YouTuber Shane Dawson’s apology for racism and other inappropriate video content has backfired, though not quite unpredictably.
On Friday, Dawson posted a 20-minute video apologizing for previous work in which he wore Blackface, used the N-word, and joked about pedophilia. The latter count includes an old clip in which Dawson pretends to masturbate to a photo of Willow Smith, who was 11 years old at the time.
Smith’s brother Jaden and mother Jada both responded on Twitter.
SHANE DAWSON I AM DISGUSTED BY YOU. YOU SEXUALIZING AN 11 YEAR OLD GIRL WHO HAPPENS TO BE MY SISTER!!!!!! IS THE FURTHEST THING FROM FUNNY AND NOT OKAY IN THE SLIGHTEST BIT.
— Jaden (@jaden) June 27, 2020
To Shane Dawson … I’m done with the excuses.
— Jada Pinkett Smith (@jadapsmith) June 27, 2020
Dawson’s is just the latest in an inordinate amount of recent apologies and backpedaling from creators who leaned on racist ideas in their videos, sketches, TV shows, and more. But Dawson’s is perhaps the most obviously preemptive.
Fellow YouTuber Jenna Marbles posted her own apology a few days earlier and announced a temporary hiatus. Though both creators apologized to avoid a worse situation, it’s worth noting that Marbles acted first and unprompted — Dawson even says she “inspired” him in his video, which speaks to their differing motivations for choosing to apologize now. Now Dawson is faced with a backlash for something his video only mentions briefly, and for which he has not publicly apologized to any member of the Smith family.
This Man Was Also Doing Black Face On The Regular🤦🏾♂️🤦🏾♂️🤦🏾♂️. As The Youth We Need To Support Creators Who Support Us And Our Morals. This Is Not Okay.
— Jaden (@jaden) June 27, 2020
Dawson’s apology also comes at a time when TV shows are removing episodes featuring blackface seemingly left, right, and center. But none of the criticized clips — from Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Community, and more — are new. None of them are being called out for the first time, but now that awareness is at an all-time high, and not coincidentally includes a lot of non-Black voices, suddenly there is tangible response.
Like this one:
Maybe this is an unpopular opinion but I think removing episodes with offensive content from availability is protecting the brand more than any kind of progress. The episodes should stay up and audiences should evaluate those shows accordingly.
— Adam Serwer🍝 (@AdamSerwer) June 28, 2020
To be clear: That response, whether it’s an apology video or removing some episodes from streaming, is the bare minimum. But in the month since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, and as the public continues to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and many others, one thing that should be clearer every day is that we need to dismantle systemic racism. Doing Blackface in a video doesn’t make someone a Klan member, but it is the product of a culture of white supremacy in which such an offensive act is deemed permissible, and in which Black voices that speak out are silenced until non-Black people join them.
Removing offensive content is a start, but it sanitizes the history of the shows and entertainers it implicates. As The Atlantic‘s Adam Serwer suggested above and others agree, these episodes could continue streaming or airing on TV but add content warnings, to shield viewers from the harmful visual implications of Blackface, as Tina Fey said. This way, a show is not absolved of its problematic history and culture; instead, the added context pushes us to engage in a larger conversation about how and why this was allowed to happen in mainstream media again and again.
Executives at YouTube can’t say they didn’t know. I’ve watched black creators try to get them to do something about all of this for years.
— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) June 28, 2020
Which brings us back to Dawson. His apology video is full of statements about his own feelings, which centers him in the narrative over those who he has hurt (which now includes one of the most prolific families in Hollywood). He repeatedly asserts that he is not racist and would never do such a thing now — but this itself is the problem.
Dawson presumably didn’t identify as a racist when he painted his skin dark for “comedy,” so why did he do it in the first place? While we’re asking, why did Marbles serve up racist content? Why was hurting and angering people something they could accept a few years ago but not now, and how could they and others do better to create a safe entertainment culture for Black audiences?
As American culture shifts, hopefully toward placing a higher value on Black lives, these are questions every entertainer must be able to answer. You can delete your tweets and videos and episodes, you can apologize and claim to be better, but as Black people have been telling us for weeks and truly years, you have to do the work. We have to create a culture that listens to Black voices without dilution and also one that doesn’t have to repeatedly call out racist performances, because it prevents them from ever being aired in the first place.