The Power of Naming Bigotry

Here’s an epistemological headache for you: Define the term “call out culture.” Mr. Ahmad’s piece, the one I just linked to, often overlooks this critical puzzle piece in the discourse of minorities demanding equity and justice–they simply plow on through having taken for granted that the term is understood. Everyday Feminism also has no shortage of articles on the topic, generally advising “calling in” rather than calling out.

Maybe it’s just taking me some extra time to catch up to these arguments, and a few months from now I’ll finish scratching my head and “get it.” But from where I stand as a trans woman, I feel like the biggest barrier to getting people to understand is entirely unrelated to how I deliver my message, which is the subject broached in these discussions. So I am confused when I see feminists from the same social movement that once condemned respectability politics attempt to reify respectability politics as a legitimate means of discourse. Mr. Ahmad even compares what he calls call out culture to the Prison Industrial Complex:

Call-out culture can end up mirroring what the prison industrial complex teaches us about crime and punishment: to banish and dispose of individuals rather than to engage with them as people with complicated stories and histories.

As if pointing out, without apology, that one’s ignorance can advocate for harm–regardless of its intentions–somehow constitutes a “disposal,” the way harsh prison sentences do for crimes of apparent desperation. It is hard not to look on this conversation and see the same hints that the privileged classes have used to discredit out of hand the concerns of minorities: If they are rude, or loud, or angry, they are unreliable and can be dismissed.

Allow me to back track and perform the manoeuvre I asked of Ahmad and Everyday Feminism.

Respectability politics is the tendency of the privileged class to view differences from its way of life as being inherently uncivilized. It likes to lay claim to the lofty ideal of permitting others to speak their minds–as long as they do so in a way that does not require the privileged class to actually listen. Proponents of respectability politics are perfectly willing to extend the microphone to minorities and then immediately turn their attention to the latest cat video, or change the channel, or even just space out and plunder the depths of their imagination. In other words, the politeness and calmness one must use to represent your opinion under respectability politics are not actually related to the merit of the argument itself, but rather serve to make the argument optional, something witnesses can choose to think about.

And many people, given the choice, choose not to.

Above all else, respectability politics requires us to call someone no names. The problem, of course, is that respectability has created a false equivalency, as if calling someone a racist is equivalent to calling someone the n-word. Respectability has created this equivalency because naming bigotry diminishes its power. A hundred years ago, there were no “racists,” because racism was simply the air you breathed. You didn’t have a name for it to set it aside, it simply was. And now, we can separate it, single it out, and name it–no longer an uncritically accepted cultural standard. And if we name it, and successfully characterize it as harmful, then it becomes shorthand for “bad guy” in respectability. But you can’t just call someone racist now, because now you’re breaching respectability by name-calling.

If women are confident and assertive, we are bitches. If black men are upset and galvanized, they are savages. If queers reject the religious institutions which so frequently abuse us, we are hateful.

But if we play along, all we are is “ignored.” The only way to capture the attention of adherents is to throw another minority under the bus to feed the superiority complex. In other words, the system is set up to devalue our opinions because it devalues us. That is the value of a call out. It tells the privileged classes that we are not content to simply talk at a wall–if that wall is in our way, we will knock it down. And if people witnessing this act choose to be more angry that the wall was knocked down than they are about the fact that the wall was in our way to begin with, then the outrage they express is indicative, at least in part, of an anger at our choice to not allow ourselves to be ignored. These are not the walls built upon mutually agreed boundaries, but cages inside which we are expected to languish. Silently, at that.

To suggest that any of this dynamic changes when we do a “call in,” as Everyday Feminism calls it, is absurd. It is the same scenario, only without an audience. You do it through private message, or by pulling the person aside. All that means is that it will be known only to the oppressor and the oppressed that the oppressor intends to continue ignoring the oppressed.

This is my experience as a trans woman: Shit does not cease to be shit if it is wrapped up in a box & ribbon. Whether it is thrown or presented as a gift, it will be rejected either way. This is the crux of respectability, and it is the premise I reject in questioning the value of a call out. If I ever allow myself to be polite as the privileged classes define it, then I would be silent. If the most basic calls for my respect–“stop killing us”–are to be understood as hate speech, then I will hate from the bottom of my heart. Whether I am polite or rude, whether my words are big or small, whether I swear or pontificate, it will always be true that folks–some folks, enough folks–have already made up their mind about who I am before I have opened my mouth, regardless of what I say or how I actually say it.

That is not a history that needs to be “explored” the way a prisoner of desperation has a history that can be rehabilitated. That is the history that people like me live and breathe with, every day. And it is an act of radical resistance to create a space where I can safely say that, for once, the voice of the privileged class is not privileged here. My strategy, and it is a strategy I will take with me to my grave, is to simply be who I am without apology.



  1. says

    I once made a bibliography of articles criticizing callout culture. In collecting articles, my impression was that Ahmad’s article garnered more criticism than any other, although I’m not sure why.

    Usually, when people criticize “call-out culture”, they are not saying you should stop calling people racist, or that you should engage in respectability politics. Rather, the critique is targeted at abusive, bullying behavior, particularly towards people on the same team (e.g. say I called out you).

    Of course, it’s very easy to criticize something by just attaching the “abusive” modifier to it (“I’m not against all ____ just the abusive ____!”), and the question is whether we can agree on what exactly makes a callout abusive, and implement alternative methods. The answer so far seems to be no, we cannot agree, and no, the only alternative method proposed is “calling in”, which is not very good.

  2. Siobhan says


    Oooooh. Neat. I’m definitely not 100% settled on the issue and I’ll keep reading on it. My preliminary impression is quite suspicious though, as you just read.