Reframing Cancel Culture: Why Calling Someone Out Is an Act Of Service

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Photo: Getty Images/Brad Gregory
If you've uttered some version of "I'm so over cancel culture" this year, you may be in good company, but you're also almost certainly mistaken in your logic. As racial-justice activists pointed out during a recent online-panel collaboration between Dive in Well and Well+Good—which focused on the intersection of cancel culture and justice for the BIPOC community—the notion of call-out culture being a life-ruining process depriving people of the opportunity to redeem themselves for wrongdoings is a fundamental misunderstanding. Because while confrontation is certainly involved in calling someone out, these interactions are meant to aid, not attack. That is, call-out culture is actually an act of service, and it's crucial that everyone understands why.

First, some background on cancel culture: There are actually a few different tactics beyond canceling itself that fall under this umbrella: calling out, calling in, and boycotting. According to panelist Maryam Ajayi, founder and CEO of accessible wellness organization Dive in Well, the most common tactic is calling out, and that refers to one person or entity bringing awareness with intention to another person or entity about a harmful or otherwise problematic behavior they committed. This can be—and, these days, usually is—done publicly. (To call someone out privately is technically to call them in.)


"If I don't even have the energy to call someone out or bring something to their attention, that's a dangerous place for me to be with a person, because that means I don't care." —Maryam Ajayi, founder and CEO of Dive in Well

But while being on the receiving end of call-out culture may not feel good, per se, (Ajayi, who has experienced it firsthand, attested to this truth), it's actually a friendly gesture. "Being called out is an act of service for a higher good, and it's rooted in love," she said. "If I don't even have the energy to call someone out or bring something to their attention, that's a dangerous place for me to be with a person, because that means I don't care. When you have a connection to someone and you believe that they can do better, it's an act of service to use your energy to call them out." In other words, call-out culture is a positive that holds the power to create positive change for the greater good.

Furthermore, framing cancel culture, specifically in reference to racial-justice issues, as a tool that victimizes the subjects of a cancelation or call-out is racially problematic, panelist Rachel Ricketts, Well+Good Changemaker and founder of the Spiritual Activism, said during the event. That's because labeling cancel culture as "bad" in this way is ultimately white-centering in that it shifts focus away from the behavior or opinion that resulted in the call-out and is instead more concerned with prioritizing white feelings and white comfort. The root issue—the one that catalyzed the cancel or call-out—though, remains protecting people in marginalized communities who suffer from systemic racism. "We generally talk about cancel culture under the guise of white supremacy, meaning that we feel that cancel culture is some form of an act of violence," she says. "[Instead], can we think about cancel culture in a way that it's actually an act of restorative justice? I can cancel you in a way that restores my healing."

Ricketts also noted that when calling someone out, BIPOC are often not saying anything that hasn't been said before (for generations, even). Rather, it's just that now, people—namely, white people—are actually caring about what is being said, which is leading to greater consequences from the call-out. "What we're seeing is a reckoning around racial justice, anti-Blackness, and all forms of oppression," Ricketts said. "We live in an incredibly oppressive and discriminatory world where white supremacy is the status quo, so there's a lot to call out."

So, think back: If you have uttered some version of "I'm so over cancel culture" this year, why is that? According to Ricketts, if you're a white person, there's a good chance it's because you, yourself, are afraid that you'll be called out at some point, too. To that concern, she said this: "Yeah, you probably are [scared], because you've been causing harm, whether you realize it or not." And that's exactly where the positive power of call-out culture comes in.

Remember, it's an act of service and love to be made aware that you've been causing harm. Contrary to popular understandings of the power of cancel culture, it can result in committing to change, to becoming better, to learning, and to acting in allyship with marginalized communities. If someone calls you out (or in), they want and expect better from you. That's because you do matter, your voice matters, and what you do and say can make the world a better place.

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