I want to preface this by saying that I am a white American, and the target audience for this particular piece is any white adult in the USA who is against racism but may not have really dived into racial dynamics and anti-racism very much yet. If you’re a kid, you can still read this, but some things may not quite apply to you, and you may not have some of the information this piece assumes the reader has, which might make it difficult to understand in some places.
With that context established, I would like to invite you to take a moment to prepare yourself for this content. Remember that America was in a very real and literal sense built on the backs of slaves on land stolen through genocide of several different groups, many of whom are still here and fighting for the return of their ancestral lands, because unlike Africa, this continent was never decolonized. Remember that as history progressed, the powers that kept people of color down persisted, changed forms, and were enacted on every nonwhite racial group to arrive here.
These powers and influences are still all around us. We are steeping in them. Remind yourself that you are merely human, which means these influences have impacted the way you think in ways beyond your awareness. Remind yourself that it is up to us, today’s white people in America, to do whatever we can to correct the way we think about and handle race, because no one is going to do it for us. We can’t usually do that while feeling comfortable. That means this piece will likely be uncomfortable to read at times, and that’s okay, because that is part of how progress towards racial equity happens. This kind of discomfort doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means you’re an improving person, which is truly the best you can do. Ready? Here we go.
The first prerequisite for doing anti-racist work on a personal scale is this: We must acknowledge the extreme levels of racism swirling all around us in the USA.
We can also see the pervasiveness of racism by opening our eyes and following Americans of color on blogs and social media, and by opening our hearts to the truth of what people of color are saying about their daily experiences with racism of various scales both to our faces and all over the internet every day. Too many of us brush these things away as exceptions, as not true, or as not significant. Until we accept the fact that people of color experience racism daily on scales that range from racist comments, to systemic threats to one’s livelihood and home, to various forms of racially charged murder and other bodily harm, we cannot begin to do our necessary work because we are limiting ourselves through willful ignorance. The evidence is there; there is no valid excuse to ignore it now that we are adults and responsible for our own knowledge.
Most of us white Americans grew up not seeing any of this, perhaps even being taught that racism was a thing of the past. Indeed, many American high school history and sociology textbooks happily point out the “post-racial” nature of America as if this concept was somehow true. But, as white adults, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves and make sure we understand reality now. We have the most power out of any racial demographic to uphold or change the way systems work here. We have so much power, in fact, that both our actions and our inaction matter and have real consequences for ourselves and others. We must use this power responsibly and with intention. To do that, we need to learn about and acknowledge the reality of racial inequity in America. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, or our neighbors and community members of color will continue to suffer. Their continued suffering will be on us, just as the suffering of their ancestors was on our ancestors.
The second prerequisite is this: We must understand that we (white Americans) all enact racism, often without even realizing it.
The idea that we white people could grow up surrounded by so much suffering and not even see it astounds me, and yet this appears to be a frequent experience. We don’t suffer due to our race, so we don’t know what it is like and have no personal evidence that it happens to others. We weren’t adequately educated about racial dynamics in school, so we have little to no academic knowledge of it. We were raised by generations that believed racial blindness was the answer to fixing racism (it’s actually racist), so we have little to no immediate community culture that supports the concept of racial harm being real.
So, it makes sense that when we were growing up white in America, we didn’t really have any way to know about the existence of racial inequities, much less which specific actions or systems cause racial suffering for people of any given nonwhite race.
If we don’t know which actions or systems cause people of color to suffer, then it is impossible to conclude that we are avoiding doing or contributing to those actions or systems. We can’t fix what we can’t recognize, so we are given no means by which to prevent ourselves from inadvertently furthering the racial harms in America. In other words, the system we were born into creates racism within ourselves beyond our own awareness, regardless of our good intentions. This in turn means that inaction with regards to our own self-education as adults supports racism, both within ourselves and the structures in place around us.
On the occasion that a person of color tries to explain the existence or experience of racism to us before we have done the work to educate ourselves, and before we have accepted that racism real and “post-racial America” is a myth, that person’s words are so at odds with everything we think we know that we tend not to believe them. Nobody likes being treated as if their experiences didn’t happen, and it’s got an extra layer of oppression when there are racial dynamics involved like this. This is a common example of a way in which white people are directly racist to people of color without even knowing it. This particular kind of racism makes many people of color understandably less inclined to talk to white people about racism.
Here is a more specific example of unwitting racism from a study described in a post from Psychology Today:
Race can also play a role in evaluations of performance and achievement. In one experiment, law firm partners were asked to evaluate a memorandum supposedly written by a third-year associate named Tom Meyer. Half of the partners were led to believe the Meyer was black and the other half that he was white. The partners found twice as many spelling and grammatical errors in the memorandum they thought was written by “black” Tom Meyer than “white” Tom Meyer. And their comments suggested very different assessments of the associate’s capacity: White Tom Meyer was described as having “potential” and “good analytical skills”; black Tom Meyer by contrast, “needs lots of work” and is “average at best.” One partner stated he “couldn’t believe [the associate] went to NYU.” It is doubtful the partners who read and commented on the memorandum saw themselves as racist, but subconscious ideas about academic ability clearly guided their appraisals.
You and I, being mere humans, are not immune to this phenomenon. Accepting that we have these internal biases allows us to seek them out and work to dismantle them. We can’t do that work without accepting and recognizing our biases for what they are.
With all that in mind, we can begin to do the work to discern and dismantle racism in ourselves and our immediate spheres of influence.
We cannot do this work until we give ourselves a basic understanding of what the heck is going on. We must give ourselves the education that the public system failed to provide. Once you begin to have an understanding of racial dynamics, you will be better equipped to direct your own re-education, and to have enough context to do things like look up answers to why a person of color told you that something you did or said was racist. This will be a lifelong process with a steep initial learning curve. Why not get started now, with everything shut down anyway?
Here is your initial homework to get you started:
Look up the racial demographics of your state, county, and city.
Find out which indigenous people lived in your area before colonization, and which do now.
Pick one of the racial groups you found above.
Look up “what is it like to be [x] in America” on the internet. Find something written on the subject by someone of that race, and read it.
Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you have an initial idea of the racial situation of your city.
Bonus: Repeat steps 3 and 4 for your the races in your whole county or state.
For those who prefer books, check your local library’s online catalog for downloadable e-books and audio books to maintain isolation to fight this global pandemic. A suggestion to get you started: “Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito,” by Brian D. Behnken and Gregory D. Smithers (part of the “Racism in American Institutions” series).
I live in a diverse community in the USA. Even people of similar demographics on paper often disagree with each other on fundamental aspects of how to do things that many people seem to believe “just go without saying.” One of the areas where I see a significant amount of disagreement is the topic of accountability.
Most of the people I know agree that our culture is broken and needs some fixing. Our problems include things like the ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples through violations of treaties and the kidnapping, murdering, and forced sterilization of their women; sexism driving down the wages of women, especially women who aren’t white; transphobia mixing with racism to create the current crisis situation for transgender women of color who are being murdered at an astonishing rate; and so on. Few people actually want any of this, even the subset of Republicans who are able to recognize that these things are happening. It’s how to stop it that we disagree about.
The kind of thinking that leads to genocide, hate-fueled murder, corrective rape, and so on typically comes from a place of deep-rooted misconceptions. Thus, many people approach the issue with education. By educating the masses as to the realities of people who don’t usually get the spotlight, the thought goes, we can prune away the underlying thinking that leads to such heinous acts. I am all for that, which is part of why I write this blog. I also don’t think education alone can solve this. So, what is another piece of the puzzle? In my opinion, compassionate accountability is one of the other required pieces. Combining education with fostering a culture of compassion rooted in accountability is vital for making the changes we need to make.
What does that look like?
Education only works as a strategy to improve our culture when we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the content of that education. In this sense, accountability ranges in scale from the self to international relations, and everything in between. It’s choosing to make a change in how you think after learning new information, and making amends for any harm you may have done while erroneously believing something different before. It’s a parent teaching a child how to respect others’ consent and how to express their boundaries with words. It’s men stopping each other from making jokes about rape and helping each other learn how to identify and express their emotions, needs, and boundaries. It’s a supervisor learning what a transgender employee’s pronouns are, and reinforcing their use with the rest of the team by using them in front of the employee’s coworkers (after checking to be sure that is what the transgender employee wants). It’s a college student talking to a professor after class to discuss the latent racism in the lecture slides to help the professor learn how to do better. It’s writing a petition or contacting key diplomats to get your state to outlaw the gay/trans panic defense. It’s the British employment tribunal refusing to allow Forstater to use the argument of “protected beliefs” to enable her harassment of transgender people. It’s Autumn Peltier becoming a water protector and addressing leaders all over the world (including the UN) to correct water pollution of many communities’ water. It’s Greta Thunberg telling the United Nations they need to stop talking about climate change and start taking action at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
If you watch the video above, you will hear Greta say, “…because if you really understood the situation, and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.” This, to me, is where compassion and accountability intersect on a fundamental level. There is compassion in the simple assumption that people want to be and think and act in better ways when their thoughts and actions are harmful to others, if only they knew how to be and do better. The act of holding someone or some group accountable is thus an act of compassion. The desire to do better by others and the action of making repairs when held accountable are also forms of compassion. Thus, when accountability is properly applied in good faith and responded to in kind, it becomes an act of compassion by and for all parties involved, even when it doesn’t feel very fun.
The ability of the offending party to recognize this compassion on the part of the person holding them accountable is often key to the success of accountability endeavors. Without that recognition, it is easy for people to shut down and tune out. It is my hope that this article will help people both learn to have that recognition, and build a toolkit to intentionally help others recognize it when holding others accountable. To that end, I have created the framework outlined below of a partial model of accountability styles.
What exactly accountability looks like can vary dramatically. And, like anything else that can be a positive tool, it can become a toxic influence if utilized in toxic ways. How we go about accountability matters, and this is another place where a lot of people seem to disagree about the best way forward. In response to this, I suggest that perhaps just like affection and apology languages, different people have different needs and expectations surrounding accountability and thus have different accountability languages. Understanding this can help us all retain the compassion that accountability requires in order to be a successful tool. So, let’s look at some of the different axes of accountability languages to see what happens when people with differing styles interact in order to help us surmount the tension it can cause and focus on positive growth.
Transparency: Public Vs. Private
Many acts of holding someone accountable happen on social media. From stormy comments sections to lengthy private message conversations, these things often lead to hurt feelings, blocking, and divided communities. One element of why involves a difference in preference for public versus private accountability. Let’s look at what happens when two people with differing styles in this respect find themselves in an accountability situation:
I was in a now-defunct Facebook group for a while which I will call “Punamory” for the sake of this article because everyone in it was polyamorous and very good at puns. Something happened where a white member with a public accountability style needed to be held accountable for an act of accidental racism. The moderator of color who handled it had a private accountability style. The moderator wished to be respectfully firm, and therefore messaged the offending party privately out of respect for the feelings of the white offending member and to prevent distraction from others getting involved. The offending member who received the message felt attacked and unsafe despite the respectful nature of the language used, because the conversation was held privately where no one else could witness it. This member responded by creating an accountability thread in the group to seek feedback from and offer apologies to the community with transparent accountability. The moderator who had messaged the offending member privately was taken aback by this, felt disrespected that the conversation was moved to a public setting, and expressed this in the comments. The member who made the accountability post then expressed that getting the message privately didn’t strike them as true accountability; to them, not having a public platform upon which to apologize for public wrong-doing did not allow them to make repairs and thus was not true accountability. Was one of them right and the other wrong? Perhaps that is the wrong question. This was a clash of two very different sets of expectations combined with a situation where neither individual worked towards understanding the other’s accountability style before taking offense and acting accordingly. In response, the admin team created a standard policy for how these things would be handled, that way everyone would know what to expect.
Some people prefer to be held accountable privately. Others publicly. Still others say that the situation matters. For example, for many people, leadership has no right to privacy in accountability due to values of transparency while other matters may be more private. The bottom line though, is to be aware that this is one axis along which people vary in accountability style.
In addition to simple personal preference, this axis can also be dramatically influenced by context surrounding various marginalized populations. For example, misgendering a transgender person is an act of verbal violence. Pulling someone aside to privately let them know that they need to use the right pronouns can be useful, but people tend to assume that if a trans person doesn’t speak up, they do not mind what was said about them. Thus, the transparency of public accountability can go a lot further towards protecting and supporting trans people than private accountability, so a transgender person with a private accountability style may switch to using public accountability under these circumstances.
Here is a handy chart you can use to help yourself understand your own style on this axis. If you are still new to self-analysis, you can use these like checkboxes. On each row, mark off whichever box best fits your style for that context. For more advanced players, you can up the game level by working to think of example situations until you can fill all 6 boxes with scenarios that meet your personal preferences. (For example, your first row might say something like, “when holding myself accountable I like to be public about it when it affects my whole community but private about it when it only affects one or two people.”) Finally, when you are done using this tool to consider yourself, try to think of why someone else might prefer the opposite of whatever you have checked off or written down to help develop your ability to recognize others’ accountability styles.
Approach: Call-In Vs. Call-Out
For the purposes of this article, “calling out” refers to pointing out that something was wrong and issuing a challenge to correct it, where “calling in” typically utilizes a greater investment of time and emotional labor and may include education about the given topic and/or emotional support of the person who did wrong. Some people use these words this way. Others use these words the way I have used “private vs public” above. It is important to note that these words are used differently in different communities! Next time the great debate of “call in vs call out” comes up, I recommend starting by asking which way others are using those words to ensure that you are having the same conversation as one another.
Anyway, let’s see what happens when people with differing accountability styles on this style axis find themselves in an accountability scenario:
A friend of mine has a call-out style, and is accustomed to just telling people what needs to change and expecting them to do it. My friend is also accustomed to and appreciative of people informing my friend of what needs to change, and then goes about correcting it whenever called out on something. An ex roommate of mine has a call-in style. This roommate is accustomed to spending time helping people understand why something needs to change, and prefers others to do the same.
Back when we were still living together, my friend tracked some dirt into our living room. My roommate went directly into call-in mode, starting with an explanation for why we don’t like dirty floors out of respect for my friend’s feelings. My friend became agitated and went directly into call-out mode. “If you were upset about the footprints, you should have just said so,” my friend said with a polite tone of voice. My roommate was taken aback by what appeared to my roommate to be sudden aggression in response to a respectful attitude. Both of them were doing what they considered to be polite, but neither one of them understood that. If I hadn’t stepped in, it would have rapidly devolved from there.
As with the above example about public versus private accountability styles, we see here in this example that the people involved jumped directly to taking offense without taking the time to notice or understand differences in accountability styles.
Also as above, this is another axis which can be influenced by the context of axes of power and oppression. Call-out accountability places the onus on the person who did wrong to take the time to understand why and come up with solutions. Call-in accountability shares that burden between both parties. Black Americans often spend a huge amount of energy every day navigating a society that is filled to the brim with racism. They vary dramatically between individuals on all axes of accountability styles, but it’s also very common for black people in the USA to simply be too exhausted to explain the same things yet again, especially when there are a plethora of black writers, bloggers, vloggers, and Tweeters who have filled libraries and the internet with all the explanations someone who isn’t black needs to self-educate. So, a black person who generally has a call-in accountability style may opt for a call-out method sometimes (or always) when it comes to racism, thereby shifting the burden of education to the offending party. This is also easier to do with racism against black Americans than other mistakes which harm other marginalized groups simply because there are so many black authors writing about race that it is typically easy to Google for answers and find accurate information.
Here is a fresh copy of the tool I provided above, relabeled for this axis. Use the same two-step process as above: First, use this to think about yourself. Then, use this as a guide to consider reasons why someone else might have an opposite stance from yours on how to handle these things even in the same context.
Tone: Niceness Vs Rawness
This axis has to do with tone of voice, wording, and so on. It’s the difference between speaking with a harsh tone or controlling one’s voice, the difference between carefully selecting wording for the sake of the other person’s feelings and letting your truth come into the light regardless of its ugliness. In that sense, this axis is actually a combination of a handful of communication styles bunched together for this article. Like the other axes, many people aren’t completely at one end or the other of this spectrum and some people find a balance between these aspects. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
Someone with a predominantly niceness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being kind” or “being polite,” and may refer to someone with a rawness tone style as “rude,” or “mean.” Someone with a predominantly rawness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being direct,” or “being honest,” and may refer to someone with a niceness style as “rude” or “manipulative” or “passive aggressive.” Both may even refer to their own styles as “wholesome” and become flabbergasted by the concept of that word referring to the other style on this axis.
Let’s see what happens when two people from different ends of this axis are in the same situation:
I once had a partner and a roommate who had trouble getting along because of this axis. My partner had a niceness style, while my roommate had a rawness style. My roommate was unhappy with the frequency of my partner staying over, and expressed to my partner that it was stressful to have my partner spend so much time at the house without paying for rent or utilities. My roomamte made no attempt to keep the frustration out of the tone of voice used in the conversation. My partner was not offended by my roommate’s boundaries, but by how they were expressed. “Wow. You don’t have to be mean about it,” my partner said. This, of course, confused my roommate who was operating under the assumption that people would like to know the in-depth truth of a situation when they are being asked to change what they are doing. “What did I say that was mean?” my roommate asked in honest confusion. This ticked off my partner more, because it was inconceivable to my partner that my roommate could possibly think that was a polite way to handle the conversation. I stepped in and clarified what was going on before it could escalate any farther. Over time, my partner became increasingly elaborate in attempts to become nicer and nicer to appease my roommate, who found this to be increasingly manipulative. “Why can’t your partner just be honest with me?” my roommate said to me once, within a week of my partner saying, “it doesn’t matter how nice I am, it’s never good enough for [your roommate]!” These are, as above, examples of people jumping to offense due to a failure to recognize much less reconcile differences of style and expectations. In this case, the second part is also an example of complimentary schismogenesis, a term first applied to interpersonal linguistics by Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tanen.
As with the other axes of accountability styles, the context of culture and axes of power can dramatically influence how someone decides to handle something in terms of niceness versus rawness. Deaf culture in the USA is a great example of a subculture that handles things very differently from mainstream culture. Where mainstream culture tends to prefer niceness, Deaf culture tends to prefer rawness. It is common to directly and bluntly refer to people’s body shapes and sizes in ASL (American Sign Language), where that would be considered rude by many English-speakers in the same country. Because directness permeates communication in Deaf culture, rawness can also dominate accountability styles.
The exhaustion I touched on before when discussing call-in versus call-out can also impacts this axis. When people who are marginalized become weary of educating so many people about their own existence so very frequently, they often switch to rawness even if niceness is their standard mode. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that someone finally feels safe enough to open up. Other times this is an attempt to be heard after feeling like no one is taking them seriously. Sometimes it is simply all a person can handle doing after running out of energy for niceness. After all, bridging communication gaps takes work, and a lot of people don’t even try to bridge the gap when talking with marginalized people. The constant expectation to meet the mainstream person on the mainstream person’s terms without any effort from that person to mutually aid in bridging the gap is harmful and exhausting. This is where the concept of tone policing comes in. If you aren’t familiar with it, definitely read the comic at the link.
Here is the same tool as above, relabeled for this topic. Use it the same way as before. First, either check off the boxes that apply to your style or strive to fill each box with a scenario where your style would fit. Then, go back through and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer something opposite.
Developing Compassionate Accountability
What exactly does compassionate accountability look like? Unfortunately, there is no blanket answer. No one way of doing accountability will always be right or wrong. To develop compassionate accountability in ourselves and our communities, it is necessary to learn what our own accountability style is so that we can communicate it to others. Learning to communicate about accountability styles also allows us to intentionally set up community-wide accountability norms so that everyone knows what to expect, thereby preventing miscommunication and unnecessary hurt feelings. In addition to learning to recognize and communicate our own personal accountability styles, it is equally necessary to learn to recognize others’ styles. This allows us to appreciate the compassion hidden within others’ personal accountability styles and work towards bridging miscommunication gaps in lieu of allowing those gaps to make already tense situations even worse.
Using the three axes described above to create an admittedly incomplete model of accountability styles, there are at least eight distinct styles. They are listed in this chart, which also has columns for each of the contexts used in earlier exercises. You can use this just like the previous ones. First, either check off boxes that match your style for each context or fill in as many boxes as you can with scenarios where you would utilize that style. Then, go back through everything that matches your style and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer to do it differently from you. Building compassionate accountability requires us to recognize others’ methods as valid. Use this tool to help you do that.
The pattern here of people taking offense without recognizing simple style differences is a fairly common feature of human miscommunication. It is not isolated to accountability styles. For further reading on that and related phenomenons, check your library for books about sociolinguistics.