In defense of criticism

Image credit: Institutional Responses to Racism: Collaboratory

Three years ago we* all pledged to do better and address the various forms of racism (and other ‘isms) present in our places of work… 

But who’s still doing ‘the work’? 

And what’s the point, when the ‘good guys’ leading the way can’t take a bit of constructive criticism?


*But first…

When I say “we” in this blog, I’m generally talking about people like me, in positions of relative privilege, working in jobs like ‘community engagement‘ or production, in the charity, voluntary, arts or community sectors. I’m referring to a particular shift that occurred following the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the increased calls to address prevalent forms of institutional, cultural and individual racism, that have been causing harm to (often marginalised) people in our public, educational, cultural and community spaces for a very long time.

I fully acknowledge that calling out systematic discrimination and oppression has long been an ongoing, varied process in other spaces and circles.



May 2023 marked 3 years since the murder of George Floyd, and a global commitment to tackle systemic racism in our social, educational and cultural spaces and institutions…. 

For many of us, this has involved re-addressing our language, becoming more versed in identifying racism, or evaluating our own complicity in upholding racism (and other -isms). Some have read books or sought professional training. Others have learned the skills, techniques and processes for carefully addressing the power dynamics present in our places of work, study and play. For many, this has also involved becoming more aware of the historic harm done to those most affected by racism, and to apply this thinking to other forms of oppression or prejudice.

At one end of the scale, workplaces have produced more diverse teams and programmes; at the other, they’ve developed new skills, tools, language, professions, practices, training, governance and policies; all to try and implement some kind of system of accountability and equity, and to address the harm that was done by “just the way things are” before May 2020; similar to what we saw after the #MeToo movement in 2006 / 2017, and the attempts to address gender inequalities and everyday sexism. 

…. But the general consensus on the ground is that the dominant structures, decision making and systems of leadership have very much remained the same; with considerable barriers to opportunities for those from marginalised (often BPOC) backgrounds, widening social and economic inequalities, no change to systems of power, and intense (often aggressive) resistance to accusations of racism (or other forms of prejudice) in everyday practices.


If those who believe they’re doing ‘the work’ of changing the world for the better – the ‘good guys’ – can’t respond appropriately to being called out for racism, then what hope is there for the rest of society? 

And what does this mean for struggles to tackle other forms of oppression and inequality?


2 years ago I wrote a blog post about my own practice in ‘community engagement‘, and how, going forward, I too would be working harder to ensure that my job wasn’t further perpetuating the harm done by things like racism, classism, ableism, homophobia, misogyny (and the rest) in cultural and community settings. Since writing this blog I committed to bettering my understanding of UK inequalities, and embedding various checks, reflections and adaptations in the way I work, and I went back to school, to learn about the historic, social, economic and political contexts for the societal issues my work attempts to tackle. 

Through this ongoing process, I’ve come into contact with a much wider, more diverse group of practitioners on similar journeys post-May 2020; people who are doing ‘the doing’ of working on the front line of charities, community organisations and social causes, and who are trying to learn, un-learn, and adapt, to ensure they’re doing better for the people they serve and support. And yet, despite this, many of us have observed one major barrier to any substantial change in our sectors.


The barrier

People I’ve spoken to are tired of calling out systemic racism in their workplaces. They’re not tired because they are losing the enthusiasm for ‘the doing’ of evaluating, adapting and changing how they work (if anything, the feedback I’m getting from people is that implementing these processes is both rewarding and liberating, and builds better relationships)… People are drained by the extra work involved in mitigating the defensive reactions of those who hold the positions of privilege and power in our sectors: those who are uncomfortable with change and with their work being ‘criticised’.

It’s a complaint I’ve heard again and again across different sectors, from those who have actively had to address and tackle systemic racism in the work they do since May 2020. (Of course, it should be acknowledged that this undoubtedly has been the experience of those doing this work for much longer.)

Society identified a problem and demanded change.

A large number of people responded and committed to implementing that change. 

And yet, 3 years down the line, many people are noticing that there’s not been a significant enough shift in our systems of power, leadership and decision-making to actually tackle said problem. 


Who are these ‘leaders’ we’re talking about? 

In this blog, I’m speaking to my own experience and the experiences of multiple colleagues / friends in the charity, voluntary, cultural and community sectors. It may ring true to others, I’ve not investigated. By ‘leadership’ I’m talking about organisations, institutions and individuals who are seen as leaders in their fields: people or organisations who are producing projects, programmes or content that strive to make positive change, and solve societal “problems”. 

In my previous post I elaborated on how I personally experience privilege and power in my profession, therefore I too could be described as a leader in certain contexts. For the sake of this blog, the people in positions of power and privilege (or ‘leaders’) are directors, founders of projects, members of boards, whole institutions/organisations, or individuals with their own practices or platforms. 

Leaders are rewarded for their work, their ideas and their approach: whether that be through status rewards, such as invitations to sit on panels, interviews or awards; or monetary rewards, such as well-paid commissions, consultation work, funding and speakers fees. 

Leaders benefit from the work of others around them, those who are often doing ‘the doing’ of responding to the needs of others, and adjusting their own assumptions, agendas and approaches. What those in positions of leadership often forget is that these adaptive, responsive processes take time and a lot of managing expectations. 

Those doing ‘the doing’ of social change often don’t have the capacity to build their own personal practices, or work on their mission statements; they don’t have access to the same platforms for speaking their minds or articulating their own views and experiences; as a result, we often don’t hear or learn from what they have to say. 

Leaders are often working in horizontal organisational structures, alongside those doing ‘the doing’. But those working on the ground ultimately carry the weight of bridging the gaps between leaders/organisations/institutions and the people they serve or support: our ‘communities’.

It ends up being the responsibility of those doing ‘the doing’ to listen to people, interpret feedback, and relay it to those in positions of leadership.

Thus in 2020, when many of us made our commitments to call out and tackle racism (and other isms) in our communities, we were ultimately relying on the people doing ‘the doing’ to also do the ‘calling out’ (and to make sure that no one was hurt in the process).

As a result, many of these people doing ‘the doing’ have had no choice but to spend the last 3 years (and beyond) educating themselves in really specialist skills relating to observing, facilitating, recording, and sometimes, even mitigating conflict around highly sensitive issues like racism. They’ve taken it upon themselves to become experts in ‘flagging‘ or ‘raising‘ issues, for the sake of protecting others from the harm caused by systemic racism and problematic power dynamics. And that’s not to diminish the anti-discrimination/oppression work that happened before May 2020, rather to recognise that there are now more mainstream attempts being made to address the many different forms of racism in our day-to-day spaces, practices, language and relationships. 

This is also in no way to automatically criticise anyone in a position of leadership. I truly believe that we need collaborative leaders, and we need people who can be removed from the day-to-day running of organisatons and projects, to offer their objective support and experience, and to have an overview of practices and procedures. I know and work with leaders who would fully acknowledge the existence of all of the above dynamics, and are simultaneously, actively supporting the work of adapting practices and assumptions in their places of work.

My aim here is not to blame our leaders, but to point to the common, systemic processes and dynamics that lead to disjunctures in how we communicate. It’s no one’s ‘fault’ that this is the case, but it’s all of our responsibilities to observe it and disrupt it, so that we can do the thing we all set out to do. 


The trouble with doubling down 

I recently saw a “eureka!” video on Tiktok, from an interview with James Acaster on the Marc Maron WTF podcast. It illustrates the precise moment at which people with privilege being criticised typically veer into problematic behaviours that can escalate and cause harm to others, rather than addressing feedback, taking it on, and moving forward. 

The clip used JK Rowling as an example (and that’s the last I’ll speak of her). But the thing that struck a chord with me was Acaster’s reference to the ‘good guys’: 

Fuck you I’m the good guy!” 

… exclaims the defensive person with privilege, who thought they were doing some really progressive work for a marginalised community, to said marginalised community when they offer constructive feedback. 

Acaster admits that, as a cis white man, he too has carried these ingrained ‘good guy’ assumptions and defensive reactions (I’ll hold my hands up to having done the same in the past). This clip explains how rapidly the knee-jerk defensiveness of those in positions of power and privilege, those who consider themselves to be doing ‘good’ work, can escalate and reverberate, transforming debates around complicated, often sensitive topics into fraught back and forths about who has more right to speak, completely deflecting all attention away from the original critiques or concerns that were raised in the first place. 

Similarly, what a lot of people working in community settings have noticed, is that those in privilege/power will often blame the ‘antagonists’ for having stoked ‘divisive’ discourses or incidents, when in fact, often, they themselves haven’t developed the skills to reflect, introspect, and take responsibility for the role they play in creating barriers to positive action. 

It’s not really their fault either. They have never had to.

Instead they double down, often fighting harder to defend a position, project, idea or policy they weren’t even that tied to in the first place. Causing further harm to those affected by the called-out oppression, bias or prejudice.


What does this harm look like?

I obviously can’t truthfully speak to what racial harm feels like, and it’s not my place to share the personal experiences of others (read here for an account from those who can). But I can point to a few common examples of what racial harm can look like in community/charity/voluntary settings after a racism ‘calling out’: 

  • An aggressive, defensive institutional/organisational response sends out a really clear message to anyone else who might be thinking of calling out problematic behaviours, language or dynamics in future, in effect, silencing those who might otherwise have offered productive feedback
  • It often takes a lot of courage, emotional labour and creative planning to raise a complaint about something as complicated and sensitive as racism. Those doing the calling out have often previously tried many different, more subtle approaches to raising concerns, without adequate response or changes made, by the time they are calling something out, they can feel disheartened, angry or frustrated
  • Being called disruptive or aggressive, and having your experience immediately dismissed, is not only deeply hurtful, it’s also symptomatic of the power dynamics at play in our spaces of work, study and play
  • Leaders, institutions and organisations often switch rapidly to defensive legal jargon and HR processes in response to feedback or criticism, rather than stopping, listening to the claims being made, checking in on the welfare of the people most involved/affected, implementing any necessary adaptations, and communicating clearly with the people around them…
  • … this can result in people feeling shocked, alienated, intimidated, silenced, gas-lit, and, often, left with no choice but to step away from projects/organisations, (often giving up much-needed social infrastructure, and/or income,) as a result of no longer feeling safe to operate in these structures and environments
  • Many people from marginalised backgrounds have experienced these dynamics multiple times when engaging with white-led workplaces and environments
  • Read more here

Whilst I wouldn’t for a second wish to diminish the hurt and discomfort caused by being called out or criticised for racism, both immediately, and in the months/years following, it’s really important not to equate this hurt with the ongoing, lived, and often denied, experience of racism, and the harm caused by racist systems, institutions and environments. 


Why criticise?

If I’ve learned anything from these last few years it’s that criticism can be productive, considered and measured. Criticism itself isn’t terminal, neither is it necessarily negative. Collins dictionary defines a critique as ‘an examination or judgement of a situation, a person’s work or ideas’ (link). In academic spheres, the term is a ‘lens’. For example, you can find multiple critiques of Marx’s ideas from people who identify as ‘Marxist’. A critique isn’t a stone cold rejection of something, it’s not a binary ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. Critiques aren’t always intended to divide schools of thought, they are often served in the spirit of ‘yes and’, not ‘no but’

Yet those who are used to speaking up, sharing feedback, or calling out problematic content, statements, programmes or activities are repeatedly labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘divisive’ or ‘antagonistic’. However diplomatically or discreetly they deliver the message, their critiques are often dismissed or ignored. 

Another common response to criticism, one I’ve experienced myself, is the tactic used by those in power/privilege to reverse the dynamics of being called out, and to instrumentalise ‘careful’ jargon, which often helps create the illusion of a moral upper hand, of caring more than the person doing the criticising. ‘Nuance’, ‘complexity’, ‘safe spaces’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement’ have become buzzwords, and have lost their meaning due to institutions, organisations and influential individuals using them to justify their own attempts not to take on feedback or listen to criticism. Defensive people with privilege and power will often refer to their commitment to ‘the work’ of making positive change, while demonstrating none of the experience, knowledge or skills required for ‘the doing’ of this work. Eg: Listening to criticism….

[As an aside, as you’ve probably noticed, I’m suggesting that ‘the work’ has also been co-opted, and vote that we start referring to ‘the doing’]

Ultimately, if anything is going to change, and if those in positions of power, privilege and leadership want to be seen to be doing ‘the work’, then they too have to start engaging with ‘the doing’ of actively listening to people’s feedback, making the minor adjustments asked of them, reflecting, evaluating and responding to criticism. 

And then moving on. 

We can all have opinions and we can air them how we choose, it’s the magic of living in a society with (relatively) free speech. Whether or not people choose to engage with our opinions is entirely up to the individual, and I wouldn’t wish for this blog to be interpreted as a comment on how people engage with critical debates. However, if we decide to actively step into the deeply complicated world of producing things – content, programmes, activities, projects or policies – that solve societal problems, we need to be open to being called out by those already experiencing or tackling these problems, when we occasionally get something wrong. 

If those of us in positions of privilege want to put something out into the world as a potential solution to a societal problem, we need to build in systems for taking on and responding to feedback to that thing from our communities. And we need to take responsibility for our own emotional, defensive reactions when people from those communities choose not to support us anymore because we’ve refused to do so. 


Where next?

I don’t have any answers or suggestions. More than anything, I’ve written this post in frustration and in solidarity: solidarity with those who have been doing ‘the doing’ of calling out discrimination and inequalities for generations; solidarity with those who have increasingly experienced all the above dynamics since the amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement; solidarity with those who saw the 2020 shift in attitudes and rhetorics as an opportunity to address other forms of oppression and inequality in our spaces of work, play and study; solidarity with those who continue to experience racism. 

If the ‘good guys’ – those with access to power, privilege, influence and funding, who are trying to address, tackle or solve societal problems – don’t start changing their attitudes and responses to receiving criticism, nothing is going to change. The debates around inclusion and equality will get more and more divisive, and the arc of progress will start to swing back in the wrong direction as a result. 

Let’s stop blaming the people who are doing ‘the doing’ of learning, working, adapting and supporting ‘others’ by calling out racism, and let’s find ways of holding our leaders accountable for their emotional, knee-jerk, defensive reactions to being asked to do better. 

We urgently need to educate ourselves in the issues being tackled, and to familiarise ourselves with the typical responses and perceptions of them, so that we can better equip ourselves with the tools to mitigate the harm on the ground when people respond negatively to being criticised for perpetuating racism, or other forms of discrimination and oppression. We are already seeing what happens when people react negatively to, say, progress in LGBTQ+ inclusion and equality.


Some final, optimistic food for thought…

I want to point to a recent study by Ipsos, Kings College London and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, exploring the attitudes of people towards gender equality in 32 countries. 

Across the board, including in the UK, the results were contradictory: for example, an increase in those believing that gender equality has gone ‘too far’ (something the researchers describe as a common ‘reaction to the movement for greater equality’); whilst, simultaneously, an almost universal acknowledgement that ‘gender inequality is still some way from being solved’.

“….there are signs that the public are starting to push back on this progress to date, which is potentially worrying, but it may also be a sign that real change is happening in society and change can often make people uncomfortable and resistant. 

Over the coming years …. I hope that we will see this discomfort shift to acceptance, acceptance that achieving gender equality is an essential evolution for British society.”

Kelly Beaver MBE, chief executive of Ipsos, UK and Ireland

Do we need to factor in discomfort and resistance as healthy stages in the process of moving towards social change and equality? 

Perhaps the fact that people in positions of power and privilege are reacting defensively to being criticised is a good thing, and a sign that progress is working. But how can we be more aware of this dynamic, and how can we negate the impact of these responses on the ground? 

How do we make sure these resistant reactions don’t effectively stop progress in its tracks, or worse, reverse it?


A suggested practice….

I do actually have one suggestion. It’s inspired by some of the practical, anti-racism work I’ve been lucky enough to witness/be part of since 2020, and the people I know who do understand the value of taking on ‘constructive criticism’

What if every time each of us received feedback to a project, statement, activity, publication or policy, before responding to said feedback, we asked ourselves a set of really basic questions? A set of checks to ensure feedback can be productively taken on and responded to:

  • What do I need to do to remove my personal response and enter this discussion from a more objective, productive standpoint?
  • Am I actually acknowledging and responding to the core issue being raised? 
  • Am I silencing/harming anyone in the way I’m responding? 
  • Does raising this issue put this person in a vulnerable position? If so, how can I support them and help turn their feedback into a productive outcome? 

OK I’m out of ideas. Open to your feedback ; )