Responding to being called out

We’ve heard from communicators that one major barrier to engaging with EDI work is the fear of making mistakes or being called out.

This is an understandable fear, especially for those who understand the importance of EDI work. However, we encourage you not to let a fear of making mistakes stop you from engaging in this work, or from taking the steps necessary to learn how you can do better, if and when you do make a mistake.

Below is some useful information that can help guide your response to being called out.

Avoid knee-jerk reactions

Being called out may make you feel defensive, angry or attacked. This is a normal reaction, but not necessarily something you should act on. Take a deep breath and assess the situation before responding. 

If the callout was through a written form of communication, like social media or email, consider taking some time away from the situation to let your emotions settle, accessing resources like our social media decision tree, and/or doing research to understand the perspective of the other person.

If the callout is in person and the other person seems willing to engage, you could use language like: “I understand now that this remark was racist. I apologize for any harm this may have caused. I will take steps to educate myself further on the topic to reduce the risk of repeating this situation. If you have any resources that could support this learning it would be greatly appreciated, but not obligatory, since I will be doing my own research.”

Separate impact from intent

While we may not intend to create problematic content or cause harm, we operate under intersecting, oppressive systems—from colonialism and racism to ableism, sexism and beyond—and often perpetuate those systems through our words, actions and work.

Your intent may not have been to be racist or sexist, for example, but the impact of what you’ve communicated could well be. 

Ultimately, being called out is not about your feelings of guilt, but about the feelings and needs of those affected. Apologizing and acknowledging the impact of your actions to those affected is an important part of the learning and healing process.

Take accountability and make a plan for change

When you are called out, your first instinct may be to provide context or justification to minimize the impact of your actions. Resist this urge, which will only cause further harm. Instead, take ownership of your mistakes, and make a plan for change. Depending on the situation, you may want to communicate that plan with the people or groups affected by your actions.

Divest from forgiveness

As you move forward, enact your plan for change and separate out your actions from any attempts to appease feelings of guilt by seeking forgiveness from those affected. Understand that forgiveness is not the target of this work. Instead, aim to learn from your mistakes and do better in the future, regardless of whether you’re forgiven or not.

Resources for a deeper dive