The hidden cost of call-out culture is bigotry

How does your body respond to the following statement?

Call-out culture enables bigotry. And healing it within our relationships is one of the first responsibilities we have as radical/progressive/liberal people.

One of the problems with how we talk about call-out culture is that we tend to treat it as an internal dialogue within activist communities about how to deal with conflict and abuse. What is usually missing in these conversations is a sincere inquiry into how call-out culture impacts our relationships with people who are peripheral to our communities.

Underlying this issue is our general tendency to conceive activism as a mental exercise of ‘changing people’s minds’, as opposed to a relational process of growing our radical/progressive/liberal community.

To explore this subject further, I want us to take a bit of time to feel into the first-hand stories of former white supremacists. These are people whose journeys into political movement started very far away from anything close to radical/progressive/liberal, but are now part of our community. I believe that taking in the medicine of their journeys can shed light on how change actually happens and what we can do about it.

And indeed, when you spend a bit of time perusing the confessionals of former white supremacists, something fascinating becomes apparent: just like us, white supremacists burn out from their political activity.

Take, for example, this recent piece that describes the transformational process of ex-Klansmen Shane Johnson.

Next to him in the cell, one of his friends just shrugged about the prospect of prison. “So, you think we’re going to join the Aryan Brotherhood when we get in there?” he asked. Johnson thought to himself, “What the fuck am I doing with my fucking life? How are we the supreme race? We’re fucking idiots.”

He suddenly realized he wanted to escape the Klan. But how? He was 22 years old, had no skills and no job, had $100 to his name, and was covered in white supremacist tattoos, and his criminal record was about to get longer. He’d hardly read any books except the Bible and the Kloran, the KKK’s secret handbook. He’d spent nearly every hour of his life dedicated to a vision of white supremacy that he wasn’t sure was so superior anymore. Besides Gregoire, he had virtually no friends outside the movement. If he turned his back on his family and crew, they might try to kill him.

Or this personal account by former high-ranking Klansmen Scott Shepherd.

Yet Shepherd’s meteoric personal rise had brought problems. He had married and divorced twice; he says both marriages failed because of all the negative publicity he was getting, while his children had become estranged. Furthermore, as a “face” of the KKK, Shepherd had attracted the attention of the FBI, who had visited him at work and questioned him about a string of mail bomb attacks, which had killed a federal judge and civil rights lawyer.

The turning point eventually came when Shepherd visited a restaurant in Nashville in 1990. “I had a few drinks, then I left. I got down the road, looked in my rearview mirror and saw lots of blue lights. I failed a sobriety test and they found a pistol,” he says.

Or this confession by Angela King, co-founder of Life after Hate.

She tried to exit the scene, ignoring calls from group members while on house arrest. But they would not let her go quietly — they shared her home address with other extremists, then showed up 30-strong to shoot live ammunition at her house. She also received thinly veiled threats of harm to her younger siblings. “I started answering the phone again,” she says.

But her decision to return was about more than fear, King admits. “I was really attached to belonging somewhere.” However, being welcomed back came with strings. “I had to re-prove myself by being a better racist, by recruiting more, by being more violent.

The pattern is very clear.

Regardless of ideology, politicized people without commitment and/or access to self-care and community-care almost always face break down. Their nervous systems become fried from constant emotional stimulation. Their closest relationships fail as their bodies lose the capacity to keep up. It doesn’t matter if you’re a left-wing activist or a white supremacist.

On that note, do you remember the viral video of white supremacist Christopher Cantwell breaking down on camera?

Underneath the rigid exterior of bigotry is fragile hyper-vigilance.

There’s a LOT of possibility in understanding this.

The moment of burn-out is when the body is ready for change. It’s saying NO to the current conditions and screaming for something to give. Anguish usually ensues, as the mind, still clinging on to dogma and ego, fights against accepting what the body really knows: the movement has failed the body’s sense of safety.

These bodies need somewhere safe to go.

In fact, they always did, even before they chose the camaraderie of organized bigotry. When you take in the stories of former white supremacists and how they became involved in their movements, there is a consistent narrative of bullying, abuse, and a desperate lack of belonging.

This begs us to ask some serious questions of ourselves:

How did people who are involved with organized bigotry come to choose communities of bigotry over liberation, to soothe their emptiness?

When we look at ourselves in the mirror can we say that within our community, there is safer space for all bodies, including the bodies of people we read as cis/white/hetero/able/masculine?

In answering these questions for myself, I realized that, as a somatic therapist, I cannot in any good conscience demand someone with deep histories of abuse to participate in a community that will likely be extremely triggering and re-traumatizing to them. This isn’t a matter of enabling or coddling abusers. This is a matter of integrity.

Herein lies the key to understanding the larger stakes of call-out culture and the toxicity it creates.

On the surface, the cultural ailments we see around us, such as the surge of white supremacist and men’s rights activist groups, look like a surplus of organized bigotry. But as a therapist who works with trauma, what I see is actually a lack of healthier trauma-resilient safer spaces in our culture, including within our very own radical/progressive/liberal communities.

To heal bigotry, it is critical that all bodies, including privileged bodies, are given access and information about spaces that can hold them in a spirit of unconditional positive regard.

If you take a look, in every above-mentioned account from former white supremacists, Shane, Scott, and Angela, there is a turning point in their story, a moment where they are shown unconditional positive regard from someone, whether it was a fellow inmate or intimate partner. What really helped them uproot deep-seated bigotry were embodied relational experiences, not tireless amounts of (mental) education, even if it may have been supportive.

Of course, this brings us to questions around how do we create healing spaces for ourselves when we have been abused, especially by those who were wielding their privilege in doing so? Healing call-out culture must be compatible with this need.

And I believe it is.

To understand how, we need to fully buy-in to the idea that healing bigotry comes from intentionally growing our communities as safer-braver spaces, as opposed to forcefully changing people’s minds or hearts. I believe such a relationship-based process necessarily includes authentic confrontation, which comes from a place of wanting to be seen and acknowledged, rather than cruelty and vengeance, just as much as unconditional positive regard.


Are you a therapist, facilitator, organizer or healer called to a deeper exploration of subjects discussed in this post?

I provide coaching and consulting services for individual practitioners, enterprises, and organizations that are committed to intersectional cultural healing. You can find more information here.