As always, it was a talk with a client that got me to thinking about writing this. (Sidenote – I feel very lucky to be in a role where I’m the sounding board for so many people because I hear brilliant, unfiltered ideas that make me see my life differently too.) The idea was about accountability and canceling someone who had done something wrong, and what comes after canceling someone.
I hate it when people use words and assume everyone will know them, so I’ll define this one. “Canceling” is a word used when someone is rejected from a social scene, their job, group of friends, or platform due to their actions. It typically happens when a person is accused of rape, sexual harassment, or racist/homophobic/misogynist actions or social media posts. Usually things like screenshots or videos of the offending person being offensive are shared on social media to let a wide group see their behavior, often with demands that they lose their job or status in some way. Canceling has been a way that people who don’t hold political or legal power can call to task a person by using social power, and in many cases, this social power has actually led to legal or monetary repercussions for the offending person.
Let’s get this out of the way too – if someone alleges, I believe them. Arguments that people are “making things up” really don’t fly with me after years and years of hearing from people across income, gender, and age lines describe their assaults to me. I am counting with assaults not just physical or sexual assault, but racist, homophobic, and sexist emotional abuse. This abuse is just as powerful as physical harm and often more pernicious because it isn’t taken seriously. Don’t argue with a social worker that abuse is made up, we know how many people are abused who never share with family, friends, or authorities and the pain that is hidden every day. We also know that the consequences for confronting a perpetrator of abuse are much greater to the survivor than to the perpetrator. Furthermore, anyone who knows anything about abuse knows that it is a typical survivor response to minimize the abuse rather than amplify it. I’m not arguing about it, but for the record I’m a trained, licensed professional and my statements on this subject are credible and there is plenty of research to back it up, so if you don’t believe me, keep reading and we’ll get to why it may be hard for you to believe.
Back to canceling. There is actually nothing new about the idea of canceling; social shaming is probably one of the oldest mechanisms in the book to help correct human behavior. The modern version of canceling has been typically used by more liberal groups in the United States, but the idea is actually borrowed from a traditional, conservative mindset. Collectivist societies or insular social groups often use social shaming to keep individual behaviors in line with group norms, for example if a person marries outside of the prescribed ethnic/religious group that their family dictates.
The problem with social shaming on an internet scale is twofold – on one hand, the canceled person who is not sorry and does not change behavior can move to another setting and continue it, and on the other, a canceled person who is sorry and wants to change behavior isn’t given a space or guidance to do so. Canceling works, but only to an extent. The CEO of CrossFit was canceled for his racist comments dismissing the murder of George Floyd, but someone with his power and influence can easily find a comfortable job among other, like-minded white men and the company he left will bear the brunt of the fallout from his comments while he continues to earn millions elsewhere. What is done to facilitate and help change on his part? And what happens to the person who actually wants to change but loses social supports and accountability in their life as a result of social shunning?
The worst thing for a white person right now is be “outed” as a racist. I think the use of the word “outed” in this context is frankly ridiculous because all white people would be in the closet if we follow this metaphor. And yes, there is disagreement about whether or not racism can be perpetrated by people of color or not, (NOT talking about reverse racism, that doesn’t exist, I’m talking about Ibram X. Kendi’s ideas) I am just going to talk about white people here because we are the largest, most obvious group that needs to do work right now. Speaking from my own personal experience as a white person, the George Floyd movement caused me to feel white guilt and one of the easiest ways for white guilt to be alleviated is to point out who is the bigger, badder racist than me. Does that end racism or stop that person (or me) from being racist? Nope. Does it distract from the work that I personally need to do? Absolutely. Donald Trump doesn’t melt to the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West when people call him racist, he just doubles down and tells you how not racist he is. He goes into his secret hole of people who caress and reassure him that he’s good so he doesn’t have to worry about changing anymore. That’s the cycle we’re in right now.
I also believe that rape culture is a lot like white supremacy. It’s easy for people to say “I don’t rape, so I’m not part of rape culture” but we are all part of it. I think men have a larger responsibility, just as white people have a larger responsibility, but women and non-binary people can also be part of rape culture if we do not believe survivors of rape or use subtle means to blame them. Same thing goes for homophobia when people of any orientation doubt someone’s identity. That’s work that still needs doing. A lot of my arguments here are focusing on racism because I feel that’s a cogent point right now. However, rape, sexual assault, and homophobia are still huge issues, and canceling is still useful to call people out and get them away from positions of power that they can abuse.
I really think there is enough focus on the Trumps of the world that I don’t need to write about that here. They should be talked about, but that’s not what I’m doing today. I believe that our biggest problem as a society is not the big baddies who unapologetically commit racist acts, because people know they suck and don’t want anything to do with them. It’s important to expose behavior so people know about it. Canceling is working in these situations. However, the bigger problem is that we have a socially accepted norm that we don’t talk about whiteness and privilege so those big baddies always have somewhere to hide. Even the KKK has talked about how they’ve needed to evolve and change to get new members now because people don’t want to be affiliated with white supremacy. There are new, undercover forms that racism has taken post-Civil Rights era and that is what we are dealing with.
For the sake of analysis, let’s look at someone who isn’t Donald Trump (please), who is waking up and realizing the error of their ways and wants to change. By the way, this should be ALL OF US right now. There is not a single white person who has not had racist thoughts, assumptions, or actions, and no matter how many Black friends or family members you have, groups you donate to, or protests you attend, there is personal growth you need to do. I’m not saying this because I’m better than you, because I’m not, I’m saying it because I’m doing it too. But I’m talking about someone who has perhaps made a more obvious racial faux pas such as supporting All Lives Matter (btw, if you don’t know why All Lives Matter is a problem, there are plenty of articles online that can explain, and thank you for learning and challenging your notions).
What does this person do? I remember lots of fumbling, horrible attempts I personally have made to learn and grow and I hope that my mistakes can make things easier for people coming to this work now. One such attempt was in a class in grad school which I affectionately termed our “racism talking class” where we sat in a circle and talked about race. (I know this sounds derisive, and it is a little bit, because there were problems with this class, but I recognize that schools are trying and at least my school had this class required!) I was working in job placement at the time and one day I said to the class that I realized several of my clients who were Black men did not seem to be getting jobs as quickly as other clients. I wondered if it was my fault that they were not getting jobs as quickly because perhaps I deep-down didn’t believe that they were as capable, and what I could do about that. The class basically erupted in saying how racist I was and how I was trying to “make my clients be white” to get jobs, and many other comments which I acknowledged but in the end didn’t help me at all with the problem I had brought up in the first place – how do I change my attitude? I still had the same problem but now I also realized I didn’t have anyone to help me solve it, because you can bet your ass I never said anything real in that class again. Not only was I actively harming my clients but now I was hopeless about how to stop doing it.
I can’t even count how many times other white people got pissed and told me to “do the work” of addressing and changing my racist beliefs without ever explaining to me what that work even was. I needed and still do need that help from people who know more than me. If a kid raised their hand in class asking for help with their homework, would you tell them to just do it? Would you get angry with them that they are still learning? The work that they need to do depends on what’s in front of them! Let’s all stop pretending we are done with The Work like we are graduated with our Liberal Good White Person degree cause I am sure that the Black and brown people in our lives are not handing those out to us. Privilege is not Bowser, you can’t just toss it three times to kill it and be done.
So what can we do to actually be accountable and help other people be accountable? Let’s start with humility. Call yourself out and point out your own mistakes as they relate to your privileged identities. ACCEPT THAT YOU’LL MAKE MISTAKES! Tell other people how you’re fixing them. When you stay humble, you create an environment where other people can talk about their mistakes and solve them too. Make it normal to admit you’re wrong. Listen and believe Black people, women, and LGBT+ people when they tell you that there’s a problem with what you’re doing, and work on your defensiveness so that it’s actually doable for them to talk to you about these things. Tell people you want to be better and actually mean it.
Resist the urge to position yourself against other people and tell stories about how you are a Good White Person/Good Man/ or Good Straight Ally in comparison to someone else. (Robin DiAngelo writes about this and is a great resource to read). When you tell those stories, you just highlight to other people that you are judging them and they can’t be honest around you, that you are looking for ways to one-up them to look good. Remember that other people are looking to you and you may not even know it. And if you understand something that your friend or family member doesn’t, or see that they are using ignorant language, then help them out. Help them. Don’t cancel them. We need to reserve canceling for the big baddies right now. Don’t write posts about them or talk behind their back about it, just talk to them as a person who loves them and wants them to be better out of that love. I guarantee this approach is going to get you better results than arguing about how wrong they are.
I am NOT saying that we need to just let people be racist, sexist, homophobic or in any other way offensive and harmful. We need to keep tabs on people in power for their attitudes and beliefs and make it apparent that certain things are not OK. However, if we don’t make a practice of actually correcting racism and other isms in our personal circles, it just drives them deeper and they grow in secret. I am saying that we have to recognize that these attitudes are in all of us and we need to approach those who perpetrate these attitudes as our peers and not as beneath us. I’m also not saying it’s your job to fix everyone and never get pissed off about racism you see in loved ones. Take a break from the teachable moments when you need to, because it’s tiring for you and it’s also probably going to cause the other person to shut down at some point and stop learning.
Liberals, let’s stop being horrible to each other and to everyone else. Imagine someone worked at Amazon (or some other corporation that everyone hates right now) and decided to quit because the company didn’t align with their values. Now imagine that they tried to work at a nonprofit or socially conscious business and couldn’t because Amazon was on their resume. They’d end up working at Walmart even though they didn’t really want to. Or worse, maybe they’d be so pissed after dozens of interviews where they were insulted for being the one thing they were trying to change, and now they decide that nonprofits are full of horrible people and they’ll never support one. That is what we are doing when conservative people try to join up with our causes. Ignorance should be punished socially, but the punishment should not be forever because then there is no reason to change.
I started this talk about canceling because I think it’s important to remember that social tools used by liberal groups are not liberal in origin. It’s easy to be liberal and maintain that all things done by liberals are good and all things done by conservatives are bad, but like anything easy, it’s not correct. It’s problematic to think this way and it needs to stop. If liberals cannot question their morals and evaluate them, then there is no reason to maintain that they have any moral high ground. I personally believe canceling is important to call out societal ills like racism, homophobia, and sexism for people in power. But its effectiveness is limited when we use it in private circles. Let’s remember too that in societies where social shaming is used to “correct” behaviors like homosexuality, the people who use these tactics believe with no less certainty that what they are doing is moral, right, and good. Moral certainty is not a good criteria to evaluate effectiveness.
White guilt is hard. Privilege work takes effort. It’s not impossible to deal with, but it’s uncomfortable and challenging and people don’t want to do it. It’s a form of personal growth that carries so much more weight to it than just changing ourselves because we have to be accountable for the centuries of horrific abuses perpetrated and continuing to be perpetrated by our people. We need to do it because people are literally dying when we don’t. Let’s not make it harder by pretending we ourselves don’t have to work on it.