Updated: Oct 18, 2021
By now, an apology video about one’s history of problematic behavior, especially racism, is almost a rite of passage for many influencers. Recently, following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, creators like Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and Tana Mongeau have come under fire for their racist remarks, many of which were from years ago. There have been cries to “cancel” and deplatform them, especially Dawson, whose past behavior includes not only the use of racial epithets but blackface and pedophilic commentary as well. The question many are asking is: should we even care about influencer drama?
In short, yes. First and foremost, this type of behavior is not merely “drama.” Influencers reach wide audiences; at the time of writing, Dawson, Star, and Mongeau collectively have 45.04 million subscribers on YouTube, even following public backlash. The power they have is reflected in their job titles. As “influencers,” they are responsible for any and all content they produce. The majority of audiences supporting these creators are young and impressionable, and the fact that so many of their favorite YouTubers have been racially insensitive may trivialize or even normalize casual racism. In some cases, this behavior has helped creators build their brand—especially Star, whose outrageous and bold persona helped him launch and market his eponymous cosmetics company, making him millions.
Often, creators excuse their behavior by claiming that their past self is not who they are anymore. While it’s true that over the course of a few years, their mindsets may have shifted, someone’s past cannot simply be erased. Unless they underwent significant mental trauma, the person who said the n-word is still the same person today—they just stopped saying the n-word. This does not mean that they are automatically separate from their past, simply because it is more convenient.
Creators may also use their mental health to explain their behavior, but even so, a mental illness cannot and should not be used in an attempt to excuse racism. An estimated 16.2 million American adults experience depressive episodes yearly, but presumably, this does not mean all 16.2 million people spew racial slurs and don blackface. Simply put, there is no justification for grown adults to exhibit such behavior.
Unfortunately, when examining how consumers should then respond, there is no clear-cut answer. Whether someone decides to personally stop or reduce their support depends on a multitude of factors. Has the influencer displayed a pattern of problematic behavior? Did they take accountability for their actions? How have they demonstrated genuine growth? Determining the answer to the latter is nearly impossible. Just because an influencer stops partaking in overtly racist behavior does not mean that they have truly grown—change is not synonymous with evolution, and as change is a result of human nature, it is not an achievement but an expectation.
Evolution is extremely difficult to define in such situations, but when it occurs it is blatantly obvious. YouTuber Jenna Mourey is a prime example of evolution over change; despite currently receiving no backlash, she voluntarily addressed her history of blackface and offensive comments without being prompted. While it is no one’s place to tell others to forgive creators, the difference is clear: instead of reacting to accusations, Mourey brought her past to light by choice. When influencers speak out in response, it is unclear whether they truly care or if they simply are trying to save face. Introducing yourself to backlash, however, sends the message that you have been actively thinking about your past and putting in effort to correct your behavior.