When you're the one being called out

Oh, the irony. The very day I hit Send on my last newsletter, the one about not calling out my neighbor on a comment he made that needed to be called out — I got called out on something.

It happened in one of the online writing communities I am in, via direct message from a community moderator.

First she told me she’d deleted two of my recent comments because they didn’t keep to community guidelines, and then she addressed the specifics of why they were problematic, pointing out that one of my comments in particular seemed dismissive of the need to address topics of anti-racism and asked whether that was my intention.

Naturally I instantly recognized what I had done and immediately thanked her for bringing the transgressions to my attention.

Hahahahaha. Actually that is not what happened.

First I was taken aback. Of course that wasn’t my intention.

Then I got very hurt feelings. How could she even think that?

Then I got angry. WTF??!

Then I got indignant. Really? She’s calling ME out?? I’M ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS!!

My mind immediately went to all the ways I have been trying to be a good literary citizen and all the ways I have been educating myself and trying to be anti-racist when I show up in my different communities. I won’t lie, there were some very uncharitable thoughts going through my head as I fumed about the unfairness of it.

But at the same time, there was a tiny thread of, well, you know, she’s kind of right.

Not to be outdone, my defensive side came back with yeah, okay, but she could have said it a little nicer, maybe cushioned it with some acknowledgment of all the stuff I’m actually doing right. I only said two little things! Couldn’t she have cut me some slack?1

And then, without giving myself any time to process all these feelings, I drafted a return message.

I know, not the smartest thing I could have done. I did the classic thing of trying to justify myself and in the process just made it worse. I did manage to let my better instincts allow that I saw how what I said could have been interpreted and to acknowledge that it probably was best that she pointed these things out to me earlier rather than waiting for me to put my foot in it even more. But I wasn’t able to finish without pointing out how much effort I had been putting into participating lately (and aren’t I a good person really after all?)

My message wasn’t a complete disaster. But it definitely wasn’t great. I’d give myself a B- or maybe a C. Mercifully she responded with only a brief, “Thanks,” refusing to take the bait of my desire to be validated.

I tell you this story, dear reader, not so much as a cautionary tale in what not to do but because it led me to another place I hadn’t been expecting — empathy for the person doing the calling out.

Because once I did allow myself some cooling-off time, my feelers were out for material about getting difficult feedback, and I ran across a two-part Brené Brown Dare to Lead podcast on The Hardest Feedback I’ve Ever Received. And there, in the middle of Part 2, when Brené and her sister/business partner Barrett Guillen were discussing the Daring Greatly Engaged Feedback Checklist item No. 6 — I can hold you accountable without shaming or blaming you — Brené said, “The world sucks at this.”

My ears perked up.

She went on to describe how so often in our society when someone needs to be held accountable, the people responsible for giving feedback go immediately to shame and blame instead, resorting to talking about them instead of giving them honest feedback face-to-face, or procrastinating so long that the behavior just gets worse.

We don’t follow through on accountability because holding people accountable is really vulnerable. It takes a long time and it’s a lot of work to say, ‘This is not okay, and this is the consequence of that.’ It’s almost like our own own discomfort gets in the way of letting people experience the consequences of their own choices and behavior … It’s our own fear, our own unwillingness to choose courage over comfort that keeps us from keeping people accountable.

She then went on to describe a story of a school principal who had a problem with a teacher who was on their phone all the time, but instead of holding that teacher accountable the principal would badmouth her in the faculty lounge behind her back. “But you’re this person’s boss,” Brené said. “I don’t get it.”

That’s when I began to have some empathy for the moderator, someone I have interacted with in this community for almost two years now. I imagined how uncomfortable it likely made her feel to be the one to have to hold me accountable, and the bravery required to follow through and do it without shaming or blaming. It is really vulnerable to be in that position, especially considering the likelihood of backlash.

Why do I keep harping on this theme of judging/calling out/calling in and accountability? I realize this is the third newsletter I’ve written dealing with variations on this topic. I promise this is not the only thing we’re going to discuss on Be Your Own Hero, but holding people accountable seems like a major focus in society lately. While I had my feelers out I ran across an Instagram video by Black feminist Sonya Renee Taylor on Dave Chappelle,

currently the subject of controversy surrounding his latest Netflix special because he continues to punch down by trotting out the same harmful anti-trans material over and over again. She says:

We are coming to a time where we have to be willing to be stand in the difficult and uncomfortable place that accountability requires us to stand. Sometimes that requires us to say ‘No, I can’t kick it with you because you continue to be harmful. …  That doesn’t mean that I think you are irredeemable. It means until you are willing to come into account for your behavior, we can’t be in this kind of relationship.’ … That’s uncomfortable for folks, and that’s why we don’t want to do it.

The full video is worth watching.

So the next time you get called out on something—and I hope you do, because it probably means you’re trying — take a minute to shift your focus into empathy with the person giving you feedback, noting the bravery it took for them to say something to you. Then sleep on it before responding. Hopefully you’ll do better than my B-.

What I’m reading

I recently finished Gina Frangello’s searing memoir Blow Your House Down, and I almost don’t know what to say about it because there is so much to say. It is an example of the kind of unflinching self-reflection that is memoir at its best, for one. In writing this book—nominally about the implosion of her marriage, set in the context of a feminist examination of the place of women in contemporary society — Frangello never lets herself off the hook.

I only know that when you have been lying long enough, you start to forget that the purpose of relationships is not to spoon-feed other people what you think they want or need to hear.

The effect is bracing, and riveting in its honesty. The book also deftly weaves in major themes of death, loss, and illness, the author refusing to partition her life into neat categories for the sake of a single narrative arc. With another writer this might have felt overwhelming, but in Frangello’s hands it feels like just the way life happens.

The book is also a master class on writing craft as she plays with point of view, tense, form, and structure in a way that made me feel like an active participant, thinking about why she made the craft decisions she did and what effect they had on my reading of this story. I can’t recommend it enough.

Two new Bookshop lists!

As I mentioned last newsletter, I now have a Bookshop site with a list of all the books I’ve recommended here on Be Your Own Hero. But in addition, this month I’ve added two new lists I’m very excited about: LGBTQ+ Memoirs, and Books for Writers of Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.

If your favorite part of going to an indie bookstore is seeing the shelves with the little handwritten bookseller recommendations, you will love these lists, as each book comes with my personal take on why I’m recommending it. And from now until the end of 2021, any earnings from my shop will be donated to the International Women’s Media Foundation Emergency Fund for Female Journalists.

In addition, Bookshop has just launched an initiative partnering with We Need Diverse Books where you can donate a copy of The 1619 Project to schools and organizations across the country.

So there you have it, my friends. I hope this issue of Be Your Own Hero gave you something to think about. Have you been on the receiving end of some difficult feedback? How did you handle it? Would you do anything different looking back on it? I’d love to hear from you — drop a comment below. All respectful discussion is welcome.

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My indignance, defensiveness, desire to be validated as a good person, and thinking the person giving me feedback owed me a gentler delivery are classic signs of what I now recognize as White fragility. In this case the person giving me the feedback was not a person of color, but as moderator she was in the position of advocating for people of color in the community so it amounts to the same thing. Although it’s become popular in some circles to trash Robin DiAngelo’s book on White fragility, I’ve learned a lot from it and continue to recommend it.