Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to guests at the Obama Foundation Summit on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. The Summit is an annual event hosted by the Obama Foundation. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Earlier this week former president Barack Obama called out the social media phenomenon of “cancel culture,” pointing out what it is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

On Tuesday, the 44th POTUS attended the third annual Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. The event was meant to be inspiring and empowering, however, during a discussion with actress and activist Yara Shahidi, he didn’t mince words while highlighting the negative impact constantly dragging people on social media can have on all of us.

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“This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” he said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

He continued, explaining that “cancel culture” fails at reaching what activism truly is. “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said.

Simply put, he’s right

By now most of us have heard of Black Twitter; that invisible yet undeniable force that processes all that is cool (and uncool) through a filter of merciless wit.

While I am a fan of — and at times a casual member of — Black Twitter, even I have to admit that sometimes we take things too far and fall into the trappings of group think and rage addiction just as much as the internet trolls we all roll our eyes at.

In those instances, even though the collective may think they are fighting for the advancement of the Black race, they are actually perpetuating the same crabs in a barrel mentality, that the fictional “Willie Lynch” letter was composed to warn us about.

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And suddenly a whole human being is deemed worthy of being “cancelled” while we all send out clips and snippets of what they said or did that renders them undesirable, tag all our friends, create brilliant memes, and then laugh them into a corner where they will forever be treated as a punchline.

To Obama’s point, not only is that not the spirit of activism, it’s also incredibly cruel and mentally damaging.

Below is a checklist of 5 things to consider before throwing your favorite celebrity in the scrap pile.

The ‘Should I Cancel My Fave?’ Checklist

1. Were their actions offensive, or just stupid?

Let’s be real, talent and intellect aren’t always synonymous, and as a result sometimes your favorite singer, actor, athlete etc may excel in their field but be a bit dimwitted otherwise.

Which is why I always warn people against canceling someone for simply being stupid. And to be fair, even brilliant, civic-minded celebrities sometimes have a momentary lapse in judgement.

We’ve seen this time and time again. When celebs jump in to “cape” for their friends during a media firestorm, it rarely works out in their favor (unless they tread super lightly).

In those cases where redeemable stupidity and misplaced loyalty seem to be the true culprits – it may be premature to cancel them just yet.

2. Is there proof and context? 

They say “perception is reality” but with the increasing popularity of Instagram celebrities, the truth is often filtered beyond recognition. Add to that the hypercharged landscapes of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements and suddenly it becomes a bit tricky to separate fact from fiction.

Whenever we get a whiff of injustice and/or racial discrimination, even the most noble of us can find ourselves having a knee-jerk reaction to grab a pitchfork and burn down the comments section of whoever we think has done wrong.

But context and evidence matters.

Of course we want to believe victims and to never contribute to an environment where we shame folks for speaking up — but we also need to tread lightly and make sure we get our facts straight before destroying someone’s reputation.

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3. Would you be upset if a man or white person did the same thing? 

The intersections of misogyny and racism have an impact on most things in this world especially when it comes to the court of public opinion.

Whether you want to admit it or not, in this country there is an unofficial food chain when it comes to desirability and credibility. So before canceling someone be sure to check in with yourself and verify that your own internal bias isn’t causing you to judge them more harshly than you would someone else who did the same.

And if that person is arguably lower than you on the proverbial food chain, also check your privilege and make sure you aren’t coming at this from a place of entitlement.

Cause we ALL have blindspots.

4. Did they sincerely take accountability for their actions? 

Not all apologies are created equal, and some people are so bad at apologizing you almost wish they’d said nothing at all. But we still have to admit that apologies matter. There is something to be said for a person who can look you (or in this case, the camera) squarely in the face and admit they were wrong.

Be it through words and/or actions, we need think twice before discarding celebrities who’ve shown they sincerely want to do better.

I’m not suggesting we fall into the trap of being the overly forgiving Negroes who are quick to let manipulators get away with murder. But maybe pause for a second and remember that even celebrated people — are still just people.

5. Have they caused any real harm? 

Cancelling someone for having an opinion you don’t agree with is a personal decision, but some things are just universally messed up.

So if your favorite celebrity has a twenty-plus year history of victims coming forward with allegations of abuse, sexual misconduct, assault or any other blatantly illegal nonsense — you might need to hit pause on your fandom and let your basic human decency kick in.

Yes, I’m talking to you R. Kelly and Bill Cosby sympathizers.

Why does it matter?

I know someone right now is reading this and wondering, “Is it really that serious if I’m quick to cancel people?”

The answer is yes.

Normalizing social cruelty and taking away our shared ability to resolve conflicts with some sense of decorum and civility is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. A few more generations of this puritanical gatekeeping could result in a world I shiver to think of.

If we continue to be so overzealous about dismissing humans for actually being… human, some of y’all may be shocked to find yourselves (ironically) on the wrong side of history when our descendants look back on this chapter.

Even good people make bad decisions! And any form of social “liberation” that doesn’t takes that simple truth into account, is just captivity by another name.


Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric