1-2-3 Chick-A-Dees!” JD Hancock

Editor’s Note: Over the past few days, we have been watching the Twitter war play out between Alyssa Milano and those who felt she took liberties as an ally in a tweet. Amid all that, Elena Perez of United Healthcare Workers West offered this wisdom-gathering guide to receiving redirection. This resource should be widely shared so defensive “noise” does not drown out learning or impede progress.

When someone in our community is called out (or in), I feel like I often hear folks saying they don’t know how to respond in a way that won’t be seen as problematic, or they don’t know what they’re being asked for in that moment.

At the end, I’ve collected a series of links for more reading on that, but I’m going to summarize some of the common points here. This is not comprehensive, and others may have more to add. This is just my attempt to get this conversation started from a positive “what to do” lens.

1. Be still for a moment. 

Try not to be immediately reactive or defensive, even if you feel there are points that need to be known to put your actions in context. Trust that there will be plenty of time for you to make those points later if you still feel you need to. If you don’t just want to be silent, consider saying something that shows you are listening, like, “I’m going to take some time to sit with this.”

2. Accept what you are being told.

Set aside your own understandings of your motivations and intentions and take in what you are being told about the impact of your actions/words/etc. Take some time to truly think about those impacts as valid and real, whether you understood or intended them or not. Have a conversation with yourself that starts with, “Whether I meant to or not, I hurt [impacted person/group] by [thing that’s being raised as problematic].” Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling about that, but do not try to negate the statement that your action had a specific impact. And don’t put your emotional processing out on the larger community to support and affirm. Wait to speak until you can truly accept that you did a thing that had a negative impact on others, and that your intentions are not relevant to that.

3. Apologize sincerely, without conditions.

Say that you are sorry for the impact of your actions. Not, “I’m sorry if you felt,” and not, “I’m sorry, but…” Just, “I’m sorry that when I did X it caused Y.” Make sure that when you talk about the impact of your actions, you are framing it the way it was presented by the impacted person/group and not attempting to diminish the impact.

4. Acknowledge the framework that allowed you to make that misstep.

This does not mean making excuses, it means taking responsibility. Example: “As a white person with educational privilege, I didn’t realize how calling out grammatical errors instead of focusing on the argument can be classist and racist. That’s on me.”

5. Commit to do better and have an actual plan to make that possible.

Have you been doing reading and research on the issue since you were called out? Do you have resources to go to when you have a question? Are there people who have offered to help you understand the issue better? Figure out how you are going to take concrete action to keep yourself from making the same (or related) missteps in the future and then say that you are doing so.

6. Say thank you.

Thank the person/people who called you out/in, and do so sincerely. Regardless of their tone in the moment, they were showing you a problem that you didn’t know about so that you could fix it. That deserves thanks. If people have provided emotional labor for you in the process, try to acknowledge that and thank them by name.

7. Ask if there are specific additional actions you should take.

Depending on your action and its impacts, there might be additional things you should do to help mitigate any harm caused. Ask sincerely and listen openly to any suggestions you might get. If you’re asked for something that you don’t feel able to do, see if you can get clarity around the reason for asking for that specific action. You may be able to offer an alternate action that achieves the same goal.

I know it sometimes helps to have a concrete example. Here’s how these steps might look in practice:

I’m really sorry that my use of the term “wheelchair-bound” in our last newsletter caused unnecessary pain to our disabled members, who naturally see their chairs as a source of freedom in their lives. I honestly hadn’t done a lot of reading on disability rights, I’ve been privileged that I haven’t needed to, so I didn’t realize that term was problematic.

I’ve been learning a lot now on disability rights and language use, and I want to commit to you all going forward that I will seek to avoid ableist language in both personal and professional settings. To help ensure that, we have offered one of our regular proofreaders, who is disabled, an additional monthly stipend to help us catch problematic language before it goes to publication. We have also issued a correction to that newsletter to our full mailing list with an acknowledgement of the harmfulness of that phrase.

I want to thank our friends and members from the disability rights community who raised this issue and gave me a chance to do better both for myself and our organization. Special thanks to Cristina and Erik, who provided me with resources that helped me understand the harm I had caused.

Please know that I and the entire organization are always open to opportunities to reflect and support our community better. Let me know if there is anything else I can do to help us all heal and move forward together.

Further reading: