Call-outs vs. Accountability

Illustration by Sarah Butler
Illustration by Sarah Butler

You are at a local event that is phenomenal in many ways but vastly problematic in others, what are you to do? Do you shut down the event and point out the issues? Do you wait until you’re home to write a lengthy social media post?

While each method has its pros and cons, both are forms of participating in what is referred to as “call-out culture.”

Call-out culture is the practice of publicly naming instances or patterns of oppressive behavior and language. Individuals can be called out for actions or statements that are sexist, racist, ableist and so on.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s campus is relatively progressive in terms of activism, consciousness, and contemporary social issues; therefore, these call-outs occur rather frequently.

Illustration by Sarah Butler
Illustration by Sarah Butler

Despite the typically positive nature of call-out culture, the excessive usage of the call-out technique can lead to redundancy and a lack of effectivity. What is a community to do when call outs themselves become reductive and cease to serve their purpose?

“Call-out culture is a really messy topic,” said Zaira Qureshi, a recent VCU graduate and social activist in Richmond. “The politics are rooted is disposability, meaning once someone is called out they are to be socially banished.”

Disposability politics are sometimes practiced in call-out culture, but many individuals agree with Qureshi on the subject. Call-out culture cannot be effective if those being targeted are not properly reigned in.

“Call-outs only work if you believe the person being called-out can change,” states Maheen Shahid, president of VCU’s Feminist Student Organization. “You have to ask yourself why you are calling the individual in question out: Are they dangerous?”

Shahid said what individuals consider to be threatening is subjective, stating that “people have different definitions of dangers.” The subjectivity and varying degrees of danger create issues when identifying the intentions behind call-outs.

Delving deeper into the nature and functions of call-out culture, it becomes apparent that it is a well-layered issue with a myriad of grey areas. What happens when the focus of call-outs shifts from accountability to petulance? Many of the issues surrounding call-out culture stem from this shift in focus and the fine line between the two.

A large majority of the call-outs which happen on social media have becomes less about protecting communities and more about a competition of who can get the most “likes.”

“If the call-outs are ones about ego, then communally it should be easy to assess and figure out; when that happens, however, it almost always takes away from the actual function of a call-out,” Qureshi said.

Call-outs aren’t going anywhere soon, especially given the nature of social networks, but that is not to say that at times they don’t serve their purpose.

It is important to remind ourselves that call-outs are intended to cease oppressive behavior and language. Refocusing on the purpose of call-outs will serve as a catalyst for the changes in behavior and in community dynamics needed to restore call-outs to their original intent.

Activists like Shahid and Qureshi propose that call-outs and accountability don’t necessarily have to be separate, but rather intertwine and work together to build healthier communities.

“There are times and places for both and the community needs to and is in the process of coming together and figuring out what that looks like,” Qureshi added.

Unity between accountability and call-outs is imperative for call-out culture to remain an effective tool for social progression. Call-outs that banish individuals do not offer the targeted individual an opportunity to improve.

Call-out culture should aim to make communities better, not smaller.


Shaun Jackson. Photo by Sarah KingShaun Jackson
Shaun is a senior studying psychology. He is a fashion columnist for INK Magazine and radio host for WVCW 102.9. Shaun is really silly and loves to read good books and bad people. He’s always “fashionably” late to the after-work hang-out sessions, but always shows up with the latest tea. Shaun is passionate about feminist hip-hop, pop culture and being the center of attention. His spirit animals are Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn from the DC Comics. You can usually find Shaun playing video games at the front desk of the SMC or next at Velocity Comics.

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