We're living in a time when collective solutions and open dialogue are needed more than ever, but the rise of call-out and cancel-culture has left many important conversations silent. This week, I welcome the absolutely iconic feminist and activist, Loretta J. Ross.
A fierce and formidable women’s health rights activist for over four decades, Loretta co-coined the term reproductive justice. Among many leadership roles she served as the National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and the National Co-Director of the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., the largest protest march in U.S. history at that time. Loretta founded the National Center for Human Rights Education and launched the Women of Color Program for the National Organization for Women. She has co-written 3 books on reproductive justice and has a forthcoming book called Calling In the Calling Out Culture. Loretta is currently a Visiting Associate Professor at Smith College's Program for the Study of Women and Gender.
Loretta is flipping the script with her newly coined term, “Call-In Culture,” and on today’s episode, we learn exactly what that term means and its impact on cancel culture. Loretta is a trailblazer in the reproductive rights movement, and we speak about the major phenomenon she calls “horizontal canceling” and its impact on the effectiveness of movements. Hopefully, this conversation expands your understanding of how we can connect and influence, rather than silence, to create change.
Among the topics we discuss:
- The incredibly challenging obstacles Loretta faced growing up, including sexual abuse and an unintended pregnancy at fourteen, and how these experiences led to her work in reproductive rights, becoming one of the first African American women to direct a rape crisis center and coining of the term reproductive justice.
- How Loretta defines calling-in, her take on why people tend to go after more vulnerable targets, and the impacts of fierce individualism on community well-bering
- How calling-out is showing up in the reproductive rights movement, the risks of horizontal canceling, and what we can do about it
- The meanings of the “woking dead” and “circles of influence” and the impacts both have on our culture
Learn more about Loretta's work and sign up for her courses at lorettajross.com.
Follow her on Twitter at @LorettaJRoss.
You can also follow along with the full transcript of the interview below,
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On Health: Calling In the Call-Out Culture with Aviva Romm MD x Loretta J. Ross
Aviva: In a time when we need collective solutions to increasingly serious challenges to our democracy, we need open dialogue more than ever. Yet we're living in a time when being called out or canceled can ruin careers and even lives with the collateral damage of closing off necessary dialogue and shutting down a multiplicity of voices that may be part of the solution.
If you're a feminist, my guest today, Loretta J. Ross should need no introduction, but if you don't know her, I hope today is the start of a long relationship of acquaintance with her work. Loretta, a leader in the human rights movement is perhaps best known for co-coining the term reproductive justice, the fundamental tenets of which are a woman's right to have a child, not have a child, and should she have children, to be able to raise them in safety. Reproductive justice is women's health through a human rights lens.
She's been a fierce and formidable women's health rights activist for over four decades. Currently a professor at Smith College in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender, where she teaches courses on white supremacy, human rights, and “calling in” the calling out culture, Loretta was the National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective from 2005 to 2012, National Co-Director of the 2004 March for Women's Lives in Washington, DC, at that time the largest protest March in US history. She also founded the National Center for Human Rights Education in Atlanta, launched the Women of Color Program for the National Organization of Women (NOW), and was the National Program Director of the National Black Women's Health Project (now called the National Black Women's Health Imperative). One of the first African American women to direct a rape crisis center, Loretta was the third Executive Director of the DC Rape Crisis Center.
She's co-written three books on reproductive justice, including the very readable book I have here – if you're seeing me on video – Reproductive Justice, co-authored with Ricky Solinger, which I feel is critical reading for every person with a female body or every person actually, and has a forthcoming book called Calling in the Calling Out Culture. I've followed Loretta's work for over 30 years. First hearing her name back in the day is when I was an apprentice midwife to Dua Afe, a Black midwifery health collective, which at that time was housed in the offices of the National Black Women's Health Project in Atlanta, a profound time in my own formation of a greater understanding of the impact of racism, genderism, and other -isms on women's health. I truly consider her one of my all-time heroes. Her work has literally shaped my life and work, and I believe she's a beacon of light for all of us.
In fact, if you've ever been to a dinner party where someone asked you who you could have dinner, if you could have dinner with anyone like your top three people, she's been on my top three list for longer than I can count. And so I can't believe we're having this conversation. And maybe even dinner is ahead of us one of these days.
More recently, Loretta has turned her mighty attention, intelligence and voice to issues of call-out and cancel culture emphasizing that divides do not solve the problems we're facing. I had the opportunity to take her Smith College course on cancel culture online last year and it's expanded my understanding of how we can connect and influence rather than silence to create greater understanding and create change. And just a few months after attending a graduation at her alma mater Hampshire College, where she has been mentoring younger artists, my youngest daughter, Naomi called me gushing, “Mom, you would not believe how powerful and wise the commencement speaker was, Loretta J. Ross.” I laughed, nodded my head, and marveled at how Loretta's words reach across generations today. Loretta gives us an introduction to what she has called call-in culture. I'm here to listen and learn too. It is with the greatest pleasure that I welcome Loretta J. Ross to On Health.
Loretta, thank you beyond thank you for being here today and for being the fierce and tender leader and human being that you are.
Loretta: Well, thank you for having me on your show.
Aviva: Oh my gosh. It's beyond a pleasure. So let's just jump right in if that's okay with you. You've described yourself as a radical, progressive, Black feminist and activist. I would love to hear what shaped you into the human being that you are now.
Loretta: Oh, I don't know many how many hours you have cause….
Aviva: I could stand with you forever.
Loretta: I was fortunate enough to be born in southern Texas and had great parents who did everything they could for me. I was one of eight kids; I was the child number six. So mom had a lot of experience by the time I came along. And even though she was suffering from PTSD from having been a childhood sexual abuse survivor, she never made us doubt her love for us, even as she was working through her trauma. Dad was a provider, an archetypical provider. He wanted to take care of his family. He worked two or three jobs to keep us housed and stuff. We weren't poor, but we didn't always have food in the refrigerator, either. So it was somewhere between there. So that was the biggest influence.
I remember when my mom sent me off to college she said that she admired me and that surprised me because me and mom had a contentious relationship growing up, and she started to say, I like you because you don't let success go to your head.
And I interrupted her cause I always run off at my mouth and she said, wait a moment, shut up, let me finish. She said I like you because you don’t let success go to your head. Most importantly, you don’t let failure go to your heart. My mother had seen my resilience before I had, and she knew that I had faced many obstacles and she knew that they didn't ever beat me down. One of the biggest obstacles was childhood sexual abuse myself. I was impregnated by a married cousin when I was 14 years old. And so I had a baby out of incest when I was 15 and yet I went on to graduate high school, and had my parents’ support in raising that child cause I was a baby raising a baby.
Really those are the kinds of early childhood memories that I have that shaped me. As a matter of fact, when I went on to co-create the theory of reproductive justice, I couldn't help but remember that I didn't have a choice over if and when I'd have sex or if and when I had a baby. And so that influenced the whole theory of me wanting to say every human being has human rights to decide if and when they'll get pregnant and how to raise their children in safe and healthy environments once they decide to parent. And so I keep that little scared 14- year old inside of me at all times.
Aviva: Tell me how that little scared 14-year old talks to you or shows up in your life and work now.
Loretta: Well, sometimes she shows up and makes me braver and sometimes she shows up and makes me scared. So it's not, it's like luck, you know, it's not always good, but anyway, I stay in touch with her probably involuntarily. When I doubt that I could do something. And then when I realize what I've already been through and that I'm still here, she makes me braver ‘cause I know that I can do things that I did not suspect I had the strength to do. But then there are times when she makes me feel very afraid because it is easy and frequent to get restimulated by past trauma. And so sometimes I feel extreme doubt that I'll survive something or that I'll conquer something or that I will maintain my sense of joy in life when I really feel down. And so the 14-year old is still there, but sometimes she's there in a very encouraging way. And then sometimes she's there…maybe she's there to tell me it's okay to be afraid and you're gonna do it anyway.
Aviva: I love that. That's amazing.
When you went off to college, did you know that reproductive justice work was, and the term obviously didn't exist until you put it on the map or co-put it on the map, did you know you were gonna go into human rights activism? Women's health work?
Loretta: No, I didn't. When I went off to college, I am by most definitions an accidental feminist ‘cause I had no real political consciousness when I went off to college at 16. I majored in chemistry and physics – I actually thought that I was gonna end up in a laboratory somewhere doing experiments with inorganic compounds – I had no idea.
But I became pregnant my first year of college at age 16, and since I already had one child, I did not want another. And fortunately for me, I went to Howard University in Washington, DC, and DC legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade, that was 1970, fortunately the year I needed one. And so I was able to have a perfectly safe abortion at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. My only obstacle wasn't financial, because my law school boyfriend was more than happy to pay for it, or legal. My obstacle was familial ‘cause mom did not approve of abortion. And so she wouldn't sign the permission slip for me to get one. Since I was under 18, I needed parental consent, and she and I fought that for a long time until my sister secretly forged her signature on a permission slip so that I could go on and have one.
And that got my attention ‘cause that was the second time I'd been pregnant. And the first time was with involuntary sex. The second time was with voluntary sex. And then I was mad because I seemed like I was Fertile Myrtle. I didn't have sex that many times to end up with two pregnancies. And so I accepted implantation of the Dalkon Shield, which was an IUD that was widely available in the early 1970s, ‘cause I thought that would be the best way to prevent more unintended pregnancies.
Well, it did prevent unintended pregnancies, but it also was designed with a defect in it. And it led to the sterilization of more than 700,000 women, and I was one of them. And so my reproductive career was very brief and that's when they finally got my attention. I keep saying my plumbing got my attention while my head was telling me to be a chemist. The sterilization after the Dalkon Shield was my wake-up call to start working on issues of violence against women, issues of reproductive rights and justice, all of those things.
But I still didn't actually do feminist work in the early seventies. Because I was in Washington DC, which was undergoing a severe wave of gentrification in Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Capital Hill. Because I lived in Adams Morgan, I actually got involved in tenant organizing first because I returned home one day after signing a lease to my apartment in Adams Morgan, maybe about three months after that, I returned home and there was an eviction notice on my door because they were threatening to turn my apartment complex into condominiums. And we had 90 days to get out regardless of the status of our leases. And so we called an impromptu meeting of the tenants in the building. I think the laundry room was the only place large enough for us all to meet in, so we're standing around the washing machines and dryers trying to decide what to do ‘cause everybody in the building had gotten the same notice. I decided to keep notes ‘cause I wanted to find out more. And simply because I had kept the notes, I was appointed to be the President of this emerging tenant association, only ‘cause I had the notes. Anyway that led to me joining a group called the Citywide Housing Coalition, which worked against gentrification and worked to pass DC's first rent control bill in 1974.
And then, the other thing that was very prominent in my early years was the anti-apartheid movement because DC was a strong side of resistance to apartheid at the time. And so it was very difficult to do any kind of political work without encountering anti-apartheid activists. And so I joined in that work. It was at a meeting of the Citywide Housing Coalition, at some church, I think it was St. Phillips Church in Washington DC., that I met another activist named Nkenge Touré. Nkenge at the time was Executive Director or National Coordinator I think she called it of the DC Rape Crisis Center. And Nkenge invited me to come volunteer at the Rape Crisis Center. I remember telling Nkenge, I didn’t want to go to ‘work with all those white women. What are you talking about?’
Nkenge literally looked me dead in the eye and said, “Would I lead you wrong?” And because Nkenge had been a member of the Black Panther Party, I was totally intimidated by her ‘cause I thought like those were the serious revolutionaries. I felt like a dilettante, you know, compared to them. And so I ended up volunteering at the Rape Crisis Center and then succeeded her as Executive Director. So that was my formal introduction to feminism because I knew what had happened to me was wrong, but I had not changed from being a personal feminist to a professional one until I that job.
And even then I didn't use the F-word – I did not call myself a feminist because my perception of feminism was that it was for white women and I didn't necessarily define it the way that they defined it. And so I was doing a lot of women's rights work, working against violence against women and on a lot of other issues, but it wasn't until 1985 that I started using the word feminism to describe myself, which is, six years, seven years into doing work in violence against women. We all get to decide when we're going to find out which word best describes our politics.
Aviva: How did you bridge the gap from the administrative and human work you were doing in a local sphere to becoming a nationally outspoken person? How did you have the confidence, but also the know-how to start writing, publishing, speaking and transforming outside of a more local space?
Loretta: Well, I believe that happened through my work at the DC Rape Crisis Center. Also, I guess my housing work as well ‘cause I wrote a piece about gentrification in one of my earliest pieces – that I cannot find a copy of. But the DC Rape Crisis Center was the first one in the country. And so we were constantly in conversation with other cities and even other countries that were starting rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. Cause the first DV shelter happened a few months after we started the Rape Crisis Center and we hosted the meetings of national or emerging national organizations. Like the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault had some meetings at our office, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence had some meetings at our office. So I think that's when I found my national voice because I was working with women from all over the country, and as I said some women from outside the country.
What's unique about the DC Rape Crisis Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on November 3, 2022, is that it was started by, I believe, six white women. And yet, although they were all working class white women themselves, they made a commitment that when they got some funding to hire staff and go from a volunteer staff hotline to a full-fledged center that they would hire Black women from the community, ‘cause at the time DC was close to 80% African American, and so because of that the first four executive directors of the Center were Black and I was the third. And that ended up creating this mini-hotbed of Black feminist activity in Washington that also had national implications. It was a very important golden age of Black feminism, if we’d only known it at the time. A Black feminist bookstore was opened up called SisterSpace and there was a Black feminist newspaper that was being published by another woman. It was really special to be in Washington in the 1970s and 80s as a Black feminist.
You asked about my influences – that brings to mind that because I was in DC, I was able to meet with and work with a lot of older Black women too, who had been in politics and had been in the movement, and so they also had a profound influence on me, even though I was really mouthy and thought I knew everything as a young woman, they never gave up on me and they often unwillingly mentored me. They didn't necessarily like me ‘cause I had these bloody dreadlocks popping out over my head and they didn't know what that was, so I didn't present as a respectable person in their eyes, but they saw something in me that they nurtured. And so they were definitely an influence on me as well.
Aviva: And now you nurture so many people as an educator, it's a profound, intergenerational sharing and culture preserving that you're doing. It's so interesting to hear the lineage of your story. Thank you so much for sharing and thank you for sharing about your 14-year old self too, and your vulnerability and your power from that.
I can only imagine that right now your head is just exploding with what's happening with Roe vs. Wade. I mean, it's not surprising if we look at the trajectory of the last 30 years of overturning of culture through the judicial system, by the more conservative right. Your head must be exploding with all of this. How are you reacting and responding and integrating what's going on at this moment?
Loretta: Well, I'm actually surprised that the Supreme Court overreached that way because I halfway expected them to keep whittling away at Roe, but not a complete overturning of it because that just provides ammunition to their opponents, to mobilize both women who they need for the midterm elections, and young people who they need for the midterm elections. So I have to confess I'm frankly surprised with the complete overturning of Roe. I thought it was just gonna be that incrementalism that we've grown accustomed to.
Aviva: That's interesting. It really has put abortion as a word and as a mobilizing factor so front and center that I feel even at personal liberty as a physician and a public speaker to just be so front and center about it right now in a whole new way.
Loretta: Exactly. And in the 2020 elections, a lot of elections were decided by white suburban women and young people coming out to vote for Biden instead of Trump. And so I'm surprised that they would risk that. Now obviously the Supreme Court is not Mitch McConnell, but Mitch McConnell is responsible for them being on the Supreme Court. So I just expected them to maybe not go so far as to overturn Roe or at least consider putting the Dobb’s decision in the fall docket and not the summer one because announcing the overturning of Roe after the midterms would have been a safer bet for them.
Aviva: You continue to be a major voice and will always be, I know, in reproductive justice and also something shifted for you in the last couple of few years where you have focused your lens more acutely on call-out and cancel culture. What made this shift for you, and also can you define how you think about call-out and cancel culture. I've heard you talk about a culture of unforgivable policing. And to me, I see it also as a culture of bullying and emotional violence. So can you talk about why you've shifted your lens and talk about this punitive culture where weaponized knowledge and ideologies are happening and there's policing of words and shaming and silencing.
Loretta: I've been increasingly concerned with the thought that how we do the work is as important as the work that we do. If we do the work in a way that violates people's human rights, then we're undermining the very human rights movement that we claim to be building. And so I think calling in will be as important in the 21st century to the Human Rights Movement, as nonviolence was to the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century – a statement of our values based on how we do the work. I am deeply concerned that in this age of social media and this age of instant gratification that people are trying to do the right thing, the wrong way, that think that they're supposed to call each other out, put each other under glass, shame people, or bully them for wrong thinking and wrong speech. And I don't agree with that
Now, I understand why they're doing it, and there's a lot of reasons we can talk about. But I think the key reason they do it, and as part of the human rights movement, is that's what we've done. The human rights movement calls out governments, calls out corporations, calls out individuals who violate people's human rights. But what these activists today don't understand is that we use that tactic as a last resort, not the first resort. And so many people don't try talking to people first, don't offer people the benefit of the doubt, don't know how to listen with grace to people who have other opinions than them, really think that they're supposed to organize and discipline everybody into thinking all the same way and that's the way you build a movement. I think that people deserve an opportunity to learn that there's a more effective way to build movement.
My biggest fear, also, is that we underestimate the nature of the threat that we're facing. Democracy has not been this imperiled since the Civil War and the United States is still trying to decide whether it's gonna be a country devoted to white supremacy or a country of freedom and justice – that its words say but is actually never practiced. And so we're at this continuation of the same Civil War. And the question becomes whether or not enough people care about the weaknesses, the precarity of our democracy, in order to actively do something about it.
Aviva: Do you feel in any way that it's even just fundamental to how we're raising our children, how we're educating our children, that we are on some level a punitive culture or a shame and blame oriented culture that is giving rise to these adult behaviors? And sometimes I wonder too, if people feel so powerless against bigger political forces, people have so much pent up anger and pain and frustration for very real and good reasons – and those can be culturally based, they can be religiously based, based on any of the binaries that people are attacked under or grouped into that are false and damaging. Do you think it's sometimes this pent-up rage and frustration and people feel like they can't do anything about the government or the, you know, “the man” or whatever, so they go after more vulnerable targets?
Loretta: People go after more vulnerable targets ‘cause we're taught to abuse our power. I think it's very familiar to punch down on more vulnerable people. And we love to think that we're punching up against people who are abusing their power over others, against people who refuse to be held accountable, against people who have a lot of influence and they misuse that influence. But generally speaking, we are trained to punch down on more vulnerable people or not to intervene when the punching down takes place, which is why the bully culture exists. It's not that there's a large number of bullies. There's a large number of people who are bystanders when bullying happens and are afraid to intervene for fear that the bullying is gonna happen to them next.
And so there is something cultural about how we abuse and treat each other. I think it's based on our fierce individualism where we try to make people think that they're in it by themselves and if they don't take care of themselves, then possibly no one else will take care of them. This is very foreign to other philosophical traditions. Like the philosophy of Ubuntu from Africa is one of interdependence, as opposed to individualism.
I didn't know a lot about Ubuntu until Archbishop Tutu started talking a lot about it, and he talked about how if someone commits a crime under an Ubuntu system, the community holds them accountable for it, but instead of punishing them, exiling them, kicking them out of the village, for example, they would have kind of like a tribunal. And in that tribunal, they would weigh not only what the person did that violated the community standards, but how else did they contribute to the community?
Aviva: Is this where the Truth and Reconciliation Model comes from?
Loretta: That's exactly what the TRC is based on, theoretically – it didn't work perfectly. But that's exactly what it's based on.
Aviva: So it gives people an opportunity to, who have been victimized, victims, etc. to, to speak their truth.
Loretta: And for the violators to speak their truth as well. And so, yes, it's very much based on the Ubuntu concept. But the other thing that Ubuntu emphasizes is no individual is allowed to keep their skills to themselves for their own profit and benefit. So if you're a great shoemaker, for example, you share that with the entire community and the person who makes good knives shares that with the entire community. And so you have an obligation to share your skills with the rest of the community, but the community collectively participates in helping you get those skills, whether sending a child off to college so that they can come back and be a doctor for the community, those kinds of things. And so it's a philosophical tradition that's based on interdependence. And it's basic saying is I am, because we are – I cannot define myself outside of the context of my community, who are my people, who are the people that I care for and who care for me, which I think is quite different.
Aviva: I'm really curious, so there's cancel culture and call-out happening kind of on both sides across the aisle politically, but a major phenomenon that I've witnessed, experienced just the tinge of myself, is something that you've called horizontal canceling or humorously visually, although sad, a circular firing squad. And I know that you've shared that this is really concerning for you, particularly in how it may impact the effectiveness of the reproductive justice movement. And I wonder if you can talk about this phenomenon – how is this showing up? What concerns you about it? What are the risks of it? And what do we do about it?
Loretta: Well, one obvious thing that has happened to me that I'm concerned about, in the wake of the overturning of Roe, is how quickly people who want to defend abortion access started criticizing each other's strategies for doing so, when in fact all of the strategies are going to be necessary and each person gets to choose which strategy works best for their lived experiences, for them, instead of constantly criticizing other people's experiences. I wrote an article in Yes Magazine about how some Black women were claiming that one reason that Roe was overturned was because the pro-choice movement was too white.
I criticize the pro-choice movement being too white, too. That's not the point. I agree with that point, but I don't agree with their cause and effect status statement because the Republicans do what they do because of who they are, not because of what we do. And so it turns into a victim blaming kind of analysis, where let's blame the white women whose wombs are the ones that they're fighting over for not protecting their own womb fiercely enough. Basically, I was like, how does that work for you in your head? Because I don't think the abortion fight or the population control fighter, however you wanna term it is about Brown and Black babies being born. They kill the ones that we have. I actually think it is about fighting over the wombs of white women and so I think it's totally appropriate that white women be on the front lines for this fight.
Now that doesn't mean that Black and Brown women and Indigenous women will not be collateral damage and suffer disproportionately from the overturning of Roe because we frankly are more vulnerable than white women. But this was never about increasing the number of Black, Brown or Indigenous babies in the United States. Anybody paying attention knows that if you don't understand white supremacy, you don't understand reproductive politics as it's always been in this country. ‘Cause the genocide against Indigenous people is designed to make them reproductively disappear. You have the forced breeding of the kidnapped Africans to build well. And then you have the demonization of that same fertility among Black people after the Civil War. And not to mention what happens to immigrants who are accused of having anchor babies so that they can stay in the country. I mean, all of this stuff is a feature of white supremacist ideology.
And so I didn't like the infight that erupted after the overturning of Roe. I think that no one generation, no one identity has all the answers that we need. We need all of those answers. We need all of the people coming together to deal with this multipronged assault on us because it's not just about abortion rights. Of course, it's about voting rights and civil rights and LGBT rights, and militarism and war economy. It's about a lot of things that are very much intersectional and interconnected, and you can focus on one thing like the abortion rights movement, but that doesn't mean you're oblivious to all the other things that have an impact on the work that you do ‘cause you do it as part of the women's rights wing of the human rights movement. But there's also the racial justice wing and the environmental justice wing and the disability rights wing and all of that. And so again, one of my concerns about the calling-out culture is that we have to do our work in such a way that it doesn't create contradictions for the other people in our movement as they focus on different things.
Aviva: So I would never venture to speak to the experience of anyone else, and particularly as a white woman, Black women's experience. My understanding of history through your work -reproductive justice, the treatment of enslaved women, the treatment of women after slavery through a medical lens – I mean, there's so many ways that white supremacy has shaped the reproductive experience of Black women in this country and Black families in this country.
Loretta: And white women too, by the way.
Aviva: Yes. And white women too. And that’s I was gonna go and ask you – what is the role or importance of reaching across, how do I say it, recognizing the intrinsic experience that has been unique to Black and to Black and Brown women and honoring that and white supremacy, and also all of us, regardless of skin tone and complexion, working together against what are much bigger threats to, to all of us.
Loretta: There's something about the Black feminist consciousness that I can explain, that I certainly appreciate. In the 1970s the Combahee River Collective gave us the concept of identity politics, where you work within your identity groups to find out who you are and then you go beyond your identity groups to find out who you're gonna work in solidarity with. But the fact that we even use the phrase identity politics now is attributed to that Black feminist collective. In the 1990s Kimberly Crenshaw gave us the concept of intersectionality, actually started in the 80s, which is a universalist theory, feminist theory, black feminist theory, that has gone worldwide, that now we understand the deep connections between both oppression and liberation. It’s a paradigm shift in how we see ourselves and the movements we belong to. In the 90s we created reproductive justice, which transformed how we talk about reproductive politics, not only in the United States, but worldwide as well. So there's something unique about the Black feminist standpoint that creates universalist theory that then can be applicable to everybody. And I like that about the way our minds work. I don't like having to be so oppressed to get there, but it does look like Black girl magic when you look at it historically.
Aviva: It's pretty beautiful.
Loretta: It’s transformative, it feels, when we use the concepts of intersectionality or identity politics or reproductive justice and appreciate their origins, but also their power.
Aviva: Do you feel those are terms that could be used broadly by feminists reproductive health activists, reproductive justice activists, by all of us in a way that is not appropriating? Or do you feel like those terms are best exclusively used by Black feminists in a Black feminist reproductive justice context?
Loretta: No, I don't believe that. Matter of fact, that whole perception kind of pisses me off because it almost carries in it the inherent assumption that Black women cannot create theory that is universalist and applies to everybody. And I don't believe that. I think that we do have a particular standpoint, that from which our theories originate, but they are widely applicable. As a matter of fact, I don't know anybody to whom they don't apply. When you think of identity politics, it applies to everybody. When you think of intersectionality, it applies to everybody, and reproductive justice as a human rights framework applies to everybody. So I'm not quite sure who's left out.
Each individual standpoint will allow them to adjust and adapt the theory to fit their own lived circumstances. For example, once reproductive justice was created, Indigenous women adapted it to include issues of sovereignty that us not being Indigenous would not use. When immigrant women embraced RJ, or reproductive justice, they started talking and beefing up immigrant rights, something that doesn't concern those of us who don't have to worry about immigration and citizenship, because we were born here – that kinda thing. When the LGBT movement embraced reproductive justice, they raised the fourth tenant and with that is bodily autonomy, sexual pleasure, and gender identity. So one of the things I appreciate about reproductive justice is its expansiveness, its capacity for holding everybody, and its adaptability. So, no, I don't think just because it was created by Black women that it only should apply to Black women. That's a very reductionist view of what could be a very powerful paradigm.
Aviva: I really appreciate your saying this. When I spent time, which was many years in Dua Afe, and then after Dua Afe was no longer Dua Afe, there was Mama Sarahn and Mama Nasrah who passed recently as you also know, um, there was always a consciousness of pouring libations, of honoring the ancestors, of honoring where the work came from rather than just appropriating it. And I've been hesitant in some ways to use certain terms because I don't want to appropriate what has originated powerfully from a community that is often not given credit for many powerful influences in our culture. So I really appreciate your sharing that, that expansive view.
Loretta: Well, one of the things that addresses the appropriation question is acknowledging its origin. You know, it's not that women for centuries haven’t braided their hair, but if you're gonna do cornrows acknowledge where they came from, and then do your cornrows if that's what you wanna do.
Appropriation only occurs when it's stolen and not appreciated in terms of where it came from – when you want to invisibilize the originators so that you can claim that you've done something new and unique.
Aviva: You use a term that I heard on an interview, which made me laugh out loud, which was the “woking dead.”
Loretta: That's my girlfriend, Dayson Detungalo. She's the one that coined that phrase.
Aviva: Tell me about that and what that means to you and how you see that happening in our culture and what it means, what is it causing?
Loretta: So woking dead are people who believe in purity politics. So they go around lambasting everybody who doesn't have their particular point of view in total sync with them, like they're building a cult or something like that. And so some people say they make “the perfect enemy of the good” kind of thing, ‘cause they don't really know how to do organizing or build coalitions or even handle nuance because they're so committed to criticizing and belittling others who don't perfectly align with their point of view. And so she calls them the woking dead. And I thought that is a wonderful way of describing people who think they're doing the right thing, but they don't have an ability to attract people to them who don't behave in a cult-like manner.
Aviva: You talk about lived experience. And I think probably for me, where I first understood that term was through your work. Lived experience is a very important part of the narrative of the way that I have done midwifery, the way that I do medicine. I've heard you say that lived experience also can become a barrier If we feel like our lived experience is THE way, the only lens through which to see life, and that we need to expand our sphere of evidence and understanding. Can you talk about how we honor and validate and really rely on lived experience as part of our intuitive or our way in the world while also expanding our sphere of evidence and understanding – what does that look like?
Loretta: I can't remember the name of the writer who wrote this phrase that said, “What you've been through is only part of your resume.” You really have to do some studying and some learning and some conversation with others who've been through other stuff to consider yourself an expert on any topic. And so some people think that their lived experiences is all they need to know when they don't even understand fully what they've been through ‘cause that requires collective knowledge, not just your individual knowledge. And so I tend to caution people from devaluing lived experiences, cause those do matter, but also from overvaluing them as if that's all you need to know in order to create social change
I never want people to feel like what they've been through is not acknowledged, but a lot of the trauma that we've been through makes us see things through a trauma lens and you can't change the conditions that created your trauma if you only see the world through a trauma lens. It's not a liberatory lens.
Aviva: And part of this trauma lens is informing some of the call-out and cancel that we're seeing, for example, on college campuses. There's a lot of triggers and trigger warnings, and I know that in your class, ‘cause I attended it last year, you basically are like, I'm not giving any trigger warnings. You're not so much ‘if you don't like it, lump it.’ But I feel like what you're doing is trying to get us to push past the reactivity of our own inner story, to move past the triggers in some way to hear more. I'm so curious about the feedback you're getting from students too, and from your colleagues. So can you talk about cancel culture triggers, this intense new demand on campuses and in workplaces for safety – and also the very real need to have safer spaces, too?
Loretta: Well, usually within the first day of class, either online or in person, I try to ask the students to consider that I can either protect you from the truth or teach you about the truth, but I can't do both of those things at the same time.
Aviva: Wow. Wow. Let's just put, can you repeat that? That is so strong.
Loretta: It's very simple. I can either protect you from the truth or teach you about it, but those two things are at odds with each other. Now I can teach you about it in a loving and gentle way, or I can protect you from it in a loving and gentle way, but I cannot keep you brainwashed and enlightened at the same time, that just doesn't work for me. My brains do fail to handle both of those concepts at the same time. And so that's why I explain to the people that I'm doing popular education with that I don't use trigger warnings. First of all, I don't even know what your triggers are. I know what my triggers are, but I don't know what your triggers are and I'm not gonna dumb down the material or so insulated from any kind of conflict that…. I can't, you know, it all reduced to unintelligible mediocrity. I just can't do that.
And I choose not to do that. And so I like to think that we're stronger than we think we are. I know as a rape and incest survivor and a survivor of racial violence, I mean, I've been through a lot of stuff – we don't even want to compare resumes. But I've learned through that I'm stronger than I thought I was. Now that doesn't mean everybody’s gonna have that same experience. And so my classes aren't for everybody. If somebody's still in a place where their wounds are real raw and still bleeding and making it a challenge for them to get up every day and deal with life, then you don't come take my courses because all that's gonna do is exacerbate the wounds without necessarily leading you to that healing place you need to take care of yourself. That's like calling in. You can't call in people iIf you're, if you haven't done a self-assessment and know that you're in a healed enough space to call somebody in. And so if you do that way, without that self knowledge, you're probably gonna bleed all over there ‘cause you're still bleeding.
And so the feedback I get is generally very positive, because I've used my privilege as an elder to say stuff that younger professors wish they could say. And they don't have the security that I have. I'm tenured. So I can get away with a lot of stuff that the younger professors who are more, uh, academically vulnerable can’t say.
Aviva: Because they're afraid to be canceled if they say it.
Loretta: Right, right. I don't have any problem wading into controversial topics because I like the debate of different ideas. And so I'm rarely gonna stay safe when I can generate a debate, make people think about things in a deeper way, learn things from these young people. I love learning from my students. Oh my God. Every time they write something totally precious, I ask them for permission to hold it. ‘Cause it's just some of the brightest minds are in my classes. And I love that.
Aviva: What would be an example of something that if you're, if you're okay sharing, what would be an example of something that you could say that somebody else may feel like they have to walk on eggshells or tip toe around and never say it cause they're afraid to get canceled.
Loretta: I've waded a bit into this controversy of the use of the word woman, which of course is being contested by what I call the extreme wing of the trans movement, where that extreme wing is defining the use of the word woman as harm to them. And I frankly believe that if you can't define the object of the harm, then you de-victimize them. And so you can't then talk about remedies for the harm cause there's no victims and there's no perpetrator kinda thing.
Aviva: You and Ricky do a beautiful job in Reproductive Justice defining and discussing this issue where you have a beautiful phrase. I actually have it highlighted. I highlight and dog ear my books, my grandmother was a librarian. I'm sure she rolls in her grave every single day. But you talk about how that nobody who is not typically binary or doesn't define themselves in a binary way should be invisible. And yet by erasing the word woman, how we have traditionally used it, we also run the risk of erasure of the unique violences against a certain group that have been defined that way.
Loretta: Exactly. I'm concerned that when we go too far with our attempts to be inclusive, we embrace a theoretical concept of gender neutrality as if your gender identity really doesn't matter and it shouldn't matter. And that feels too eerily reminiscent of colorblindness.
Aviva: I was just thinking that exact thing,
Loretta: ‘Cause it's kinda like the theory. If I don't notice race, then, then there's no racism around, kinda thing. And I'm like, no, that doesn't work because all that does is invisibilize the victims of it and then make the people who practice racism unaccountable. And I never want to let the people who practice active misogyny be off the hook that way. ‘Cause otherwise how will we ever change it?
Aviva: But I could see how that would be a very vulnerable thing to talk about in the world that we live in.
Loretta: At this particular historical moment.
Aviva: But it doesn't really leave a lot of room for intellectual discourse when we are afraid to say things. Ee're learning, it doesn't allow us to hear what the other person thinks or their experience is.
Aviva: So, you’re teaching a class on call-in culture, you're writing or have written a book which I can't wait to get my hands on, frankly, can we bring it home, bring this conversation home, or at least this first conversation we have, I hope to have many with you and just listen to you for many more years of my life. Circles of influence. So the first time I heard you speak of it was in the course that I did online, which I believe is still going. People can still join that course, correct?
Loretta: I've got another conversation on July 26th, 2022 and you can sign up for on my website under my name.
Aviva: So in this conversation you read and you really drive deeply, deeply, deeply into why and how those of us in our, let's say 90% sphere of influence where we have the same shorthand. You and I, many of us are in the same 90% circle, even though many people might not realize they're in that same circle can influence all the way out to this 10% of people. So 80% difference where we share almost no common values by talking and communicating and listening and coming to understandings in concentric circles. And this seems to me part of the heart of call-in. Can you, can you talk about that? And also your uncle Frank strategy?
Loretta: Okay, I believe that many of us have the power to influence a lot more people if we understand who we are and who they are, and not work on these assumptions that because people don't perfectly align with us, they're impervious to our influence and we should be impervious to theirs. As I teach it, we’re all in, like you say, these concentric circles. To me, the circle I belong to, it's called the 90% circle, not because we're 90% of the population, but because the people that I can speak to without doing translation are 90 percenters. We use the same lexicon. We use the same words. We're perfectly intelligible to each other. ‘Cause when I say heteropatriarchy, I don't have to explain it to someone. Or when I say neoliberal capitalism, I don't have to explain it to a 90% percenters cause they know exactly what we're talking about.
Aviva: So we have this 90% circle where we understand each other's fundamental lexicon and philosophies,
Loretta: And we share a worldview that overlaps with each other even though I might work on women's rights and someone else might work on environmental justice and someone else on criminal justice reform, we all share a view that things need fixing. And it's our job to fix them.
Outside of us, what I call the 70 to 75 percenters. These are people who have a shared worldview that overlaps with ours, but they don't have perfect alignment, meaning that, well, the example that I'm most used as I use in my classes is that I'm a feminist and I support women's rights and so does the Girl Scouts. But they may not do, they may not bring a troop to defend an abortion clinic, though I wish they would. But they still believe in girls’ and women’s empowerment. And so that makes them my allies. They're not my opponents just because they don't have the same analysis of heteropatriarchy and feminism that I do.
Outside of the 70 percenters or 75 percenters, I see the 50 percenters and I call 'em that because they can lean to the left or they can lean to the right, it depends on who's influencing them at the time. And those are the people that we best influence, not by paying attention to their words that define them as 50 percenters or so, but we best reach them by speaking to their values. So I may believe as a 90 percenter, that we need to defund the police, but when I'm speaking to a 50 percenter, I'm gonna change and ask them, well, how would you define community safety and how would we best achieve it?
Aviva: So it’s meeting people where they are, in the language that they're comfortable with, so they have a sense of safety and realize there's more commonality than difference so they might listen to you.
Loretta: Exactly, exactly. Not ignoring their lived experiences in favor of your own ‘cause theirs are just legitimately theirs is yours are. And then of course, outside of the 50 percenters of what I call the 25 percenters. These are the people who we have so little in common with in terms of a worldview that we don't speak the same language. When I say freedom, I think of freedom from ignorance and injustice. And when they say freedom, they mean the right, not to a mask in the middle of a pandemic. We may be using the same words but they mean something totally different by them. And that means that as a 90 percenter, I don't have the words that could necessarily speak to their worldview because their worldview is so diametrically opposed to my own. It's like me arriving in the middle of them and starting to speak Martian – it just wouldn't work.
And then outside of the 25 percenters are the zeros. I call 'em zeros, not as a statement of their character, but because they are openly and willingly, part of the white supremacist, Neofascist movement. They are not confused about what they believe in. They're not a 50 percenter. They are very clear that they have a set of goals, a set of strategies and a worldview that's about harming others by dominating over them. And so I don't seek to influence them. I seek to overpower them with the coalition that I'm building of 90 percenters, 75 percenters and 50 percenters, and a few twenty fivers, if they're willing to have that kinda conversation.
The way I saw this in practice was in the formation of SisterSong, my women of color reproductive justice collective that me and 15 other women started in 1977. We were founded by women who were both pro-choice and pro-life, yet it never stopped us from working together ‘cause we felt we had much more in common as Women of Color than we had dividing us. And so I learned that you work with people even disagree with you as fundamental as abortion rights, but it depends on how they disagree with you on abortion rights. For example, all the pro-life women and sisters with this statement that they would not personally have an abortion, but wouldn't stop somebody doing so well. Well that's pro-life decision I can work with.
There are too many people in our movement who say anybody who uses the word pro-life I don't wanna work with them. I don't wanna talk with them, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I think we need to be less judgemental and very, and definitely be far more strategic.
Aviva: Loretta, thank you so much for dropping so many pearls of wisdom and so much food for thought and for change and action. I have one question that I like to ask my guests. Thank you for taking so much time with this conversation. If you could tell your younger self anything and you can define younger self any way you want, how old would she be and what would you tell her?
Loretta: There's things that I've done that I regret, but those things contributed to my growth. So would I rather have not done those things or had them happen to me? I don’t think so. I think if I could tell my younger self something, it probably would be to be less afraid of relationships with people. I was always an introvert; I still am. And so it is a labor for me to really work on my relationships with people. I grew up in the middle of a huge boisterous family and I was so busy invisibilizing myself in the midst of that. So probably I would like myself to be better, better relationship skills and more emotional intelligence when I was younger.
Aviva: Thank you for sharing that. And I'm thrilled that you are practically my neighbor. So I look forward to being part of your extended community as you do that and sharing some experiences with you. Thank you so much for being you, for being here, and for everything that you bring.
Loretta: All right. Thank you very much. Bye-bye
Aviva: Bye Loretta. Thank you everybody for being here today and giving yourself this space to drop in, learn, listen. It's definitely a moment of self-care and growth that we give ourselves when we take time to listen to a podcast, read a book, and grow who we learn from. I hope that Loretta has given you food for thought and for action. See you next time.