For better or worse (worse, in the case of a certain former president), social media has made it easier than ever for us to voice our opinions — and for others to respond to them. It can empower marginalized people by allowing us to publicly, directly call people out for their problematic posts. On the other hand, while it’s never okay to post racist, transphobic, ableist, or other oppressive content, regardless of the intent, it does suck to get called out on social media — a reality we’re all susceptible to.
That's because all of us, even those of us who have marginalized identities, can fall prey to implicit bias — implicit associations that might not square with our stated views (like equating "American" with "white" and "Black" with "danger"). These biases come from the beliefs we inevitably absorb from a society that privileges only certain identities, including whiteness, cis-ness, straightness, and able-bodiedness. And since we can never truly understand what it feels like to occupy identities other than our own, we also have blind spots that make it easy for us to say something that oppresses people whose identities we don't share, without realizing it.
So how do you deal when you get called out on social media? And how do you respond so that you actually repair any harm you might’ve inflicted, rather than worsen it?
Estepha Francisque — an Oakland-based therapist — shared a thought process you can use to help you sit with the difficult feelings that a callout might trigger and then decide how to respond. Again, no matter how socially conscious you consider yourself to be, you still might find yourself saying something that inadvertently oppresses another group. Here's how to react in a fair yet sensitive way.
First, let’s unpack some of the emotions you might experience when you get called out. “In social media, there’s often a lot of ego involved,” Francisque tells Mic. “When we get called out, the image of what we believe ourselves to be, the image that we portray to others —that is what’s coming under attack, and we take that extremely personally.” You might feel guilty about violating your internal code, and shame over the possibility of others rejecting, repudiating, or cancelling you.
Yielding to that knee-jerk impulse to defend yourself or restate what you posted — for example, by saying you didn’t mean it the way the person who called you out interpreted it — does more harm than good. Basically, “you’re ignoring the hurt the person felt,” Francisque explains.
Instead, try to sit with those uncomfortable emotions, he says. Identify and accept them. I can personally attest that resting them only bites you in the ass in the long run. The more your try to avoid a thought, the more your mind gravitates to it.
Once you’ve identified and accepted your emotions, “the next thing you want to do is think, ‘What do I want next in my relationship with this person who called me out?’” Francisque suggests. Consider your goals for the conversation. He has his clients set one of three goals: assert yourself, strengthen your relationship with the other person, or emerge with your dignity, even if you have to leave the relationship, or don’t get what you need or want from it.
If you’ve done the work to be balanced and inoffensive, or your post meets an important need that takes priority regardless of the callout, you might want to assert yourself, that is, stand by your post. You could DM the person who called you out with something along the lines of “I appreciate your perspective, and I’ll keep it in consideration, but I stand by what I said.” On the other hand, if you want to maintain and strengthen your relationship with them, maybe send a DM like, “I really want to hear more about what you feel and where you’re coming from.”
If you simply want to come out of the conversation with dignity, and you don’t want or need a relationship with that person, you can delete your post or respectfully disagree with them, Francisque says. If it’s an unhealthy situation, you may need to block them. Whatever you choose to do, it’s important to think relationally, rather than just about the situation itself.
But how do you know whether to stand by your post or reconsider it? Reflecting on your privilege relative to the someone calling you out can help. Say you have a marginalized identity, and you’re getting called out in a way that’s oppressive and upholding existing power structures that further marginalize you. “Then chances are, it may actually be traumatic for you to back down,” Francisque says. But if the person calling you it has a less privileged identity than you do, “you may want to actually consider the callout even more strongly.”
If the person calling you is probably warranted in doing so, really try to listen to the hurt they express, Francisque says. Maybe even do your own research to deepen your understanding of this hurt, so that the other person doesn’t have to engage in unfair emotional labor. Check in with them about whether you’ve reached an appropriate conclusion of the problem with your post. You can say something like, "Upon researching, I learned that it can be offensive to say XYZ, or say it this way; is this what was wrong with what I posted? I really want to understand better to avoid hurting anyone further in the future."
You might even want to post an apology if the person who called you out expresses a lot of hurt. To ensure you take responsibility for your actions and avoid inflicting even more harm by veering into “sorry you felt that way” territory, admit that you did a hurtful thing, it did harm, and that you regret doing it and the harm it caused, Francisque says. Don’t defend or explain yourself. “I think it’s important in apologies to have a commitment to improvement, a commitment to learning, maybe an acknowledgement of some gaps in knowledge,” he adds.
That said, there are no guarantees the hurt party will accept your apology, he says. Try your best, but allow them to respond as they see fit. If they reject your apology, acknowledge their feelings and give them space. They might even accept it later or want to talk further later.
As shitty as it feels to get called out, you can also look at it as an opportunity — an opportunity for reflection on the ways you’ve been insensitive or blind to the privileges you hold, and even for healing and closeness. “That can help us grow as people, if we respond in a really mature way,” Francisque says. “That can actually engender a lot more respect.”