The police killing of George Floyd continues to inspire a bracingly physical uprising, with protesters still taking to the streets and monuments to white oppressors still being torn down. But fierce confrontation, campaigning, and figurehead-toppling has happened online, too. In recent weeks, Twitter has exploded with stories from people of color about pay disparities, discrimination, and offensive speech in their workplaces. It’s also been a place where historical instances of insensitivity by companies and entertainers have been put on blast. The results of such outcries have been swift and concrete, with many brands, celebs, and CEOs issuing apologies, action plans, and resignation announcements. To pick a few examples: Famed editors have left their posts after being accused of creating hostile workplaces for people of color, Vanderpump Rules has fired two of its stars for calling the police on a black cast member without reason, and 500 gyms have dropped their affiliation with CrossFit after its founder trivialized the concerns of Black Lives Matter.
These developments would seem to be triumphs for the much-criticized set of social-media practices often referred to as “callout culture” and its close sibling, “cancel culture.” The naming and shaming of alleged bigots, misogynists, and assorted other pigs—and the institutions that support them—has in recent years propelled anti-racist movements, #MeToo, and, of course, many situations unrelated to broader political matters. In clear ways, such callouts embrace the leveling effects of social media to empower marginalized voices. But all along, callouts have themselves been subject to controversy—which this latest online wave will both intensify and complicate.
One common line of critique worries that callouts feed emotion-driven, undemocratic mob mentalities. Here’s David Brooks in a 2019 column: “Once you give random people the power to destroy lives without any process, you have taken a step toward the Rwandan genocide.” Another common concern is about tactics, efficacy, and distraction. In a Times op-ed headlined “I’m a Black Feminist. I Think Call-Out Culture Is Toxic,” Loretta Ross argued that “there is a much more effective way to build social justice movements. They happen in person, in real life.” Last year, Barack Obama dissed the practice of “casting stones” on Twitter as self-indulgent and phony, saying, “That’s not activism.” Meanwhile, some activists counsel that “call-ins”—private confrontations rather than public ones—should be the go-to way to seek justice.
The developments of the past few weeks would seem to refute many of the tactical critiques, at the very least. Recent racism-related callouts, and the results they’ve garnered, absolutely fit the definition of activism: Twitter users have agitated for reform from entrenched forces, and in many cases they’ve gotten it. What’s more, they’ve done so in tandem with, rather than as an alternative to, the more traditional modes of organizing. Change is happening as the Black Lives Matter movement shifts social attitudes, power brokers respond to those shifts, and callouts audit the sincerity of those responses—leading to tangible, not merely rhetorical, concessions.
An early episode in this cycle played out in the seemingly unrighteous realm of Hollywood backstage drama. In late May, the former Glee star Lea Michele joined the chorus of public figures tweeting messages mourning George Floyd. A day later, the actress Sammie Ware, who is black and had worked on Glee too, called BS on Michele. In a tweet, she accused Michele of making Ware’s “first television gig a living hell” with “traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.” One of those alleged offenses: “I believe you told everyone that if [you] had the opportunity you would ‘shit in my wig!’” Shit in my wig—there’s an entry for the already overcrowded 2020 phrase book.
To a critic of callouts and cancellations, this incident might have all the hallmarks of Twitter excess: the personal score-settling, the juicy attention-grabbing details, the focus on celebrity, the use of the word microaggression. But the scandal quickly expanded to confirm its greater significance. A number of actors from Glee, many of them people of color, boosted Ware’s message or came forward with their own stories of being disrespected by Michele, suggesting a pattern of misbehavior that, until now, hadn’t been given full airing. A sponsor cut ties with the actor, and she apologized. “While I don’t remember ever making this specific statement and I have never judged others by their background or color of their skin, that’s not really the point,” Michele wrote. “What matters is that I clearly acted in ways which hurt other people.” It’s the sort of apology that reveals why it had to be made. Whether or not Michele believes her past rudeness to be race-based, it nevertheless could have had a larger, systemic effect by making up-and-coming actors of color, as Ware put it, “question a career in Hollywood.” Cumulatively, such questioning can help explain inequities in onscreen representation.
Another of the splashier recent social-media reckonings reveals similar complexities. Bon Appétit ’s editor in chief, Adam Rapoport, is now out of the job, and the putative reason is one extremely familiar in our era’s culture wars: a racist costume. An image of him dressed as a Puerto Rican stereotype came to light, sparking the same sort of condemnation that has hit so many public figures caught wearing blackface or brownface. But as with Michele, it’s not just one ghastly misstep at issue. People of color who’d worked at Bon Appétit began sharing stories of feeling disrespected, tokenized, and exoticized by the magazine’s internal practices and its content. The assistant food editor, Sohla El-Waylly, alleged that only white staffers were being paid for appearing in the publication’s highly watched cooking videos. (Condé Nast has denied this claim.) Rapoport’s assistant, Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, told Business Insider that she’d felt exploited, underpaid, and degraded by her boss. (He allegedly once told her he liked his coffee made “like Rihanna.”) Rapoport resigned, and now Bon Appétit has vowed to hire more people of color, resolve pay gaps, and move its coverage away from “a white-centric viewpoint”—all measures to address biases endemic to American food media.
The Michele and Rapoport examples garnered wide attention in part because they involve public figures. But similar stories have played out in enclaves less glittering than acting and publishing. In science, in food service, and in corporate life, rank-and-file employees have broken codes of silence—often putting themselves in danger of reprisal—to talk about racist systems and situations. In many instances, the callout has happened after an employer or public figure has taken anti-racist stances—stances that are easier than ever to take thanks to Black Lives Matter’s hard-earned public popularity Look to the case of Adidas, whose May 30 pro-protest Instagram post—the word racism with a strikethrough—was followed by a flood of complaints by employees of color about their experiences at the company. Last week, Adidas put out a much more detailed statement on fighting racism, including a promise to fill 30 percent of its U.S. workforce with black or Latino employees. It’s another example of why, despite what some critics claim, callouts aren’t mainly a tool for performative wokeness or virtue signaling. They instead ask that rhetoric be backed by deeds.
Vulture’s Dee Lockett suggests that the online reckonings of late would be best described as demonstrating not “cancel culture” but “accountability culture.” That’s a good suggestion—in part because the notion of “accountability” might help this culture police itself against excess and drift. At BuzzFeed, Tomi Obaro has persuasively written about the potential pitfalls ahead. “The vigor of the first two weeks of riots and protests (still ongoing), as the writer Tobi Haslett noted, has been overshadowed by people in their hermetically sealed white-collar jobs railing about racism in their workplaces,” Obaro writes. She also points out that “we have been here before,” with past moments of anti-racist reckoning leading only to small, mostly fleeting change for institutions. It’s hard to argue with that concern. On-the-ground mass protests also have a cyclical, two-steps-forward-one-step-back record on enacting progress. But if the powerful figures now vowing to do better after being put on blast both online and in the streets are to be held to their word, it’ll require another round of callouts.