, racist, and generally shitty comic and don’t understand why people complained because that’s how things really are and it’s other people who don’t “get it”?* You’re just calling it like you see it, right?

These represent a wide range of examples, but most of us have been called out before—myself included. The trouble is that most people are uncomfortable with admitting to these kinds of faults in themselves, past or present. Anyone who is reading this and exemplifies these kinds of behaviors would sooner go on the defensive than actually shut up and listen, but I’m hoping you are curious or bored or on a long subway ride or on the toilet or you want to pick a fight with me or something and you’ll humor me and read this.

I’m writing this because I keep noticing patterns in my loose community of punks where people keep sticking their foot in their mouth. It usually has to do with people being afraid to own or accept their privilege(s). I’ve seen people do some pretty impressive mental gymnastics in an attempt to bend reality to rationalize their ignorance versus just shutting up for a minute and learning a basic point from someone else’s experience.

For example, I’ve heard dudes say they don’t like female vocalists. When prompted, they’ll explain something like, “No, I’m not sexist. It’s just a taste preference” or “I don’t like high pitched voices” or something equally idiotic. They try to justify it as a “preference” or about their impeccable ear and good taste instead of understanding the inherent misogyny behind disliking the sound of 50% of the population’s singing voices. Not to mention that there is wide variation among both male and female vocals, including low-pitched women like Nico and high-pitched men like Geddy Lee. Another example is hearing men say things like “women aren’t funny” or “female comedians aren’t funny” without realizing the ways in which their dominant position in culture and society informs their opinion. I think what pisses me off so much–hearing these ideas come out of someone’s mouth who’s not a frat dude–is that it seems so antithetical to punk. It’s about blindly accepting dominant culture and refusing to examine one’s place in it.

I’ve also been in or witnessed various situations in which I’ve seen one privileged person called out by a person from an oppressed or marginalized group, and the privileged person automatically gets defensive and redirects the conversation by (a) claiming some kind of other marginalized position (that somehow gives them immunity from being a dick) or (b) pointing out that worse oppression exists out there in the world (i.e. women in some nameless “backwards” country have it way worse, which magically negates all forms of oppression in the U.S. Hooray!). I can’t stand this fucked up bullshit logic and all the work it requires to turn a conversation completely around just to ignore the person who spoke up so you can feel less like an asshole (while still being one).

I’m so tired of having my mind boggled by these kinds of situations that I’ve wanted to create some kind of tool…for tools (har, har). In all seriousness, though, many people–myself included–are at times blind to our own privileges. That is the whole thing about privilege: people who have it don’t have to see it or deal with it because they are the dominant group and benefit from it. As a well-educated, white cis woman, there are times when I don’t get something at first and I make mistakes or I need to put in extra work to see beyond my privileged positions. And oftentimes it takes all kinds of fucking up and stumbling and learning and re-learning to see it and learn how to be less of an asshole. That is why it’s important to learn from examples in which one’s privilege is called out. That may be easier said than done, which is why I’m here to offer my own experience as an educator.

I’m a sexuality educator by trade. I get paid to talk about sex, which is pretty great. A lot of my work is skills-based, so we do things like teach kids an acronym that will serve as an mneumonic device (remember our friend Roy G. Biv for remembering the colors of the rainbow?) to use when confronting a difficult situation in their lives, like peer pressure or a partner pressuring them to have unprotected sex. And even with adults we have little tricks like “the 4 steps” to answering a challenging question. Often the first step is to breathe, and most people can do that!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my experiences as an educator and how it’s made me more patient and understanding with people outside of work—in my personal life and in my community. It’s forced me to be more careful with my language and to be more aware of the ways in which my words may affect someone else’s feelings or learning. It’s forced me to accept and enjoy that I’m still learning instead of being too stubborn to listen to other people’s points. So I decided to outline some steps to consider if/when you’ve been called out.

What to Do if You’ve Been Called Out

So, you’ve been called out. It doesn’t feel good, but remember it feels worse to have to call someone out for alienating, offending, or disrespecting you. Ouch.

So now what? Here are some relatively simple steps to help you minimize harm, prevent being called out in the future, and maybe even become an ally.

Step #1: Breathe.
Bite your tongue if you have to, and take a deep breath.

Step #2: Listen.
Shut up and listen!
No! Really…
“But, but…”
LISTEN. Listening is harder than it seems. Take the time to hear what the person is telling you. Experiment with letting them speak for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, 2 minutes, etc. without interrupting or trying to make a point or defend your actions. Hear them out. The best thing you can do as an ally is listen.

Step #3: Kill your intentions.
Don’t cling on to your intentions. Unless you are a complete asshole, you didn’t mean to hurt someone. And if you are a complete asshole, you’re probably not reading this to figure out how not to be one. It doesn’t matter what you meant, it matters what you said and how it made the person feel. You said something hurtful and it’s your responsibility to deal with it. Getting wrapped up in “but what I meant…” or “but I didn’t mean to” is not going to help right now. If it’s all just a miscommunication then you can at least learn how to be a more effective and sensitive communicator.

Step #4: Assume their intentions are good.
Likewise, assume they are coming from a good place as well. Are you getting called out because someone is mean and trying to make your life difficult? Hell no. This is not their hobby and there’s no conspiracy against you. They are calling you out because you made them uncomfortable and they have the courage to speak up. Remember, while it may not feel good to know you said something ignorant or disrespectful, it feels worse to be disrespected or alienated. Try to empathize. Have you ever had to call someone else out? What did it feel like to be on the other end?

Step #5: Ask.
Don’t tuck your tail between your legs and leave. Seize the opportunity to make amends and learn. Be present. Make sure you are clear about why you were called out. How did it make them feel? What do they need from you? Is there an alternate thing you can say/do in the future to not offend? How can you advocate for them? Is there research you need to do on your own to educate yourself? Try asking questions, but note that they have the right to pass down educating you. It’s not the responsibility of oppressed groups to teach the oppressor, so don’t get pissed off if they don’t want to teach you. It’s your responsibility to learn and anything they teach you is out of generosity. Be thankful for their time and patience.

Step #6: Learn and reflect.
Even if you will never be on the same page or at the same place in your understanding, think about what you can learn from the experience. What can you do differently in the future? How may this conversation apply to other areas in your life? How can you be more aware of your privilege(s)? How can you advocate for others?

*this was a reference to a cartoon that was in MRR and myself and some others wrote letters about and then the artist basically said what he saw is just the way it is and then a bunch of dudes said people like me have too much time on our hands since we write letters to MRR but then they…wrote letters to MRR to say that.

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