Loretta Ross is a Black feminist, activist and scholar. One of her biggest concerns now? The pervasiveness of callout culture. We hear why Professor Ross wants to call people in instead of calling people out.
Loretta Ross, visiting associate professor at Smith College in the program for the study of women and gender. She teaches courses on white supremacy, human rights and callout culture. Author of the forthcoming book “Calling In the Calling Out Culture." Co-author of “Undivided Rights." (@LorettaJRoss)
C.T. Vivian once told you something that you say really changed the way you viewed your own activism. What did Reverend Vivian tell you?
Loretta Ross: “He came to the office one day and he said, ‘When you ask people to give up hate, then you need to be there for them when they do.’ And when he first told me that I didn't want to hear that message. But I couldn't curse at a minister, so I had to just suck it up and say, ‘I'm not the turn-the-other-cheek kind of girl. What are you talking about?’ Because if a Black girl can’t [hate] the Klan, who can she hate? But it sunk in. And that's what’s led to me talking about the ‘calling in’ culture right now. And he was right.”
You mentioned the Klan a second ago. What does that have to do with this idea of ‘callout’ culture?
Loretta Ross: “If a Black woman can learn to have civil conversations with someone who's been in the Ku Klux Klan, we should be able to have civil conversations with everybody. Because we have to remember that there is humanity behind the words, that there is humanity behind the action. And I'm not necessarily talking about walking up to the boys in the hood and saying, 'I want to be your best friend,' or anything.
"But at the same time, we can't dehumanize people simply because we disagree with their political perspectives. And I think I really started this work when I was much, much younger, when I was the third executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center. And we helped start a program called ‘Prisoners Against Rape.’
“So you had rape survivors going to Lorton Reformatory, which is D.C.’s prison, and working with men who had been convicted of raping and murdering women. And that was really my first effort at talking to someone — and talking to a lot of people, as a matter of fact — that I was scared of, that I didn't think I had anything in common with.
"And once I started sharing my story of sexual violence and then the guys started telling their stories. Outside, they raped women, but inside they were raping men. And once they started telling their story, I found that I could see them as human again. And these Black men at Lorton went on to found the first antiviolence program run by men to end violence against women, called ‘Prisoners Against Rape.’”
What is callout culture?
Loretta Ross: “It’s the tendency, which is unfortunate, for people to want to publicly shame and humiliate people. And it's based on what they say, or what they look like, or what they wear, or who they're hanging out with, or who they agree or disagree with. It's attaching labels to people without really doing any kind of nuance. Without understanding that even if you disagree with someone, you shouldn't want to attack their humanity, call them a toxic person or things like that. It’s usually done most damagingly over the Internet because social media amplifies and makes all callouts basically go viral immediately.
"And so instead of one person criticizing you, you end up with an angry mob who doesn't even know you, that's criticizing you. And then I've seen careers and lifestyles and lives blown up behind this. Because no one wakes up wanting to be the target of an angry bullying mob for something that may not have even been a mistake. It’s maybe just a difference of opinion. Or a bad joke that didn’t land right on somebody for any number of reasons. We are too quick to judge people based on what we think we know about them without doing any kind of research or homework.”
Is ‘calling out’ a partisan issue?
Loretta Ross: “Calling out is not a partisan issue. It happens on the right. It happens on the left. It happens in the middle. And so I'm not going to claim that the left is more prone to it than the right. As a matter of fact, the right-wing might have started it all with the Salem witch hunts and the cancellation of Harry Potter or whatever. But I'm a human rights activist. So of course, I'm going to be most concerned about how we have to fight for human rights without violating people's human rights, because that's a contradiction.
“And so when we indulge in the callout culture within our own movement, mainly because someone uses a word that we don't agree with, or they actually think that you should be focusing on the climate, while I'm focusing on reproductive justice, while I'm focused on racial justice, you're really trying to turn a movement — which is many different people thinking different thoughts and moving in the same direction — into a cult, which is many different people thinking the same thought and moving into a direction. And so we are a movement. We're not a cult. So I describe as a cult both places that don't allow dissent, that don’t allow difference, that don't allow challenges, and don't even welcome critical skepticism.”
On how to teach ‘calling in’
Loretta Ross: “A call in is actually a callout done with love and respect. Because you're really seeking to hold people accountable for the potential harm that they cause, but you're not going to lose sight of the fact that you're talking to another human being. And so you extend a hand of active love and active listening to help them maybe stop and think about what they said. And you can say, ‘I beg your pardon.’ Or, ‘When you said that, that didn't really land on me correctly. Can we talk about what's going on with you to make you do that?’ I mean, there's a whole bunch of things you could do other than, ‘You should not say these things! You are using the wrong word. You’re trash folk. You're a racist!’
“ … You could just ask people to pause and rethink their words or maybe say, ‘If somebody was here representing that community, would you say that to their face?’ And, ‘I really want to know what's going on with you that makes you want to say it.’ … As a matter of fact, I had a discussion yesterday in my class about the N-word. And the question … is not who uses it or why, but why would you want to use it in the first place? What's actually going on in your heart that's trying to justify a word that you know will wound somebody else? There's an intentionality about that wounding that you need to maybe rethink. Is that how you want to walk through the world? Going around carelessly wounding others?”
How do students respond to this?
Loretta Ross: “They love it. Because they're caught in a trap of feeling like they're walking around on eggshells, afraid to really say what's on their mind because they think their thoughts need to be perfect before they say anything. They shut down in a callout culture because they're afraid that they'll be the next victim. And so they love it.
"And they are telling me, 'I don't even wait until I get home to start using this stuff. I'm using it already in my relationships with people, with my parents.' I think calling in is going to be to the 21st century as a social justice practice what nonviolence was to the 20th century as a social justice practice. It’s about teaching us how to be together in a different way, even with people we would call opponents.”
From The Reading List
New York Times: "What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?" — "Nyla Conaway, 19, remembers being “called out” for changing her profile picture on Instagram in solidarity for … something."
WNPR: "Longtime Activist Loretta Ross Speaks Out Against The Call-Out Culture" — "When a peer says something you think is racist, ignorant or wrong, what do you do? Most people agree that staying silent is not a good idea."
New York Times: "Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction Is Swift." — "The killing of George Floyd has brought an intense moment of racial reckoning in the United States. As protests spread across the country, they have been accompanied by open letters calling for — and promising — change at white-dominated institutions across the arts and academia."
Sage Journals: "Drag Them: A brief etymology of so-called 'cancel culture'" — "The term 'cancel culture' has significant implications for defining discourses of digital and social media activism."
Los Angeles Times: "Up From Hatred" — "At 4 a.m., the stars in the Allegheny sky are so bright and so numerous that it looks as though God is shaking salt on the Earth. Standing outside an all-night gas station, shivering in the cold, Floyd Cochran is too obsessed with his mission to notice. A rail of a man with receding brown hair, a full beard and a craggy profile, Cochran shifts anxiously from foot to foot."
The Atlantic: "It’s Not Callout Culture. It’s Accountability." — "The police killing of George Floyd continues to inspire a bracingly physical uprising, with protesters still taking to the streets and monuments to white oppressors still being torn down."
New York Times: "I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic." — "Today’s call-out culture is so seductive, I often have to resist the overwhelming temptation to clap back at people on social media who get on my nerves."
This program aired on December 3, 2020.