Loretta J. Ross: What if we called people in, rather than calling them out? How can we have more productive conversations with people we vehemently disagree with? Civil rights activist Loretta J. Ross gives us the tools to call people in—instead of calling them out.

Loretta J. Ross: What if we called people in, rather than calling them out?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. So far, we have talked about why changing our minds isn't a sign of weakness, but a sign that we are growing and evolving. But convincing other people to change their minds? That's another matter. Our next guest says that we need to change how we interact rather than call people out or cancel them. In fact, she has a better phrase.

LORETTA ROSS: Well, I use a lot of one-liners, so I'm not quite sure which one you mean, but the title of my book is "Calling In The Calling Out Culture."

ZOMORODI: This is Loretta Ross. She's a longtime civil rights activist and organizer.

That's the one. So define it for us. What is call-in culture?

ROSS: Well, calling in is really a call-out done with love. So it's the same thing, but instead of using anger, blaming and shaming as your method of achieving accountability, you use love, grace and respect.

ZOMORODI: Which sounds so dramatically different than (laughter) the reactions we mostly see today, especially online.

ROSS: Well, let's keep in mind that the original definition of calling out was inviting someone to a duel. I mean, isn't that how Alexander Hamilton got killed?


ROSS: So it's not at all a new behavior. What is new is that you can summon a lynch mob with a tweet.


ROSS: Now, all of us know what calling out is - or cancel culture as it's called.

ZOMORODI: Here's Loretta Ross on the TED stage.


ROSS: You think somebody has done something wrong, you think they should be held accountable for it and you think they should be punished for it. So one of those calling out examples is, I can't believe you just said that. You're racist, sexist, toxic, manipulative. With this approach, you've guaranteed one thing. With this blaming and shaming, you just invited them to a fight, not a conversation, 'cause you're publicly humiliating them.

Now, some people actually think call-outs should be used to hold powerful people accountable, and there's a lot to that. I mean, that's what the human rights movement has always done. But most people are calling others out out of fear or they're feeling that they need to belong to something. And some people think that they'll feel better about themselves if they put somebody else down.

Most of us want all of this violence to stop, but we don't know where to begin. And most of us stay silent because we are afraid that we'll become the next target. So even if something feels unfair, we're silent.

I try to point out to people that if you use respect and radical empathy as a way of having people invited into a conversation instead of a fight, you're more likely to achieve your goal. Chances are they're going to give your words a fair hearing than if they feel they're automatically being attacked and have to go on the defensive. It's just logical for me.

ZOMORODI: You know, Loretta, you say it requires radical empathy, but in your talk, you hint that you didn't always think that way.

ROSS: Well, I'm not sure if I have any special empathy. Actually, I don't even like most people, so I don't think I'm naturally empathetic.


ROSS: It's a learned and acquired skill for me.


ZOMORODI: OK, so let's go back to that place where you first learned those skills. Tell me about it.

ROSS: The Center for Democratic Renewal started out in 1979 as the National Anti-Klan Network. And it was founded right after five anti-Klan protesters were killed in Greensboro, N.C., and two all-white juries acquitted the people who did the murders even though it was caught on videotape.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Six Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen are free this morning after an all-white jury in Greensboro, N.C., declared them innocent...

ROSS: And so my boss at the time, Reverend C.T. Vivian, said, we need an organization to monitor these hate groups to make sure that people don't keep getting off. And it was in that job that I started assisting in the deprogramming of people who had left hate groups.

ZOMORODI: And this wasn't just some wild experiment, this was something your boss, C.T. Vivian, deeply believed was possible and necessary.

ROSS: Well, Reverend Vivian had been an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, so he was always the font of a lot of wonderful lessons from the civil rights movement that I was too young to have participated in. And Reverend Vivian used to always say that if you ask people to give up hate, then you need to be there for them when they do.

And when he first told me those words, I basically muttered under my breath, 'cause you can't curse at a preacher. But I did not believe him. Because if the Klan was OK hating me, I was all right hating them back. I mean, that's the way the world worked, right? I don't even have enough energy, time or resources to help the victims of hate violence. Now you're help - you want me to help the perpetrators. Yeah (laughter). Disbelief was my dominant reaction. But he was right. And it changed not only my life, but hopefully we changed the lives of some of those people.

ZOMORODI: People like Floyd Cochran, who had been a spokesperson for Aryan Nations.

ROSS: He'd been a Nazi since he was 14 years old, and he was 35 by the time I met him. He didn't actually know being in conversation with Black people because he had not had that experience.

ZOMORODI: Another time, Loretta found herself teaching anti-racism classes to the wives and mothers of Klans members.

ROSS: Because their husbands were in the Klan, and they didn't want their children raised up in the hate environment. And I really admire their bravery. The fact that they disguised themselves as a quilting club so that they could talk about what was really going on in their lives told me a whole lot about what they had to deal with on a daily basis. And they were not expecting to be respected or listened to or helped. They were so used to using hatred as their currency that they weren't expecting not to get that in return.

And so I can see the transformations as they re-normalized themselves into society take place right before my eyes. And then I found that once I got to know them, I couldn't hate them anymore. I thought I was going to change them, and they ended up changing me even in more profound ways. And so I had to find another motivation, and that motivation became love and respect.

ZOMORODI: This ethos is what Loretta thinks is missing from how we interact with each other today. She says we need more calling in, less calling out.

ROSS: One of my students once said a callout is not an invitation for growth. It's the expectation that you've already grown. This is the culture we're trapped in now. On the other hand, there is calling in. So when you think somebody has done something wrong and you want to hold them accountable, you don't react with anger or hate. You just remain calm and look at them and say, that's an interesting viewpoint. Tell me more.

And if you use this call-in practice just like I'm teaching, what you'll do is several things. First of all, you'll lead with love instead of anger and allow somebody else to grow. Secondly, it'll affirm your own inner empathy and your compassion. And then the third thing is that you can call in your friends, your families, your neighbors, your co-workers, all the people you might have given up on in the past because of how they've hurt you.

ZOMORODI: So let's do a demonstration. Let's say there is - I mean, because I have tried calling in a particular relative, and I have to admit that I don't think that I've done very well.

ROSS: Well, first you said relative. So you know this person.

ZOMORODI: Yes. Yes, I do - won't engage, won't use the same kind of language of - you know, believes things are pretty black and white. They're right. Everyone else is wrong and - can't even have the kind of empathetic conversation that you're talking about. So how do you begin to call someone in when it feels like you live on different planets and don't even use the same vocabulary?

ROSS: Well, I find that it's very useful in those kinds of situations to go underneath their words and ask about their values. I believe that it's very possible to use these strategies. So I'm going to tell you about my Uncle Frank. In my TED Talk, I talk about my uncle Frank. He ain't really my uncle. But, you know, he's still living, so I can't call him out. This person in my life seeks attention by saying the most outrageous things about somebody who's not present. He came to a family reunion and decided to talk about Mexican Americans stealing jobs, and most people buried their faces in their plate. This was Uncle Frank. This is what he does. But I decided to respond but not with anger. I kind of organized a few comments and asked him a question.

Uncle Frank, I know you. I love you. I respect you. And what I know about you is that you'd run into a burning building and save somebody if you could. And you wouldn't care what race that person is. You wouldn't care whether they were gay or an immigrant. So tell me; how can I reconcile that good Uncle Frank I know you are with the words that just came out of your mouth?

You haven't called him in. You haven't called him out. You called on him to decide how he's going to be. And with this approach, he's less likely to become defensive because you haven't actually attacked him. And while he's organizing what to say, you've affirmed that he has options about how he wants to be, especially in his niece's eyes and his family's eyes. But most importantly, the third thing you've achieved is that you did not let his bigotry go unchallenged.

ZOMORODI: Loretta, I got to say that kind of response is admirable. It's also really gutsy because asking those kind of calm, collected questions at a family reunion - like, that can be super-uncomfortable.

ROSS: If you're not in an emotionally healed enough space to put your visceral reaction to their words in your parking lot and then get back to focusing on them, then you're not in a good enough place to do that calling in 'cause you're just constantly going to be reacting to their comebacks, to their retorts. And so it's not obligatory that you try to call people in, but it's a choice that you get to make. You have no obligation to engage with another human being who's incapable of showing any empathy for anybody else. I'm going to call this off either permanently 'cause I don't ever want to talk to you again in life or temporarily to where the temperature has gone down, and we're less heated, and we can have this conversation more civilly over coffee or something.

ZOMORODI: I love it.

ROSS: And so I just want to show people that you have a range of options. Don't be trapped by patterns that you have a choice whether to continue or not.

ZOMORODI: So here's what worries me, Loretta - and I saw this a little bit at the TED conference. And there were a lot of older white men in the audience - people who maybe before the last couple years had never been criticized or called out. And when they heard your message, I think they really liked it. They were like, yes, this is what we should be doing. You should - we should not be calling people out, starting fights, criticizing us, those of us in power. You should be calling us in. And I think that, in some ways, it gives them a pass - that they think, great. See? This Black woman is telling us that it's OK for us to be angry or frustrated with this callout culture. But in some ways, no. I think, for the first time, a lot of people in power are being held accountable. So how do you explain to some of those people that, you know, this is not giving them a pass, right?

ROSS: Well, no, I'm never going to give a jerk a pass to be a jerk. I mean, that's not this purpose. And if you think that's what it's about, then you're totally misinterpreting what I'm saying. I'm saying that even people in power are human beings, and you're more likely to get what you want out of them if you treat them as a human being and not as a representative of an authority that you have problems with. Now, people should be held accountable when they abuse their power, when they don't be responsible to their obligations and they don't respect the humanity of other people. Yes, there are methods for achieving that accountability. But if you project on them your fear of power, your fear of authority, your fear of their identity and you dehumanize them, you've totally decreased their chances that they're going to want to hear a damn thing that you say because people can smell disrespect. You don't actually have to say it. The fact that you don't see them as a human being comes through. And certainly, as a victim of anti-Black racism, I can smell disrespect. You don't have to be in a Klan robe. I can smell it.

ZOMORODI: I think, to some people, this idea of calling in might seem trivial, maybe - maybe inconsequential. But to you, it's a culmination of all the work that you have done over the last few decades.

ROSS: Oh, there's a direct throughline between my entire social justice career to where I've arrived at. How we do the work is as important as the work that we do. And I am truly concerned that if we don't learn to work better together, we will be overwhelmed by the tsunami of hate that people are profiting off of, whether they're running for political office or just laughing all the way to the bank. We have a chance to stop this very ugly turn towards humanity worldwide. But we have to recognize the nature of the threat and our capacity for doing something different. We don't just have to write ourselves as victims of this narrative when, in fact, we have a considerable power if we point it all in the same direction 'cause, as I said, if a Black woman can't hate the Klan, then everybody else is just a problematic ally. So (laughter) - and so it's my privilege to figure out a strategy for working with everybody who means well.


ZOMORODI: Loretta Ross is an organizer and activist for reproductive and civil rights. She's also a visiting associate professor at Smith College. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

Thank you so much for listening to our show today - changing our minds. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. This episode was produced by Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier and James Delahoussaye. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Rachel Faulkner. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Diba Mohtasham, Katie Monteleone and Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our audio engineer is Brian Jarboe. Our intern is Katherine Sypher. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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