The Obamas keep attacking “cancel culture” because they are scared of being held accountable
Where these critiques of "cancel culture" are truly revealing is in how they validate stereotypes of “wokeness” that undermine all deviance
By Marcus Board
A few days ago, my feed, TL and story were covered with the Obama’s at their Foundation Summit in Chicago. Michelle went viral for saying that being a good person is the best way to show racists the error of their ways. Meanwhile, Barack lectured young people that activism is not the same as what many refer to as “cancel culture.”
I was shocked at how many Black people I saw who seemed to agree with the former president and first lady, mainly because these same people also claim to support the broader Movement for Black Lives. It made me wonder about who defines movements, where the hard lines are drawn, and where we separate enemies from allies in our fight for freedom.
By interrogating the support and rejection of “cancel culture,” I think we can better understand the differences between those who only desire to minimize oppression and those who desire to bring about justice.
“Cancel culture” is mass organization against a figure to reject and reshape their harmful behaviors. Its critics says that people who subscribe to it are using perfectionist standards that keep good people from working towards freedom. Labeling others as participating in “cancel culture” defines them as unreasonable and out of touch with the basic reality that good people make mistakes and that mistakes should not disqualify you from the fight to end oppression.
But the basic premise of these critiques is steeped in elitist domination, telling others that they have bad politics while assuming a lack of thoughtfulness and deliberateness. But where these critiques of “cancel culture” are truly revealing – and why I find them so contradictory to the broader Movement for Black Lives – is in how they validate a stereotype of “wokeness” that undermines all deviance, defiance, and resistance work.
While I agree that abusive behaviors are in line with many of the oppressions that we fight to be liberated from, people who are abusive and judgmental need to be addressed everywhere – not just among those on the political and radical left who have adopted the language of activists, which is what framing this as “cancel culture” does. We must be wary of those who reinforce our oppressions by targeting the victims, which undermines healthy community practices of transparency and vulnerability.
Michelle has told us to “go high” when we are attacked and abused, and most recently to just be a good human. I appreciate these perspectives within loving communities, but not, as Son of Baldwin says, when it comes to those who disagree with “oppression, denial of my humanity and right to exist.” Barack decided that “woke” people will never accomplish change because they’re misguided about what activism is really about, but he is a man who pump faked support for Palestine; who started his political career supporting LGBTQIA+ people, then stopped, then started supporting marriage equality; who campaigned on change we can believe in and claims DACA as a triumph while having deported more people than every other administration and laid the foundations for what we see in ICE today.
As Howard Bryant (@hbryant42) shared on twitter: “It always feels like Obama’s admonishments are more pronounced, spirited for the people who supported him than the ones directed at those who undermined him when he was in office and try to undo his policies now that he’s not.” A similar point was made by Cathy Cohen and the Black Youth Project, who in 2013 were forced to petition the then-president to get him to address gun violence in Chicago – the same city where the Obamas comments were made.
The Obamas use “cancel culture” as an excuse for not stating plainly that they refuse to be held accountable to nor establish solidarity with those of us who want to end oppression and fight for justice. The Obamas embody the elitism in the “cancel culture” conversation – those whose desperation for hierarchy ends in telling people “you can’t teach me, heal me, or help me – whether I hurt you or not.”
We must also support survivors of the many abuses and oppressions that plague our lives, homes, nation, and world. Among the many things we must do to support survivors is listen to them, stand in solidarity with them, and be accountable for our words and deeds. Categorizing groups of people under a banner of “cancel culture” contradicts our ability to listen to the needs and grievances of vulnerable people.
So when Michelle tells you to be nice and Barack tells you to be quiet, don’t co-sign them. They have so much to be accountable for, and accountability-culture sometimes does start with a cancel.
Marcus Board Jr. is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University. His research theorizes U.S. race, gender, power, and politics. His courses directly engage Black politics, oppression, public policy, critical legal studies, and radical Black feminist theories of liberation.