Using Moral Courage to Call In: A United Against Racism 2024 Excerpt  

Aaron Halls
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As part of YW Boston’s Courageous DEI Campaign, we have been exploring the concept of Moral Courage. In her book, “Everyday Courage for School Leaders” author Cathy Lassiter defines Moral Courage as “Speaking up or acting when injustices occur, human rights are violated, or when persons are treated unfairly.” With diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts facing increased scrutiny and backlash, acting with Moral Courage can be nerve-racking but is essential in challenging racism and inequity.  

One of the ways we can act in Moral Courage is through a process called calling in. It is one of the aspects of Moral Courage that YW Boston covers in our 2024 United Against Racism campaign where we focus on three additional types of courage to approach DEI work (Sign up here). A call-in is different than a call-out, where one puts a spotlight on the harmful actions or words used by a person. Rather, a call-out is an action based on relationship building and empathy.  

To help you understand the difference between calling in and calling out, understand how it relates to moral courage, and to give you advice for how to practice it, we’re sharing an excerpt from our 2024 United Against Racism curriculum: 

Challenging systemic racism sometimes requires us to focus on the interpersonal level. When we need to confront, challenge, or persuade one another directly in order to prevent further harm, we call someone out to let them know that their words or actions are unacceptable.   

How best to do this depends on the identities and relationships of the people involved. Those who are targets of micro- or macroaggressions may be in the most direct position to engage—but they also carry the extra emotional burden of being targeted. This adds two costs to responding. First, the intense emotion that fuels that person’s feedback may trigger defensiveness or even retaliation, making it less effective or safe. Second, summoning the energy to argue, explain, or educate someone on the harm they have done while you are still experiencing the harm itself takes a further toll.  

On the other hand, the inverse is true for bystanders, especially those who belong to privileged groups. A white observer of a racial microaggression may hesitate to insert themselves because of social pressure to stay quiet—to not “rock the boat.” Yet, for the very reason that they were not directly attacked themselves, they may have access to more emotional resources. Ironically, due to pervasive bias associating whiteness with expertise, their feedback may even be seen as more “objective” or credible.  

Because of this complexity, we should take our own identities and positionality into account when challenging people, particularly those with power, about something they have said or done. The guiding principle for someone on the receiving end of a racist interaction should be self-care. For one person, the courageous action might be to defend their dignity and call a person out, if that is what is necessary in the moment. In another situation, the braver choice might be to step out of the interaction into a restorative space.  

Bystanders and white allies, on the other hand, should develop the courage to be more active. This may take the form of confrontation, when someone’s behavior is egregious and must be challenged decisively. But calling out isn’t the only way to do this. When we choose to call someone in, we invest in the relationship by providing context and knowledge rather than simply correcting and judging. This approach holds a person or institution accountable by elevating the values you both share and promoting the collective good, without diminishing or excluding the person for a mistake.   

Calling in—speaking up with Moral Courage combined with Empathetic Courage—draws on practices like these:  

  • Be mindful: Call-ins should come from a place of caring: your intent is to help those around you grow and learn.  
  • Gain clarity: Ask questions to understand what the person said, as well as what they meant and what they were thinking and feeling when they said it.  
  • Reflection and explanation: Provide an explanation for what was harmful and why. Include additional resources when possible.  
  • Gratitude and grace: Thank the person for being willing to have a challenging conversation and remind them of how you value and appreciate them. We don’t throw people away.  

We each have to choose the degree to which calling in or calling out suits a given moment. The deeper work is understanding what type of bravery calls you. 

When interacting within our communities, friend groups, with peers, or workplaces we may come across someone who unintentionally causes harm. Using Moral Courage to call in is important in these spaces as it allows us mitigate harm but also help the people we care about grow, change, and reflect so as to not make the same mistakes in the future. With the relationship-centric approach of calling in we can create a ripple effect, deepening our relationships and creating equitable shared spaces.  

Participate in our United Against Racism campaign to learn more about Moral and other forms of courage needed to remain steadfast in your commitment to DEI and withstand opposition. You can register anytime during April 2024. 

*We at YW Boston want to give a sincere thank you to Colin Stokes for his great work developing and writing our United Against Racism campaign.