“Frances, why are they following us?”
I will never forget this day. My law school BFF and I were shopping in Dillards’s department store in Lexington, Kentucky. For the first time, my friend, who is white, experienced racial profiling on my behalf, a young black woman. I was on an intense shopping spree after one of my many breakups with my college sweetheart. I probably was walking around with too many clothes and shoes for the store personnel.
This was not the first time racial profiling happened to me, and if I had to be honest, it felt like small potatoes that day with one lady in a huge department store, but every encounter matters. Before that day, my friend probably thought racial profiling was a myth. She wanted to know how I felt and if I was angry. I proceeded to share about a store that had been “canceled” in my life for almost ten years, Abercrombie & Fitch. At some point in middle school, I visited Abercrombie on several occasions. I was followed too many times and vowed never to go into the store again. I stayed true to this. There were several times I stood outside one of their stores as a friend would walk in, and I’d say, “No, thank you, I am going over to…”. It did not matter which store, just any store other than Abercrombie. I felt further vindicated about my cancellation of Abercrombie when they received multiple lawsuits over the years (here and here) concerning their “look” policy that was discriminatory against people of color, and those cases were not even in the same decade.
So fast forward to 2021, Abercrombie rebranded, targeting people of color and plus-size individuals. I started having conversations about whether or not I should “un-cancel” Abercrombie, which took me down a path of considering my thoughts and views about cancel culture.
So let’s first define cancel culture, and I think Cambridge definition is spot-on:
[ kan-suhl kuhl-cher ]
a way of behaving in a society or group, especially on social media, in which it is common to completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you.
I wholeheartedly have engaged in this definition of cancel culture, and in fact, I have a history of canceling people or businesses that let me down. For example, I canceled R. Kelly before it was popular. I would be at a dance party, and if his music came on, my body would stop in its tracks, and I wouldn’t move a muscle till his music was over. But I will be honest, back then, it was enjoyable. Similar to my Abercrombie canceling, it would spark good dialogue about the topic, or I could educate others on the harsh realities of those who needed to be canceled. But this was before social media and the mainstream cancel culture that we know today.
As I’ve scoured the interwebs reading about cancel culture, most historians agree that cancel culture has always been around since the beginning of time. From my perspective, Lucifer was the first evildoer to be punished. He essentially got canceled, amirite? Despite the vitriol around cancel culture today, especially in the political realm, I still believe, what I’ve considered for most of my life, cancel culture is necessary, and here’s why:
Evil must be punished, and grace must be learned.
I did not expect to arrive at this rationale if I had to be honest, but I wanted to figure out why I engage in cancel culture. So, as I walk through a few thoughts, I hope you think about cancel culture differently.
First Things First: How Do We Decide What To Cancel?
Despite the decline of attendance in churches, synagogues, and mosques, most of the world still follows a religion or a code that guides the general norms of right or wrong. Many of these codes are based on God, a higher power, a prophet, and some might even say common sense. With movies like Star Wars or a TV show like The Wire, we find favorite characters following a code even in fiction. Anarchy, although glorified, is rarely a code of choice. This is why, for example, most cultures agree that murder is wrong unless it’s in self-defense. By our nature, we want rules. Some people wish for more rules than others. Thus, my foundational point: cancel culture must not enforce preferences, simple likes, and dislikes. It should be about bad things.
Now, I know determining “bad” is subjective, but I am not asking you to compare your bad to my bad. Instead, I encourage you to separate what you determine is bad versus petty or things that make you “uncomfortable.” If you look at the views of right and wrong amongst five traditional religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, you can see that across belief systems, people “grapple with the age-old issues of wrongdoing, repentance, and redemption.” Again, I am not saying it’s easy, but I believe this is what we are grappling with today’s politicalized cancel culture.
And we cannot skirt over this fact. People are busy condemning cancel culture, but the reality is that there are bad things in the world, and there should be consequences to them. Everything wrong cannot be governed and policed by a governmental entity. The voice of public opinion is vital to cultural wrongs, and sometimes, public opinion assists the government is doing its job. R. Kelly is a great example. His wrongs were no secret. I was early on the bandwagon because I trusted the journalists who spent a better part of their career exposing R. Kelly till there was enough proof to catch him. The gravity of this example ring home the point that we can’t use cancel culture for things that get us just a little agitated. Engaging in cancel culture or the blame game on minor things lessens the reality that some actions in this life deserve to be canceled.
Next, We Love to See Justice Served
Now, this shouldn’t surprise anyone; despite the rise of Marvel heroes, one superhero has been portrayed the most in TV & cinema. Yes, that’s correct: Batman. Americans relate to his character in a sincere way. We love the story of Batman fighting the bad guys. Sometimes the system, i.e., the Gotham City police, doesn’t have the ability or resources to handle all of the evil in the city. If it weren’t for Batman, it would be eviler. Now, I say this in jest, but on a serious note, there is a reason we love Batman as a “hero”. Vigilante justice is what we secretly love. We don’t want to see wrongs go unpunished—another reason why cancel culture exists.
But we don’t like it to occur in just any way. In an interesting piece from the New York Times, called The Long and Tortured History of Cancel Culture, they highlight:
“Historically, Westerners do not approve of informing on behalf of the government and its enforcers, giving the act shaded names like “snitch” and “narc,” the latter explicitly defined in an 1859 British slang dictionary as someone who “breaks faith.” Children are advised not to be tattletales”….
But the article also points out that.
“We’re more comfortable with whistle-blowers, who speak out against the powerful.”
When influential people abuse their power, something feels wrong, and we want justice. So that is why it’s crucial for our desire for justice to be paired with my first point. It has to be a bad thing. Cancel culture feels yucky when we’re seeking justice on minor things or when you realize people are making a mountain out of a molehill.
The Last Step: Grace Can Be Learned
I do not believe canceling in every instance should last forever. When we have convictions and follow through with them, this doesn’t mean that grace cannot be bestowed. This is how we learn. Grace is one of the greatest gifts we have in the world. The moments where we have been wronged or inflicted pain on others, then forgive or be forgiven are the moments that matter. There are easier ways to learn grace, but I am not aware of that many. Giving grace to a person that doesn’t deserve it or giving second chances goes against our nature. We all make mistakes, but some people do make more harmful mistakes. Never recognizing when someone is wrong negates the opportunity to allow them to feel remorse, seek forgiveness, and allow grace to be given.
I challenge each of us to hold to our convictions, keep people accountable for their actions, and bestow grace at the same time.
Now, How Dare We?
A part of me entirely agrees that cancel culture is destroying us. People who don’t deserve to be canceled can get accidentally brought into the crossfire, and who are we to cancel others. The idea that we have the right to decide whether actions or beliefs held by people can cause them to be canceled can feel offensive. But that’s not the issue. No one is distraught when a person who does something egregious gets canceled. The problem is HOW we are canceling folks today.
It seems people are being loud and boisterous when they are “canceling” something. They go about it to receive notoriety or fame, which is wrong. Maybe we have to remind ourselves that we are in a world that is oversharing and putting people on blast for self-centered reasons.
Here’s a thought: what if we start canceling things in our life and not sharing? Would we then feel differently about cancel culture?
How the Story Ends
Now back to my story about Abercrombie. If you remember what your life was like as a middle schooler, the idea of being “canceled” by your classmates and friends was the most terrifying thought you could have. We want to be accepted and liked at that age. I was full of braces and had a Jheri curl against my wishes. (No, it was not the 80’s so my hair was not in style). I was shopping at Abercrombie to “fit in,” and instead, I got watched and followed and felt I was in a place I didn’t belong. I spent the better part of my childhood experiencing this same feeling until I realized I don’t have to feel that way regardless of how the people around me think.
This is one of the many reasons I chose to become an advocate. To fight for those who get mistreated to get some justice. But in the fight for justice, we don’t always get the result we want. There is never a guarantee that justice will prevail when we stand up for what’s right or help someone wronged. But, at its core, this is what cancel culture is trying to do.
So, is Abercrombie still canceled?
I can walk into a store, but will I? Probably not. But I have decided that I will no longer say anything disparaging about the store or the brand.
I have canceled and bestowed grace, and I hope they’ve learned their lesson and don’t make a 12-year-old feel out of place. But, if they do, I reserve my right to cancel.