Speak Truth: Cancel Culture

By Kaneia Crumlin

“Here there’s always the opportunity to voice my opinions and hear others’ opinions and realize my views aren’t the only views.”

-Shaleya, 12th Grade, Elizabeth Seton High School

On a Thursday before Thanksgiving, just two weeks after a tumultuous presidential election, a group of more than 60 high school students from across the District gathered over Zoom to make sense of the world. Their conversation centered around a recent phenomenon known as “call-out” or “cancel culture.”

Traci, a 12th grade student at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, and Nile, also a senior, from Washington Latin Public Charter School, each moderated one of the two breakout groups. They began by asking, “What is your definition of cancel culture?” Students offered a range of responses: 

“Anything a culture wants to kick out because it’s considered bad or morally wrong at the time.” 

“Sometimes it’s less about society and more about what a group of people believes is wrong.” 

“A cultural boycott.” 

“It’s when people on Twitter call someone out for doing something offensive and then try to stop their success in some way.”

Their responses were in line with the Merriam-Webster entry on the subject. The entry also points to the origin of cancel culture as being ”credited to Black users of Twitter, where it has been used as a hashtag” to call attention to unacceptable behavior of public figures.

As the discussion continued, it often circled back to the question of the efficacy of this approach. Georgia, a 9th grade student from Elizabeth Seton High School asserted, “the concept is important but the execution is sloppy because there’s usually not a lot of organization or fact checking when GenZ is trying to cancel. No one has a clear idea. They listen to one person then go spread that information.”

Does It Work? 

In preparation for this Speak Truth discussion, participants were asked to read a New York Times article in which President Obama comments on Call-Out Culture, slating it as the antithesis of activism. The discussion swung from defense of the practice of cancel culture to concern about its implications for self-expression, free speech, and redemption.

Xander, a 12th grader at Woodrow Wilson High School said, “we do it in the name of correction but it’s a complete dragging of that person in public even after they’ve genuinely apologized. Any potential they have of redemption is completely shut down.”

Tori, an 11th grader at Thurgood Marshall Academy noted the negative impact of this cultural phenomenon. “Rumors are spread and people are quick to cancel people–it can seize the person in question’s money and it brings them down.”

“I feel like people are biased when it comes to cancel culture,” said Aisha, an 11th grade student from Elizabeth Seton High School. “When a big artist with millions of followers does something wrong, they immediately get responses like ‘they didn’t know any better’ or ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean it’ but when it’s a small artist, they get cancelled immediately and get taunts and insults.”

Duane, a senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy, and others pointed out that the issue and stigma for the person being cancelled are often forgotten after a short time. “People know these are social issues that need to be talked about and resolved for this generation and people know it’s no longer okay to be silent or have no opinion, but they don’t want to do the work to resolve the issue so that’s why things go back to normal.” 

Markaiah, a 10th grader from KIPP DC College Prep replied, “Most of the time it’s a repeated mistake. You should know better because there are plenty of examples around us of what is and is not acceptable.”

Is An Apology Enough?

Students discussed when and where cancel culture can happen (anytime and on the internet and in-real life); who it impacts (famous people and you and me); and examples of recently cancelled individuals including Kanye West for saying that 400 years of slavery was a choice, Rihanna for playing sacred Islamic verses during a lingerie scene in her fashion show, and Jimmy Kimmel for use of Black face in past comedy sketches

Traci asked the group whether cancel culture was creating accountability. “There’s a whole subculture of apology tour videos but are any of the apologies genuine?”

Without hesitation, the group answered “No.”

Laila, an 11th grade student at Elizabeth Seton High School chimed in, “There should be a better way to educate those who have proven to be doing something wrong.”

The videos “seem to focus more on why the perpetrator isn’t racist anymore as opposed to fully owning the wrong and denouncing it,” Traci said. 

“An apology video is a decent first step,” added Emmanuelle, a 12th grader at Phelps ACE High School, “but don’t announce you’ve donated because it takes away from the idea behind the donation. The perpetrator shouldn’t get credit for their donation. If the community they have hurt feels like they’ve done enough, then leave it to that community to tell the world. During the wait, the offender needs to educate themselves on why they were wrong.”

Implications for GenZ

Participants were asked how they felt cancel culture is affecting their generation. 

One student wrote in the chat, “It could cause us to have short term opinions.”

Therese, a 9th grader from Elizabeth Seton High School reflected, “I feel like it makes us think twice about who we look up to versus who are actually good people in our lives.”

Georgia said her generation is, “insanely cautious to the point where we refrain from sharing our opinions in order to avoid being seen in a negative light. We’re also very vulnerable to peer pressure.” 

Traci challenged her peers, “What then would be a less toxic and more productive form of accountability and activism in this area?”

“Maybe move to offering the offender constructive criticism to give people a chance to grow,” said Shaleya.

Emmanuelle offered a call to action, “We need to decide whether to fix cancel culture or do away with it and create a whole new way of addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s everyone’s responsibility to judge others actions and teach them what to do. This is personal. I prefer ‘accountability culture.’”

“We can start by engaging in real social issues,” said Duane. “Issues that matter most so we aren’t distracted by lesser ones. I think education plays a big role in the behaviors that people carry on in their daily lives.”

“Just like these Speak Truth sessions, we need to stay on top of current issues and educate ourselves on many things, even if we don’t like them or don’t agree with some views,” wrote Emma, a 9th grader at Elizabeth Seton High school in the chat. 

In the post-discussion survey, students continued to reflect on this question and the implications of the conversation itself on how they viewed cancel culture. “I will be more cautious whenever I see things in social media about someone being cancelled,” one student wrote, “because now I know that maybe it was false or just allegations with no fact. I will try to do my research before jumping to conclusions.”

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