A few months ago, I was asked to speak about shame and privilege at an event in Santa Cruz, a predominantly liberal and progressive beach town in California. Multiple white women approached me afterwards about their fears to address privilege within their communities or online businesses. One of the comments that stuck out the most was made by a white woman who seemed genuinely interested in being an ally to women of color. “I’m afraid that if I say or ask the wrong thing, I’ll…get…cancelled,” she quietly admitted.
I spent the next few days thinking about what it means to be “canceled,” specifically how it’s causing people to live in shame and denial as a way of self-preservation — an effort to diminish their chances of being called out. And while I have my own views on white spiritual feminism, it appears to be too easy for most white women to disregard the suffering of people of color.
We live in an era where we expect “wokeness” from our peers, the cultural expectation to be socially aware, particularly in what we speak up against. If you aren’t “woke,” you’re at risk of being “cancelled,” or experience a certain level of “woke bashing.” Cancel culture has infiltrated the very fabric of our society, so much so that some people, like the woman who came up to me in Santa Cruz, are afraid to learn, engage, and speak up. You can’t read the news or flip through a gossip magazine without reading about a celebrity losing a TV show or brand partnership deal (effectively being “cancelled”) as a result of problematic behavior.
Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others.
In my opinion, it’s important to acknowledge first and foremost the good that has come from cancel culture. In the New York Times research piece about cancel culture, Lisa Nakamura, professor at the University of Michigan studying the intersection of digital media and race, gender, and sexuality, defines cancel culture as “a cultural boycott…. It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to.” Essentially, when someone has said or done problematic things, either in the present or past, “the people” have the ability to stop supporting them and their work by effectively “canceling” them. Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating sexism, racism, or any other type of abuse or harmful wrongdoing to others. It’s held people accountable for their actions in ways that wasn’t possible in the past. It’s prevented shitty people from getting away with doing or saying shitty things.
Cancel culture demands social change and addresses the deep inequalities in keeping the oppressed oppressed. In 2016, Hollywood power couple Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith boycotted the Oscars, expressing outrage over #OscarsSoWhite, a movement started by April Reign to address the racial inequalities within the Academy Awards. In 2015-16, all of the actors nominated for lead and supporting roles were white. While the Smiths received some initial backlash for “cancelling” their subscription to the Oscars, it resulted in real social change. In 2019, the Oscars set a record for the most wins by black nominees ever.
In a world where we repost moral outrage without the necessary due diligence, it’s important we read between the lines before we effectively “cancel” someone.
Political writer Amanda Marcotte posed the begged question in a piece she wrote for Salon, “If we had a justice culture, would we even need to worry about cancel culture?” When we are unable to rely on a justice system to punish those who have committed a crime, or expressed racial or sexist behaviors, we the people turn to cancel culture for retribution. Take Harvey Weinstein, the once mega producer who was able to dodge lawsuits and sexual abuse accusations for over 25 years. It wasn’t until public outcry and pressure through social media, as a result of the #MeToo movement, that the police finally got involved. In 2018, Harvey Weinstein was charged with rape and several other counts of sexual abuse. In this case, cancel culture impacted justice culture.
Besides highlighting racial and societal inequalities, cancel culture can also have a powerful impact on brands we support and how we consume their products. Diet Prada is an Instagram account that calls out fashion inequalities and copy cats. While it usually pays strong attention to brand replicas, it’s been able to address and combat major issues with fashion powerhouses like Dolce & Gabbana. Their latest #BoycottDolceAndGabbana was a response to the brand’s prejudice and racist comments against the Chinese community. It gained support from Chrissy Teigen and Miley Cyrus, and ended up costing the fashion brand $2M in just a few days.
As we shift towards a more politically correct society, holding accountable the biggest oppressors, it’s socially expected of us to be more aware about the things we say and the way we act. I believe calling out problematic, deeply hurtful, and damaging behavior positively impacts our society. By being able to express moral outrage, cancel culture has allowed for power dynamics to start to change. The people in power are still mostly white, male, and rich — but people of color, women, and other marginalized folks are finally able to take a seat at the table — taking hold of their power with every tweet.
If we had a justice culture, would we even need to worry about cancel culture?
I believe in its positive impact, but cancel culture can also get ugly, and isn’t as black and white as I have just possibly portrayed it to be. We have to allow individuals to learn from their mistakes. “Woke bashing” individuals who are willing to learn and have a desire to be an ally to marginalized communities, doesn’t serve the collective pursuit of equality; it only causes alienation and shame. I believe we need to push for critical thinking, and encourage people to read beyond the headlines and potential media manipulation. In a world where we repost moral outrage without the necessary due diligence, it’s important we read between the lines before we effectively “cancel” someone.
As Jameela Jamilh tweeted a few months ago: “Nobody is born perfectly ‘woke.’” And we shouldn’t expect people to be. Wokeness a continuous process of learning and unlearning. It’s about showing up, even when it makes you uncomfortable. It’s about turning fear of criticism into impactful dialogue and actionable change. I love that Jameela calls herself a “feminist-in-progress” too. To me, the term represents wanting to create a better and more equal world, while acknowledging progress and the mistakes that will be made along the way.
After spending a few days thinking about cancel culture, I reached out to the woman in Santa Cruz.
“I totally understand your fear of being ‘cancelled,’ but what I think is more important is shifting your relationship with criticism. Learn to embrace it. If certain communities call you out, that’s a good thing, it means there’s an opportunity to do more learning and, ultimately, allow more healing and acceptance to unfold. Embracing criticism allows you to be a true ally to people you wish to serve.”