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  • Writer's pictureBeth Pandolpho

Love as the Most Powerful Fuel to Effect Change

Loretta J. Ross begins her TED Talk with, “I come to y'all because most Black women don't go to Ku Klux Klan rallies on purpose.”

It’s certainly an opening that gets your attention.

I first learned about Loretta J. Ross when I listened to her on Dan Harris’ 10% Happier podcast. I was intrigued by her message, so I enrolled in her online course called, “Calling in the Calling Out Culture” to learn more about what Ross meant by calling people “in” rather than calling them “out”.

I had hoped that Ross could perhaps offer me more suggestions about how to stand up and respond when I witness racist remarks. I’m not proud to admit that although I have been working on how to handle these situations for years, more often than not, I find myself stunned into an uncomfortable silence, unable to speak.

Years ago, I had decided that the “comeback line” I would rely on to respond is, “What did you mean by that?” I thought if I had that one line stored in the back of my mind, I could readily retrieve it- even if I was caught off guard.

I had also learned that a question is generally an effective way to respond to oppressive remarks because it both shifts the responsibility back to the aggressor, and also gives you time to collect your thoughts.

I think I’ve only been brave enough to use it once.

Ijeoma Oluo, in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, offers two of her favorite responses to microaggressions that can “force someone to reexamine their motive” which are, “Why did you say that?” and, “I don’t get it. Please clarify” (p. 173).

Yet even with all of these tools, I’ve still yet to be consistent in speaking up, and the situations in which I've stood by silently still haunt me to this day. I thought perhaps Ross' “calling in” strategy might be the solution I was looking for.

Ross explains that early in her career as an activist, she attended Ku Klux Klan rallies because she was assigned to monitor hate groups, and then eventually to help people who wanted to leave these groups. What Ross didn’t expect to happen, was that once she got to know people, even men who were former Klansmen, she found that she couldn’t hate them anymore.

Ross has since transmuted this understanding to inform her response to our current “cancel culture” - that when people say or do something offensive, they are publicly “called out”, held accountable for their behavior, and thus “cancelled”.

Based on her experience, Ross envisions a kinder and more effective path towards meaningful change. She says, “I really, really want to build a culture and a world that invites people in instead of pushing them out. It's called a "calling-in culture". “Calling in", she tells us, is a phrase invented by Loan Tran, and basically is a “call-out done with love”.

Ross explains that a call-in requires you to separate a person from their words or actions so you can approach them with curiosity and compassion. A “calling in” would sound something more like, “When you said, “. . .”, I didn’t understand exactly what you meant. Could you tell me more about that?” Or “When you say things like, . . . it makes me feel . . . Would you say this differently now that you know how it affects me?”

Ross acknowledges that call-ins are generally are more suitable in a relationship of equals - family members, peer to peer, and that there are still some situations in which simply calling out someone for their poor behavior is more than appropriate.

Although Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us long ago that “it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies,” like with all platitudes, until they appear in our own lives, it is hard for us to fully embody these aspirations. For Ross, it was her work with former Klansmen that taught her that love was a more powerful fuel for her activism than hate.

Poet and author, Sonia Renee Taylor, offers her perspective on "calling in" with an abundance of wisdom and raw honesty. Taylor’s concern with “call ins” is that they require an investment of time and energy in the growth and education of the aggressor, and this burden of reparation should not fall on the shoulders of the person being harmed unless they choose it.

Taylor offers another strategy that she terms, “calling on” which is somewhere in between a "calling in" and a "calling out". A "calling on", she explains, both stops the harmful behavior and conveys to the aggressor, “You need to do better because what you are doing is harmful in the world”.

A “calling on” does not require the oppressed person to take on the burden of the aggressor’s overall personal improvement, but does call on them to be a better person.

Taylor illustrates this point using the metaphor of someone stepping your foot. With a “calling on”, she explains, you ensure that they get off your foot, you let them know that it hurts, and yet you don’t assume the responsibility of teaching them to stop stepping on everyone else’s feet. Her 6 minute video is more than worth checking out.

I am hopeful that these new understandings will better prepare me to speak up when people are being harmed. Although as I’m writing this, it’s becoming more clear to me that I’m lacking more in courage, than in knowledge and strategies.

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