The difference between calling out and calling in

Graphic by Alan Li

“Your English is so good.”

Those were the words of my friend to one of our students as he shared his reflections on being an international student.

As harmless as they might seem – I’m sure the intentions of my friend were not negative –

these words just didn’t sit well with me.

Maybe it was because I was also an international student. Maybe I too have been at the receiving end of that comment and maybe I was just so tired of white people feeling the need to compliment a person of colour’s ability to speak ‘good’ English.

The well-intended voice of my friend rang through my ears like a chime bell and my immediate response of anger and disappointment followed suit.

“You’re not supposed to say things like that, it reinforces a stereotype that people of colour cannot speak ‘good’ English.”

Before I could continue, I realized how differently the conversation could have happened.

In the moment, my primary concern was to let that friend know that she was being oppressive. Second to that, my goal was to assure the student that I was creating a space where he didn’t need to be subjected to what I believe is a very offensive statement.

I realized only after the fact, that in doing the former, I had failed. My friend walked away upset and quite frankly so did I.

With the growing number of social movements and activism spreading so rampantly to educate people from all walks of life about the various issues that affect our society, I was drawn to the idea of calling people out.

After all, if our intentions are to support marginalized groups, we must make sure that those who are on the other side are being held accountable in ways that are effective.

Indeed, there is a lot of merit in doing so.

I have witnessed and can attest to prolific conversations of learning and unlearning that started with calling someone out.

After all, when all you are left with is the “why-the-fuck-would-you-say-that” emotion and your gut instinct is to tell that person that they have erred or have been oppressive, why not?

My most recent experience with calling out taught me that even with the best intentions, to educate, uplift and defend different groups of people, calling someone out is an answer but it is not always the right answer.

This brings me to a more recently emerging philosophy of ‘calling in.’

Calling in, according to Ngoc Loan Tr’ân in their work, Calling IN: A less disposable way of holding each other accountable, is “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 is 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.

I realized after my friend and I both stormed off, that maybe what would have worked out best was if we had the conversation differently. One where the setting would allow us both to debunk what her intentions were, what is ‘good’ English and why saying that might be offensive to people of colour.

This is a conversation that, fortunately for me, went well after we both had a bit of time to reflect.

Realizing that time is of the essence and that – in different situations – one might not always have the opportunity to walk away and come back, knowing how and when to call someone in is critically important.

After all, if our intentions are to support marginalized groups, we must make sure that those who are on the other side are being held accountable in ways that are effective.

Of course, I don’t speak for all people of colour, let alone all minorities, but on behalf of those who have had this experience and might share similar sentiments, we must be cognizant of our approach to dealing with our own oppression.

On the down side, this begs the question of what is the responsibility of the oppressed and the oppressor?

Surely, each has a part to play and depending on which side you’re on, that role will be very different.

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