Shane Dawson and the Plight of the White Male YouTube Star: When Cancel Culture Fails Us
YouTubers Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, James Charles, and David Dobrik have all had major success in spite of "cancelable" offenses. How do we ensure they're held accountable?
Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent push from progressives to overhaul America's law enforcement, celebrities, and public figures have been forced to reckon with their own history of racism at varying degrees of severity.
In the past week, Mike Henry, Kristen Bell, and Jenny Slate have announced that they're stepping down from voicing their Black animated characters on The Cleveland Show, Central Park, and Big Mouth respectively. Hulu removed an episode of Golden Girls in which Blanche and Rose wore dark brown mud masks. Country bands Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks changed their names to not include words rooted in racism, while some realtors are nixing the phrase "master bedroom."
While these are all well-intended gestures towards a more anti-racist society, they pale in comparison to what we actually desperately need: accountability held by those who are causing severe harm towards Black people, like police officers—and YouTube stars who relied on blatant racism under the guise of comedy.
Last week, Shane Dawson posted a 20-minute video titled "Taking Accountability," in which he offered a catch-all apology for his previous jokes and behavior that have aged incredibly unwell. "This video is coming from a place of just wanting to own up to my sh*t," Dawson said.
"Wanting to own up to everything I've done on the Internet that has hurt people, that has added to a problem, that has not been handled well. I should have been punished for things," he adds. Throughout the video, Dawson apologized for his lengthy history of jokes about racism and pedophilia, adding that he "hate[s] that person" who made those past videos.
After beginning his channel in 2008 at age 19, Dawson became known for portraying his own cast of characters. One of them was called Shanaynay, a caricature of a "ghetto" Black woman. He also used blackface to portray celebrities like Wendy Williams and Chris Brown. He originally responded to criticisms of that behavior in a 2014 video titled "My Apology," a video that many argued wasn't an adequate enough apology.
Most recently, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jaden Smith denounced Dawson for a clip in which he makes inappropriate sexual gestures while staring at a poster of Willow Smith when she was just 11 years old. Nevertheless, Dawson's career maintained unscathed; as of this writing, his main channel boasts over 22 million subscribers.
Whether his latest new apology was "good enough" or not is still up for debate (between Black people and Black people only), but history shows us that he won't be going away anytime soon.
My Apology (Blackface & Offensive Videos)www.youtube.com
But a resurfaced example of Dawson's racist history and another apology video is unlikely to affect his career overall; because this is a recurring habit in white male YouTubers. Makeup mogul Jeffree Star (who, for the record, maintains a close friendship with Dawson) came under fire in 2017 for past usage of racist slurs. "I am so sorry for my words," Star said in his own apology video. I am so sorry you ever had to see me like that…that is not who I am and I apologize deep down to the core of my f*cking being."
Just this month, Star apologized again after screenshots surfaced of an old website he ran titled "Lipstick Nazis" emblazoned with swastikas. He still has nearly 18 million subscribers, was the fifth-highest paid YouTuber of 2019 according to Forbes, and owns a highly successful e-commerce makeup line.
Another white male YouTuber who's been "canceled" to virtually no avail is James Charles, a beauty guru who was caught in an infamous, convoluted feud with fellow makeup artist Tati Westbrook last year. Charles has also made racist and transphobic remarks in the past.
In a since-deleted video called "BYE SISTER…," Westbrook accused Charles of disloyalty, predatory behavior, and using his "fame, power and money to play with people's emotions." After that video, Charles lost one million subscribers in 24 hours. About a week later, Charles released a rebuttal video refuting many of Westbrook's claims. Westbrook took down her video and took a hiatus from YouTube, while Charles' subscriber count gradually recovered, despite a lengthy list of sexual harassment allegations.
Dawson, Star, and Charles' poor behavior in the past is no secret at this point, and it's common knowledge that their fellow white-male-megaYouTubers like PewDiePie and the Paul brothers have made some incredibly tone-deaf remarks for the sake of "content" in recent years with very little repercussions for their actions, and they remain some of the platform's most-subscribed vloggers.
But, as issues of racism have been under the spotlight, other white male YouTubers' covert racism has been brought to light, too, revealing a disturbing pattern of racism, privilege, and lack of accountability.
Earlier this month, YouTuber Seth Francois posted a video titled "'Accountability' to All Content Creators." Francois is best known for being a former member of David Dobrik's "Vlog Squad"—and the only Black member, at that. His video included a montage of moments throughout Dobrik's vlogs over the past couple of years that hinge on generalized tropes and offensive stereotypes of Black people.
"I really want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for being a part of this type of content and not taking a stand for my people," Francois said, never mentioning Dobrik by name but calling for "accountability" for creators in his position. The montage includes bits such as Dobrik's white friend offering Francois watermelon as a snack and Dobrik surrendering Francois to the police as a bit.
While it's admirable of Dobrik to have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Black Lives Matter-related organizations in the weeks since George Floyd's murder, nearly a month has gone by since Francois' video without Dobrik issuing a formal statement or apology. Footage has resurfaced of an old Vine clip in which Dobrik uses the N-word in front of Black friends, as well as a video from 2016 in which he mocks Asian accents and language while trying candy from the Philippines with his then-girlfriend, Liza Koshy.
Last week, Jenna Marbles—one of the few remaining YouTubers to have consistently uploaded as long as Shane Dawson—posted a video announcing that she was leaving YouTube for an indefinite period, maybe forever, citing specific instances of covert racism in a few of her previous (and since-removed) videos dating back to 2011. That Marbles felt enough pressure to leave YouTube entirely while her white male counterparts can still have fruitful careers after full-blown scandals prove that a sexist power dynamic lurks not just on YouTube, but in mainstream media as well.
We need "cancel culture" in order for people in power to learn from their mistakes. But "cancel culture," as it exists today, clearly isn't working—as Dawson, Star, and Charles have made multiple apologies throughout the years and still remain unfathomably popular. While it's true that "cancel culture" can hold people to an unattainable standard—and probably every celebrity you admire has done something in their past that could be considered cancel-worthy—we need to hold YouTubers accountable, no matter their race or gender.