A Tale of Three Call-Outs
And what I learned from each one.
I’ve been writing on the internet since about 2001. I was twelve then, and most of my writing at the time took the form of Invader-Zim-themed raps posted to a Jhonen Vasquez fan forum. They were not great. From there, I graduated to Livejournal, then Deadjournal, where I wrote about body image issues and lurked on the private accounts of my friends. After that came Myspace, and then Tumblr, which has held my attention since about 2011.
On each platform, I’ve waxed rhetorical about a number of social and political issues, often upon absolutely no one’s invitation. Suffice to say, I have been guilty of some bad takes in my time. I used to be a Ron Paul libertarian, for goodness sake. I believed that talking about sexism and patriarchy made gender-based oppression worse, because it “drove people apart”. I thought Don Draper didn’t write the Hilltop ad on Mad Men.
In my writing I have been wrong in ways large and small, meaningless and catastrophic, and I will continue to be wrong intermittently until I die. Sometimes when I’m wrong, I get called out for it. That’s if I’m lucky.
Getting called out is the price of having an internet presence. It’s also a gift. I’ve learned a lot from the various call-outs I’ve endured, though I was not always receptive to the call-outs at first. Call-outs have given me a lot to chew on, regardless of if I was graceful or prickly in my initial response to them.
Some call-outs left me musing about my own social responsibility and capacity to do harm years after I received them. One call-out made me realize I was bisexual. Nearly all of the call-outs I’ve experienced made me a better person. Even the ones that used a tone that I didn’t like.
I’m better for having been called out. And I think anyone can be improved and appropriately humbled by a good call-out. To illustrate that, here are the three most illuminating call-outs I’ve received:
1. The Lady Gaga Bisexuality Incident
In 2013, I wrote a sarcastic, kinda vitriolic review of Lady Gaga’s Artpop album and posted it to my Tumblr. Artpop is not Stephanie Germanotta’s best work, but I still return to it; it’s infectious in some parts, and deeply problematic in others. But the problematic thing I’m here to talk about is not anything Gaga wrote, it’s what I did. Here’s what I had to say about the song Sexxx Dreams:
This is another standard pop track, and it’s also the album’s obligatory nod to Gaga’s expressed but unverified bisexuality. Just as with Americano on the previous album, Gaga presents us with one homoerotic track to maintain the limpid argument that she’s not just an ally, she’s a stakeholder in the fight for LGBT equality.
Oh my god, oh my god, what was I thinking. I had been running in queer circles for years at that point, yet I had the outrageous gall to say that a person can’t be bisexual if they haven’t proven it to the public? What did I expect Gaga to do? Run out and have sex with a woman in the streets?
I don’t know what I was thinking. Actually, I do know: pure biphobia, through and through. As a longtime Gaga fan, I had noticed that her lyrics often eluded to her love of girls, though all her public paramours were guys. Bathed in decades of biphobia and misogyny, I had absorbed the idea that women who claim to be bisexual are “fakers” who are merely “doing it for the attention”. And I regurgitated that nonsense all over my Tumblr page.
Blessedly, my friend Stephen Kennedy took me to task:
There are gay men who will tell me that I’m gay, no matter how many times I tell them about the women I’ve slept with, I’m in denial, I just haven’t come to terms with it yet, or maybe they’ll swear I’m straight, up and down and all around.
But if I give them proof, they still won’t believe me, which means the ball is in their court, that the problem is with them, not me. That’s what I’m getting at. If we don’t believe someone is really Bi, we might be right, but we might also be being a bit of an ass, so it’s usually best to err on the side of not being an ass.
Stephen’s response to my biphobia was careful, and gentle, but also courageous. He called me out publicly, and he did so with love and with grace. His writing spoke to his personal experiences as a bisexual man, showing me the real harm that comes from assuming a bisexual person is lying. He also showed me immense charity, acknowledging that my line was a “joke”, albeit a poor one. Because he was so caring to me, so honest and vulnerable, it was easy for me to take his words to heart. Seriously, read his whole response. It’s a masterclass in artfully dissecting a prejudiced view.
I revised my piece and publicly credited Stephen for his feedback pretty much immediately. This wasn’t because I was a paragon of humility. It was because a good friend had called me out in a way that soothed my immature ego while also being impossible to argue with. I couldn’t look at his words and feel anything gratitude towards him. It was clear he was calling me out in order to help me be a better person.
I spent months reflecting on Stephen’s words after that, asking myself why I felt so moved to insult and cast doubt on Lady Gaga’s identity. It was easy for me to remember times when other people had said similar, biphobic things to me. I’d told boyfriends in the past that I was attracted to girls, but each of them had demanded that I prove it. When I didn’t prove it, because I wouldn’t acquiesce to a threesome, they concluded I was a faker.
I’d internalized all those doubts, then cast them back at another bisexual person. The insult I hurled at Lady Gaga was really aimed at myself. I came out as bisexual shortly after realizing this. I have only Stephen to thank for it.
Lessons Learned: Public call-outs can be gentle and compassionate. When our friends call us out, they do so because they want to help us be better versions of ourselves. Bisexual people shouldn’t have to prove who they are. I’m bisexual.
2. The Black Characters Who Seem White
In 2013, I self-published a science fiction novel called Corpus Callosum. The novel explored the lives of two twin sisters, one of whom has died and had her mind uploaded to a portable device called a BrightBox. Like my Invader Zim raps, the novel wasn’t very good.
The book did get a few thousand downloads however, mostly because I serialized it on Tumblr, promoted the hell out of it, and offered the Kindle version for free. I amassed quite a few reviews thanks to that, and the reviews helped drive more people to my book. Until I got this review.
I will also say that I’m not sure how the racial identities read to me. The author chose to make her protagonists not white, but did she do justice to them as people of color? The racial cues were all physical attributes, but the characters read as white in almost all of their thoughts, actions and perspectives. I felt uneasy about this as I read.
The twin sister protagonists of Corpus Callosum are Black, and this reader didn’t think I did their identities justice. I wish I could say that I responded to this critique as reasonably as I did Stephen’s critique of my biphobia, but that really isn’t the case.
Instead, I screen-shot the review and posted it to my Tumblr, then spent most of an afternoon speculating about the reviewer’s race and the intent behind their comments. I was kind of outraged, to be honest. Very caught up in white fragility and denial. How do Black people think?, I asked. How do they act? Just because they aren’t stereotypes doesn’t mean they aren’t Black!
I was very tempted to assume that my reviewer was white, and that their comments were caused by racism. White readers, after all, tend to assume characters are white unless they are repeatedly and constantly told otherwise. But looking back, that’s a hollow excuse. The reviewer even says that I mention my Black character’s physical attributes many times.
The problem wasn’t that my characters were not physically identifiable as Black. In fact, that was the one aspect of racial representation that I had taken really seriously when I was writing. I’d done a lot of reading on Black hair care and hair types; I read a lot of perspectives on colorism. I put information about my character’s bodies and appearances into my book. I thought about practicalities such as silk pillowcases and head scarves.
But did I think about what it felt like to be, specially, a Black woman trapped inside a computer? Did I imagine how race impacted the main character’s relationship with her white tech employee boyfriend? When the two sisters interacted with their Black father and his white girlfriend, was there any authenticity there? Why did all the Black characters have white romantic partners? Why didn’t I hire Black people to be sensitivity readers for the book??
It took me a year or more to really get comfortable with those questions. To really admit to myself that I’d screwed up. At the time, I thought it was important to write about diverse perspectives, and that as long as a writer worked hard and listened to Black peers, they could represent Black people reasonably well, if imperfectly. Since no Black writers came to me directly to tell me that my writing was off, I assumed I’d done fine. And when a reviewer finally did call my racial representation into question… I took the easy and cowardly route, and assumed that they were white.
That was so foolish. And arrogant. And wrong.
This call-out was wasted on me, at least at the time. Not knowing the reviewer, and wanting desperately to believe that I was beyond reproach, I found excuses to pick apart their points. But their comments lingered inside me all the same. And they had a slow but significant impact on how I wrote about race, and how certain I was about my own rightness.
I don’t write fiction very much anymore, but when I do, I’m conscious of the fact that the worlds I create need to be diverse, but that I can’t ever truly represent what it’s like to be a Black person, or another person of color.
Lessons Learned: Anonymous call-outs are easier to brush off than ones that come from people we know, but that doesn’t make them wrong. I should ignore my feelings of white fragility, and not become defensive when my racism is critiqued. White people will always make mistakes when they try to write POC characters, and humility in response to critique is essential.
3. I Don’t Know How Much Power I Wield
I had a friend once who was a poet. Jill. Jill was very intuitive and impressionistic; I was analytical and rigid. We were always disagreeing about one thing or another. One time, I called her out for critiquing the politics of wealthy Black celebrities in a way that struck me as racist. Another time, she called me out for talking and writing in an academically elitist way. We were always circling one another like that, often making valid points in slightly sniping ways.
One time, Jill and I were having an argument about sexual harassment. It began when I told her about a man who’d hit on me while I was walking down the street. He drove past me, saw me, parked his car, got out of his car, and then approached me to ask for a date. I was creeped out by his actions, and I came to Jill to complain about it. I thought it was disgusting that somebody would take an interest in me purely based on what my body looked like, not knowing anything else about me at all.
But Jill had a more complicated view. She said that people do relate to one another in physical ways, and that not everyone lives in the realm of the mind. That it’s okay, in some situations, to be drawn to someone based on purely physical features. I might not have been interested in the man who approached me, but people sometimes do meet and hit it off based purely on physical attraction. I bristled at her comment. I told her that being hit on by a stranger made me feel scared and unsafe.
She got really serious then. And she told me, you have no idea how much power you wield over people. You have no idea how many people are afraid of you.
What Jill meant, she went on to say, was that I was authoritative, highly educated, and confident. When I speak, people listen to me, and assume I know what I’m talking about. When I point out a problem, people rally behind me. I could use that power to really harm people. I seemed to be completely unaware that as much as I feared other people and felt defensive in their presence, many people felt apprehension around me.
I thought it was a pretty bullshit comment at the time. Jill and I were often disagreeing, and I thought her point seemed plucked out of thin air, totally arbitrary and baseless and not relevant to what we were discussing. I thought maybe she was trying to derail me, or make me feel invalidated for fearing men I didn’t know. I got defensive and she got frustrated, understandably, and I don’t think we ever reached a satisfying end point.
But her words echoed in my mind, despite how much I resented them. I don’t know how much power I wield over people! What did she mean by that? Was it true?
I meditated on Jill’s words for a long time. I didn’t want to — I was mad at her for saying them — but they kept reasserting themselves in my mind. When students asked me for support, I remembered them. When rooms went silent in response to my voice, I remembered them. When an essay of mine went viral, I remembered them. And when people shrunk away from publicly disagreeing with me on contentious issues, damn it, I remembered them. And I started to believe they had value. That there was a lesson within them that I had to learn.
When Jill first told me that I had “power”, I was a twenty-something loner with a few friends and a blog. I was depressed, and closeted about being trans, and drifting from adjunct teaching job to adjunct teaching job. I was still coping with the trauma of having been in an abusive relationship. I had body image issues and health issues I was not working on. I certainly did not feel powerful.
But I was powerful. In all kinds of ways. I had whiteness, pretty privilege, thin privilege, and a PhD. I had the ability to communicate in persuasive and sometimes attention-grabbing ways. I was socially awkward, but not without charm or humor. And as the years went on and my career took root, I found I was amassing more and more power. Social power. Status. Security. Clout. With that power, I could really hurt people.
I came to notice that some of my other friends were unaware of their power. Some people saw themselves only as victims, never as potential perpetrators of violence, bigotry, or hate. I noticed how people who ignored their own power could be aggressive, defensive, or hurtful without realizing it. I felt the sting of those people’s unchecked ableism and transphobia. In many cases, the most aggressive people I knew were white women or white queer folks, who seemed unable to acknowledge that they could be both oppressed and oppressor, depending on the situation.
And I looked back at myself. And my whiteness. And my PhD. And my growing social media platform. And things I had said and done that were glib, defensive, or entitled.
Jill and I aren’t friends anymore; we never were really compatible. Sometimes her criticism cut too close to the bone, or came at the wrong time. But despite all our issues, she clearly saw one of my greatest flaws, and cast it in so sharp a relief that I could not deny it. I had power and privilege, as well as an acidic sense of victimhood, and if I didn’t learn to grapple with that, I would become a monster. I think about her words often, especially when I’m feeling victorious or as if I have been wronged. Her call-out seemed ill-timed, and it hurt me, but it was something I needed to hear.
Lessons Learned: Sometimes the right critique comes from the wrong person. Listen to hard-to-hear feedback even if you resent the person who provided it. If someone’s words keep echoing in your head, ask yourself why that is. I have more power than I realize.
Call-Outs Are Gifts
It takes a lot of character to call somebody out. Most people don’t respond to it well. No matter how artful or delicately worded the criticism is, people dismiss it, poke holes it, offer vague non-apologies for it, or lash out. Call-out culture is demonized for being petty and lacking substance, which makes public accountability even harder to achieve.
And yet, a call-out is a gift. It’s an offering of truth and nourishment; a chance to set yourself right. Every single call-out I’ve received has given me a ton to reflect on. Even the call-outs that I wholly rejected at the time have made a positive impact on the person I am today. Ultimately, the call-outs that were vicious were just as helpful to me as the ones that were painstakingly generous and well-crafted. I might have been defensive in response to a lot of them, but that’s because deep down, I knew they were true.
And so I think they’re worth issuing, when you have the energy and boldness in you to send them. Even if you never get to see the call-out bear fruit, it may have planted something of value in the recipient’s mind.