Editor’s Note: We at Everyday Feminism would like to note our understanding that toxic call-outs manifest in many different ways and do not only target individuals on the basis of race or gender. While this particular conversation focuses on racism and transphobia in social media call-outs, we understand this may feel erasive of other marginalized identities. Though we wish that each of our articles could address all of the intersectional oppressions at work in the kyriarchy, we appreciate the understanding that this isn’t always possible.
You come across a call out post or tweet on your social media. A Black woman pointing out sexist comments overheard at a tech conference. It has your attention, so you try to dig deeper into what people are discussing.
And yet, instead of actual analysis, the discussion has devolved into personal insults and folx grandstanding for their follower counts.
Instead of an actual discussion of the sexist comments, the resulting backlash ends up running the woman out of her career while the mob just moves on, just like it did to computer programmer Adria Richards a little over four years ago.
Experiences like this are immensely frustrating and yet it seems just about everyone has been a witness to it online and hates the falling out that happens as a result of it.
While call-outs are sometimes necessary and sometimes too damaging, and it’s hard to see clearly where the line is drawn.
One thing is for sure: discussion of toxic call out culture always ends up dividing people into sides.
On one side, you have the Jonathan Chaits and Michelle Goldbergs of the world, decrying “toxic activism” while using racist and transphobic dog whistles. On the other side are marginalized people fighting against oppression using social media tools that often result in massive pile-ons.
The core problem with back and forth discourse on toxic culture is that it’s become too personal. It’s less actual discussion of the issues and more teeing off on random activists on Twitter. Call outs are often used merely as a personal catharsis tool for white and cisgender activists.
Academic and writer Katherine Cross said it best: “It forces people like me to take sides when I’d rather be the one in the middle trying to cooly analyze the complexities of the situation.”
Often times, those in the middle trying to analyze the privileges and dynamics involved in individual call outs get either lost in the mob or are forced to choose sides
Insults, threats, doxing, and even people getting fired from their jobs are all foreseeable end results now for even the slightest transgressions, like pointing out sexist comments at a tech conference but, through it all, who gets hurt the most with these call outs and the resulting backlash? Black activists and trans people.
Here are three ways toxic call out culture reinforces the privilege of white and cisgender activists while working against marginalized voices:
Call out culture has become less about engaging with the actual issues at hand and more about litigating personal disputes. In the process, it’s people of color, trans women, and other marginalized people who get caught in the crossfire.
Mikki Kendall, a cultural critic and writer notes, “Call outs aimed at me invariably end up playing off the Angry Black Woman trope. Somehow, instead of engaging with what I said my identity comes into play. I’m mean, I’m toxic.”
Playing up traditional stereotypes like the “angry Black woman” or the “mansplaining trans woman” has been shown to be a very effective way to silence activists with those identities.
It’s not just that stereotypes silence marginalized activists — their right to engage gets attacked as biased as well. White and cis people benefit from a society that treats them as the default. In the process, they tend to see themselves as neutral arbiters in discussions.
This view in itself is extremely biased, Kendall explains why: “It has nothing to do with reality, but people will claim that being marginalized means you can’t give an unbiased response as though privilege doesn’t breed bias.”
It’s an endless cycle; marginalized identities are stereotyped, stereotypes are used to reinforce privilege, privilege breeds discourse lacking marginalized voices.
2. Tone Policing
Earlier this year, a call out of an article in the feminist journal “Hypatia” titled “In defense of transracialism” spiraled into a massive back-and-forth on social media. Black and trans feminists brought legitimate concerns about the editorial process forward.
Meanwhile, a backlash from white feminists and their allies in the media labeled the call out a “witch hunt.”
Among those who experienced the worst of toxicity was Rachel McKinnon, a trans woman and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the College of Charleston who studies knowledge-based injustice, hate speech, and propaganda.
When trans people and people of color call out other activists, they are, in part, naming their oppression. For white and cisgender activists occupying the same space to then claim they’re too personally engaged and upset to be rational on the topic is called tone policing.
McKinnon spoke out on the Hypatia controversy, but her call out was met with a harsh backlash. McKinnon was told that “trans people couldn’t possibly be ‘objective’ in a case like this, so clearly we were overreacting and just looking for things to complain about. [It was] classic gaslighting.”
Tone policing is a common occurrence in call out culture wherein someone refuses to engage with a call out unless the other person remains respectful.
It places “being cordial” over naming actual oppression and it stinks of privilege.
Tone policing is especially unfair because it reinforces the position of anyone with the privilege to ignore whatever racist or transphobic injustice being discussed. McKinnon explains: “It’s critical to recognize that anger — or being emotional — is a perfectly natural, rational response to being harmed.”
Asking a trans activist of color to be calm or “nice” when speaking out against racist and transphobic oppression is incredibly unfair.
The root of toxic call out culture and the resulting backlash against it lies in performing for an online audience.
Eager to show off social justice creds, activists have a tendency to want to show off how “woke” they can be without considering that those on the receiving end of the latest social media volley are just trying to make their way through the discourse like anyone else.
All too often it’s forgotten that trans people and people of color have to deal with the topics being discussed in the discourse in their real, everyday lives. It’s life, not just another topic in the activist discourse.
In an interview, Cross notes, “We’re messy, we have to compromise to get by, we’re very far from the pristine activist universe of (mostly white) places like Oberlin or the Pioneer Valley colleges.”
As a result, these topics being discussed on social media have a direct impact on the lives of those who are marginalized, while white, cisgender people can have these theoretical discussions and just move on with their lives unaffected by racism and transphobia.
It’s this privilege that is so often missed by critics of toxic call out culture. It’s easy to demonize the fickle mob when you don’t have any skin in the game.
Cross summarizes it perfectly, “So much of this discourse on toxic activism is, in the main, a discussion among white people about white feelings, not us.”
Call out culture definitely has a legitimate use within activism, but so often the natural back and forth of discourse is weaponized needlessly against others.
In the end, we’re all doing the best we can in this unjust world but it would do us well to remember that our different life experiences are valid.
So, before you fire off that next call out Tweet or react to being called out, just keep in mind the very real harmful consequences that may result for those who are different from you.
Katelyn Burns is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Katelyn is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She has previous bylines for The Washington Post, The Establishment, and VICE, among others. She lives in Maine with her two young children.
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