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Understanding Cancel Culture

Updated: 6 days ago

Dear Asian Youth,

“You're canceled.”

This phrase has been thrown across comment sections, articles, and chats throughout the internet; so much so, that it has developed into its own culture around it. The term “Cancel Culture” has become an infamous multi-definition word ranging from a sarcastic response to a distasteful joke, to holding companies, organizations, and celebrities accountable for harmful actions.

Cancel Culture came from a somewhat ironic and humorous origin which has since been redefined by activists into what it means today. According to the Vox article, “What is cancel culture and why do we keep fighting about cancel culture?,” cancel culture started as a “misogynistic joke” in response to the song, “I’m Single” by Lil Wayne. In the song, he quotes the line, “Yeah, I’m single / n***a had to cancel that b*tch like Nino,” an apparent reference to a sexist joke from a 1991 movie New Jack City when an abusive character Nino Brown says, “Cancel that B*tch. I’ll buy another one” when referring to his girlfriend who breaks down over his violent actions and he subsequently dumps her.

The term, “cancel culture” started to appear across various social media platforms for celebrities or organizations' harmful and problematic actions, and was initially used as a “joke” to express discomfort for odd or abnormal behavior. However, it has most notably been used when a celebrity said or did something that was socially insensitive or hurtful.

Cancel culture often goes hand in hand with “call-out culture” which has a similar name, but different origin. Call-out culture originated back in the 1960s and ‘70s when activists would call out another person's insensitive platform or misuse of a word or phrase either in private gossip or public statements.

The two have become largely intertwined in modern-day as each have become a tool of accountability. These cultures have been amplified by social media where any singular person has the ability to reach thousands of people from a single tweet or post. This has made both cancel and call-out culture incredibly controversial as many people question the actual effectiveness of “calling out” and “canceling” celebrities and organizations alike. Call-out Culture has sat in the center of controversy with a long history in many social justice movements. Often when activists would call-out a political leader over their dangerous or often discriminatory policies to bring about greater awareness. However, it has also been weaponized to tear apart movements from within.

In an article by the New York Times published in 2019 titled I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic by Loretta Ross, Ross discusses her issues with call-out culture and the history behind it. She states, “I sharply criticized white women for not understanding women of color...I rarely questioned whether the way I addressed their white privilege was actually counterproductive... We believed we could change the world and that the most powerful people were afraid of us. Efforts like the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO projects created a lot of discord. Often... discrediting them (activist) through a call-out attack.”

Call-out culture was not only a medium of education, but also a weapon used to discredit those that pushed for change. The use of call-out and cancel culture is an incredible power with dangerous consequences.

Another article by The Guardian discussing call-out culture quoted former President Obama on the topic stating, “If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right, or used the wrong word or verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was. I called you out.’ That’s not activism,”