White YouTube creators struggle to address past use of racist characters

White YouTube creators struggle to address past use of racist characters

Shane Dawson has apologized for his use of blackface, anti-Semitic and racist language, and disturbing comments about children and animals on several occasions in the past — and audiences have largely given him a pass. But after posting a new apology video on Friday that didn’t go over well with some high-profile viewers, that’s suddenly started to change.

Target said it would stop carrying Dawson’s books. Makeup company Morphe reportedly cleared its shelves of Dawson’s products. YouTube temporarily suspended ads on all three of Dawson’s channels, including his main account that boasts more than 22 million subscribers. And that account lost nearly 1 million subscribers over the past week.

“It’s something that I shouldn’t be able to get out of — I should lose everything for that.”

Dawson is one of a number of white YouTube stars who have been attempting to address their past use of racist depictions, characters, and stereotypes in comedic videos this week. Apologies for racist videos have also come from Jenna Marbles and David Dobrik, and responses from viewers have been mixed as fans try to figure out how to hold major creators accountable for their past actions. The timing comes amid ongoing anti-racism protests around the country.

Creators like Dawson profited from and built a career in part on videos that contained racist imagery, and even Dawson acknowledges his behavior is deserving of punishment.

“I don’t even fully know how to apologize because it seems like something that is irredeemable,” Dawson said in his recent apology video. “It’s something that I shouldn’t be able to get out of — I should lose everything for that.”

The video was titled “Taking Accountability,” but numerous YouTubers and fans criticized Dawson for not actually committing to any anti-racist actions or taking further responsibility for what he did. Opening with an explanation that he tried to ignore criticism for years by untagging himself from critical posts that popped up “shows that you making this video isn’t something you wanted to do,” YouTube creator Adam McIntyre said in a video.

“Likely the beginning of a wave of what we will see with established content creators”

The backlash against Dawson has been particularly focused on a video in which he pretends to masturbate to an image of then-11-year-old Willow Smith. Jaden and Jada Pinkett Smith condemned the videos on Twitter, leading to an influx of attention on him.

“Shane’s history has been brought up before, but the timing seems to have made the impact of that history hit differently here,” Roberto Blake, a popular YouTube creator, told The Verge. “There is a big difference between this and what we are seeing happen with Jenna Marbles. It’s also likely the beginning of a wave of what we will see with established content creators who have a controversial past.”

Marbles, whose real last name is Mourey, apologized for two videos from 2011. In one, she donned a pink wig and darkened her skin to do an impression of Nicki Minaj. In a new video addressing her choices and why she removed the videos, Mourey said it doesn’t matter what her intentions were when initially recording them, saying, “People were offended, and it hurt them.”

Part of the problem is that YouTube allowed these videos and promoted these creators in the past

“For that, I am so unbelievably sorry,” Mourey said. “This isn’t okay. And it hasn’t existed on the internet for a long time, because it’s not okay.”

Mourey and Dawson are two of YouTube’s longest-running creators on the platform. They started their channels in 2010 and 2008, respectively, helping to establish YouTube as a platform for full-time creators.

As part of her effort to take accountability, Mourey is taking an extensive break from YouTube. She told viewers in that same video that she wasn’t sure when — or if — she would return to the platform. Her decision led other members of the YouTube community to speak out about the situation and the difference between Mourey and Dawson.

YouTube commentator Stephen “Omni” Silver pointed to Mourey’s apology and recent YouTube career over the last few years as proof that Mourey is “trying to be a better person, and trying to bring more positive energy into the world.” Silver spoke at length about Mourey and “cancel culture” in a new video, saying that while it’s good for people to hold themselves accountable and important to have these conversations, it’s clear from her videos that she’s grown over the years. Commentator Tyrone Magnus defended Mourey while also condemning the use of blackface.

“I wonder if they went unnoticed back then, or it was accepted because there was no one to tell them ‘no’ otherwise.”

Part of the problem is that YouTube allowed these videos and promoted these creators in the past. YouTube was able to build its behemoth advertising revenue by highlighting creators like Dawson, Mourey, and Colleen Ballinger, another YouTube creator who apologized for using racist depictions of Latinx people for a comedy sketch 12 years ago. YouTube had content guidelines in place that prohibited the types of videos creators are now taking down but didn’t enforce them. YouTube declined to comment when asked by The Verge why it took this long for action to be taken.

A lot of YouTube “back then looked like 4Chan,” Josh Pescatore, a longtime YouTube creator, told The Verge. “OG creators” like Dawson were “trying anything on camera back in those days.”

“I wonder if they went unnoticed back then, or it was accepted because there was no one to tell them ‘no’ otherwise,” Pescatore said.

David Dobrik, easily one of the most prominent YouTube creators working today, spoke at length on a recent podcast episode about his use of racial stereotypes in numerous past videos. Dobrik noted that he’s “ashamed and embarrassed for the things I did in some of the videos or Vines or whatever I was doing and I genuinely feel awful about it.”

Deleting videos and issuing statements doesn’t erase that these creators built a following and profited from the content they were making — content that YouTube then shared and promoted. What is clear is that YouTube’s creator community is undergoing a reckoning, and an entire industry is trying to figure out what happens next.

Fixing the problem starts internally, Blake said. “Look at YouTube’s organizational chart, look at YouTube’s leadership tree. YouTube has several issues they need to address to help with these issues in the future. We need to see a leadership at YouTube that can take on these kinds of issues with the community.” Blake recommended a more active diverse creators panel that has a direct line to executives who can help keep people inside YouTube aware of what’s happening on YouTube. Otherwise, things will continue to be ignored until they can’t.

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