‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues from the perspective of students. In our latest instalment, Rhianna Betts explores the past and present racism of some of YouTube’s biggest stars, and argues that true accountability and inclusivity must take centre-stage on a site with such a powerful mass influence.
You might say that YouTuber Shane Dawson has had a sensational three months. He’s won a Streamy award for Documentary and Editing, almost reached 19 million subscribers, and his new ‘docuseries’ style of videos have averaged 18 million views per episode – while also accumulating a sizeable online backlash. The videos are all constructed around providing privileged, rich, white YouTubers with an extra platform dedicated to publicising a redemption arc for their past mistakes.
Each series focuses on a different controversial influencer; Tana Mongeau, Jeffree Star, and most recently Jake Paul, all of whom have been thrust into the mainstream media headlines for various controversies over the years. Shane attempts to explore their lives, with each series culminating in a final episode involving an overly emotional ‘personal’ conversation, dramatically moving music, and an almost histrionic stream of “oh my gods” emanating from Shane whenever the influencer reveals a private insight about themselves, all to push an unbearably sympathetic slant that prevents the influencer from assuming real responsibility for their actions.
Shane’s two most recent series ‘The Mind of Jake Paul’ and ‘The Life of Jeffree Star’ have incited the most frustration over his lacklustre attempts to address both Jeffree’s and Jake’s racism. Early on in the eight part series, Shane promises to hold Jake accountable for his actions. However, when Shane questions him about his alleged xenophobia towards the Spanish YouTubers Ivan and Emilio Martinez, Jake simply retaliates with the claim that the Martinez twins were also racist to his friends, calling them “crackers”. Shane merely nods along, seeming to find his claim of reverse racism an acceptable defence. He fails to bring up similar incidents such as Jake being recorded saying the N-word, instead attributing his adult mistakes to a ‘boys will be boys’ upbringing that instilled him with an entitled mentality to do whatever he liked. Shane even qualifies this by relating it back to his own childhood, with the worn-out old claim that the way he was raised also meant “he didn’t know any better” (a phrase that crops up again and again across YouTube).
In the series centred around Jeffree Star, Jeffree acknowledges that he was racist, and that it was bad, before readily using the get out of jail free card Shane provides him with, by highlighting this Youtubers’ intense unhappiness and self-loathing at the time. Mental health problems are of course not to be taken lightly, but I consistently see this reluctance to shoulder responsibility from white people, as though pleading circumstantial factors somehow allows them to shrug off their behaviour. But frankly it is an insult to imply that those suffering from mental health issues are going to be more vindictive as a result. Many people suffer through traumatic experiences without inclining towards racist, hateful opinions.
The excuse of ‘not knowing any better’ is equally unimpressive; we may ask ourselves why it is necessary to have to be taught not to see people of colour as lesser human beings. Surely if you can treat fellow white people with respect, you can understand that calling black people certain names or mocking other cultures is morally wrong? Shane, like many white apologists, presents a narrative of racism that focuses entirely on the white experience, with an emphasis on making excuses instead of plainly admitting that they were wrong and apologising directly to the communities they insulted.
Shane desperately sticks to the angle that Jeffree and Jake are people who have changed, despite all the evidence to the contrary which is never referenced. Jake Paul has never spoken about any of these issues before, barely addresses them now, and grasps onto Shane’s readily provided outs. Admittedly, Jeffree Star did release a video in 2017 entitled “Racism” in which he apologised for his actions, but by blaming circumstances rather than directly assuming responsibility. He describes his racist remarks as the actions of a separate person who was depressed, and while he calls his actions “vile”, he seems to focus more on how the recorded evidence of him being discriminatory has affected him personally, rather than reflect a deeper understanding of racism, or the fragility of his own white identity.
It is indeed easy to remain sceptical as to whether Jeffree Star really has ‘changed’ at all. In his recent holiday photoshoot for Jeffree Star Cosmetics, he posted an Instagram photo wearing cornrows, and waved away the backlash by claiming that young people are always trying to find something to be mad about, before proceeding to like a tweet arguing that white people can appreciate black culture by wearing cornrows. Yet, Jeffree Star has never previously shown a trace of genuine respect for African American culture or people – just this month it came to light that he had called Jackie Aina, a black YouTuber, a “gorilla”. So why exactly are we supposed to believe that his racism is a thing of the past?
There appears to be a chronic misunderstanding amongst these white influencers about how racism actually works and the role that they play in propagating it. Jeffree argues that yelling the N-word at a white woman doesn’t actually mean what he said was being racist. This reflects an inability to think critically about the realities of race issues in society. He was still using a slur that was created specifically for insulting and reinforcing a system that was built around oppressing black people, and as such the word can never be used separately from this history. Shane Dawson seems to see these instances of racism as isolated mistakes, that can simply be solved with an excuse or an apology, instead of acknowledging it as an ongoing problem, and a worrying mind-set common to many YouTubers. In my view, treating someone with such a lack of general empathy indicates a much deeper problem in terms of how they think.
It’s a twist of irony that Shane Dawson has become the person who deals with these sorts of controversies, considering his own entangled history with racism. In 2014, he posted a video addressing his use of blackface in old comedic sketches, arguing that he was ignorant about what blackface was, and emphasising that he, in his heart, is not a racist. It is implied that he only apologised because people found it offensive, not because he saw his act as racist. He, like Jeffree and Jake, appears to be unable to own up to what he did. He also published a tweet in 2017 seeming to criticise the television network, ABC, for introducing more racially diverse shows, before hastily adding in a follow-up tweet: “I just wish there were shows about all races”. This mind-set shows that Shane doesn’t understand that people of colour are not treated equally at the very base level in society, whether through representation or the opportunities available to them.
In his final video with Jeffree, Shane again blames environmental factors, making reference to how YouTube at the time of his and Jeffree’s problematic videos was completely different. Consistent as ever, he argues again that they both lacked understanding of what was actually racist. In that case, Shane needs to listen to and learn from his viewers that are trying to make him understand the complexities of racism, including why he shouldn’t provide these influencers with more attention. However, when being tweeted with criticism Shane overreacts, refusing to even engage with viewers and telling them to “f*** off”. He argues that he has worked so incredibly hard to provide free content that viewers apparently don’t have a right to critique the series. Even if Shane Dawson didn’t have a history of racism, it still wouldn’t be his say-so to decide what is and isn’t racist. As a white person who has self-assigned himself to that role, he doesn’t get to draw the line and say when we should forgive or forget, not when he isn’t even being affected by the systemic oppression these incidents are symptomatic of.
Shane tries to get us to see the real person behind the racism and scandals, and yet fails to acknowledge that there are also people on the other end of these incidents who need to be heard, who are being affected daily by the marginalisation that Jeffree and Jake perpetuate. It’s more than just an isolated incident that can be humanised out of existence. It’s easy as a white person to argue for giving these public icons the benefit of the doubt and readily lap up claims that they’ve changed, but as a person of colour, it’s your entire existence that is being disparaged, and that’s impossible to just ignore.
This is by no means an attempt to lay into Shane Dawson with unrestrained vitriol. Personally, I’ve enjoyed many of his more humourous videos, and I don’t disagree that he is undeniably bringing fresh content onto the YouTube scene. However, when YouTubers are receiving millions of views, what they decide to do with this influence is important. We, as the audience, have a right to hold these influencers accountable. Shane has refused to acknowledge that he’s only using his platform to promote white influencers who arguably don’t deserve the fame. Instead he could be reaching out to smaller marginalised YouTubers that are affected by the unfair demonetization process on the site, or those who are actually victims of its rampant racism. Every day it seems as if a new YouTuber is being exposed for racist ‘receipts’ from their past. If he’s genuinely invested in having a positive impact on the community, then he needs to listen to non-white influencers facing racial discrimination, instead of providing glossy and sympathetic coverage for those perpetuating it.