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Not So Woke

Kwon: Is your fave being canceled or just criticized

What exactly that ‘toxic’ cancel culture is

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not so woke

Editor’s note: This column looks at how race is portrayed and manipulated in today’s media and in my everyday life as an East Asian-American girl, an identity that typically gives both privilege and struggle. In a supposedly “woke” city, it is important to review the ever-changing intricacies of race. 

If you’re like me and go on Twitter pretty regularly, or are at least moderately up to date on pop-culture terminology, you’re likely aware of the phenomenon of “cancel culture.”

Cancel culture is widely known as the idea of canceling a celebrity after they’re exposed for doing or saying something offensive or harmful. Many consider the culture of cancel culture to be extra toxic and think that celebrities can’t live their lives without being canceled.

“Cancel culture is so engraved into this society where, as soon as someone in the face of media has done something questionable, they get ‘canceled,’ which isn’t fair because everyone is human, but when you’re watched by millions, what you do is opened up to everyone’s opinion,” freshman Maria Falcon said.

I agree that cancel culture definitely has the potential to be vicious, especially if it’s just glib, random canceling on social media. But also, I feel like sometimes people conflate the act of canceling with criticism.

Much of the time, the people that seem to “canceled” are usually just being criticized, albeit sometimes aggressively, for saying something or acting in a way offensive and/or degrading to marginalized communities, typically.

Years back, YouTuber Jeffree Star was seemingly unfairly canceled by a large portion of online users due to his history of racist comments.

Terry Crews was considered canceled last year after a thread of homophobic tweets. More recently, Crews was criticized for his invalidation of Gabrielle Union’s mistreatment claims after she was fired from America’s Got Talent. Though he did end up apologizing for his remarks, some still don’t believe it was enough.

The same could be said about Scarlett Johansson, who was under fire for playing a supposedly Asian character in “Ghost in the Shell.” She has been criticized for initially accepting the role of a trans man in “Rub & Tug, a role that she eventually stepped down from due to the backlash from the trans community. Notably, she has also been criticized for being in support of Woody Allen in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

Ariana Grande has faced criticism from communities of color for her use of blaccent, extreme tanning and for using Asian culture for fashionable, aesthetic purposes.

Generally, the pattern is that celebrities face backlash via criticism of something concrete that causes harm to certain communities. Celebrities should be held accountable for their actions; they aren’t free to do whatever without criticism. 

What we might see as the act of canceling might simply be the initial reaction from those who feel harmed and offended by the actions of the celebrity, even if it might be an aggressive first reaction.

However, I also have to ask — does cancel culture even work?

In the oh-so-extensive time I’ve spent online, I’ve seen the cycle of a celebrity being exposed for something they’ve done, facing backlash, reacting to the backlash — sometimes lashing out — a varying period of cancellation, and then the issue slowly fading from our collective minds.

The people mentioned earlier — Jeffree Starr, Terry Crews, Scarlett Johnsson, among others — are still living their lives, and doing so successfully, I might add.

The thing is, celebrities might do something wrong, we might give them immense criticism, and maybe they’ll apologize, or more likely won’t, but at the end of the day, they are still celebrated people. They are still people who are typically in the upper echelons of society, more privileged through their race, wealth, class, or another identifying factor.

And this most definitely factors into how forgiving people are following the criticism a celebrity faces.

“We idolize the rich and famous, [and] this leads us to admire them and be more forgiving when they do wrong,” junior Angelyne Ngo said. “In Western society especially, where pale skin is idealized, there develops a strong bias toward pale and white skin.”

It is simple: privilege protects celebrities.

Cancel culture definitely has its detriments, but at its core, it is about criticism and accountability. It is about holding celebrities to the same standards that we would for politicians and regular people around us. 

It is about taking our beliefs about social issues and not giving celebrities a free pass for things we might typically condemn.

Reach columnist Deborah Kwon at Twitter: @debskwo

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