Why Do Anti-Cancel Culture Warriors Only Care When White People Are Canceled? | Opinion

I get the feeling those most apt to say they are pure defenders of free speech really want many of the rest of us to just shut up, or at least use our rights only within the parameters they have determined are acceptable.

It explains why they express outrage about the unfair treatment of a handful of white staff members at Smith College but share a collective yawn about what Black and brown student-athletes at places such as Kentucky University and the University of Texas have been facing while fighting for racial equality.

It explains why they got hot and bothered that a white science reporter's career came to an end at the New York Times after a series of events that began with his foolish decision to utter the n-word—he had no ill intent, they are quick to remind—but were unmoved by a comprehensive report detailing the less-than-ideal working conditions many journalists there have been experiencing at the Times, with journalists of color taking the brunt of it.

The private decision by the Dr. Seuss estate to discontinue selling a handful of its books also ruffled their feathers. During the height of that controversy, Republicans in South Carolina were using the power of the state to further embed racism in the public square and public school system. They are trying to make it a crime for local officials to vote to remove statues built in honor of men who went to war to preserve slavery while enforcing a Trump-version of U.S. history upon public schools. That's just an extension of what Republicans at the national and state level have been doing for years to anti-racism efforts and journalistic products they don't like. But the free speech purists don't seem to care about any of that.

When I roll my eyes at the mention of "cancel culture" and a supposed "moral panic" about race, it's not because I don't understand that people are sometimes treated unfairly because they are in the minority swimming against a popular tide. I'm a black dude who was born and raised in the heart of the Deep South. How could I not know that? It's that the kinds of unfairnesses these warriors elevate to the level of a national crisis only seem to flow in one ideological direction: They believe talk of social justice and racial equity and equality have gone too far, that all that's needed going forward is a tweak here or there, rather than an overhaul.

Thus, free speech protectors want us to believe a private entity's decision to stop producing books that include images of Asian Americans with slanted eyes and Africans as racist caricatures could lead to a banning of books and an erasure of historical touchstones. This is not actually happening. Worse, they don't apply those slippery slope arguments in the other direction. What if the mob that formed to pressure the Seuss estate to reverse its decision got its way? Wouldn't that send a chilling message to other companies that if they dared prioritize the mental health young Black and Asian Americans, they will be punished? Wouldn't it encourage others to create even and ever more offensive art and imagery because they know they will forever be defended by those screaming "free speech"?

Dr. Seuss
American author and illustrator Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904 - 1991) sits at his drafting table in his home office with a copy of his book, 'The Cat in the Hat', La Jolla, California, April 25, 1957. Gene Lester/Getty Images

That has already begun. It's why the Republican National Convention was a celebration of grievance, of white and Black conservatives supposedly bravely beating back cancel culture. It's why Donald Trump felt comfortable using the power of the presidency to attack a project that dared challenge the idea that our founders must be worshipped as nearly God-like rather than scrutinized for the hypocrisy that led them to declare in one breath all men are created equal and in the next that black people are animals who God supposedly ordained to be in chains.

It's why the Dr. Seuss outrage reached Jerry Falwell-gay-Teletubby levels of silliness. A Canadian columnist took to Twitter to proclaim that "Neither the Bible nor Koran would likely have found a willing publisher in today's #woke world."

NEITHER the Bible nor Koran would likely have found a willing publisher in today’s #woke world.

— Mark Towhey (@towhey) March 4, 2021

Others compared the Dr. Seuss decision to the brouhaha surrounding Mr. Potato Head, even though that genitalia-free plastic toy is still being sold as it has been for decades. Rep. Jim Jordan said, "This is the biggest threat to freedom we face." GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took time to read "Green Eggs and Ham" on camera even as he was leading House Republicans to vote against vital aid for vulnerable Americans during a pandemic – funds that could cut child poverty maybe in half this year.

I still like Dr. Seuss, so I decided to read Green Eggs and Ham.

RT if you still like him too! pic.twitter.com/2pbRbSiJD6

— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) March 6, 2021

But it wasn't just the right. New York Times and Atlantic columnists and Pulitzer winners laughably claimed the books were being "disappeared" and "banned," even though they haven't been.

I know how it feels like to really be cancelled, to truly be silenced. It's what happened to me as a black boy growing up in South Carolina in schools still segregated half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, in a culture that taught me to accept white supremacy by people who put the Confederate flag on top of a cool-looking orange car on a popular TV series starring a beautiful white woman in short-tight cutoff jeans. It's what happens to Black and brown kids who have been told to swallow hard when confronted with racist imagery in the name of free speech, to not make too much of a stink because their anger might discomfort their white Trump-loving friends.

Cancel culture was my white publisher demanding I stop writing about race and politics the way I had been because it was upsetting a loud faction of our mostly-white and conservative readership. It was me walking into the newsroom every day wondering if that would be my last because those readers kept trying to get my fired. It's my years of self-censoring to appease white colleagues who didn't think the issues I knew were vital to vulnerable people really were. I know what it feels like to be silenced.

I used to occasionally take the short drive from my home near Myrtle Beach, S.C. to lay eyes on a restaurant I was quietly boycotting, just to confirm that it was real in a rapidly diversifying 21st century America. The restaurant was called "Tar Baby's Pancakes" and I liked to drive past every now and then to remind myself never to become numb to the commonplace ugliness and blatant racism that has long been a staple of our area—and country, my way of remembering that even good people, no matter their race, have an insidious ability to rationalize it all.

To get the restaurant, I had to drive past several upscale housing communities that have the word "plantation" in their names, meant to evoke the glamour of "Gone with the Wind" while ignoring the horrors of slavery.

But the last time I took the drive, the "Tar Baby's Pancakes" sign had been taken down. The restaurant's dark-skinned, widely-grinning, pot-bellied character wearing a sun hat and holding a knife and fork while licking his white lips had been removed as well. The restaurant apparently had gone out of business about the time a new coronavirus was beginning to circulate in China. I wish I had known. I would have celebrated its demise then just as I am celebrating the decision by the Seuss estate to discontinue selling books that include stereotypical images of an Asian man with slanted eyes.

"These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong," Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced. "Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises' catalog represents and supports all communities and families."

A large company took it upon itself to review its own products. It wasn't forced upon them by a Twitter "mob." There was no anti-Dr. Seuss boycott to which they were responding. They contemplated and prioritized the mental health of Black and Asian kids over profit, something that happens far too infrequently in a country founded in a race-based slavery that was replaced with lynchings and minstrel shows and Jim Crow laws and targeted Asian Americans with unjust immigration laws and internment camps.

During a period in which Asian Americans are facing a historically-high number of hate attacks and in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, a company decided to stop spreading racist imagery. That's an unequivocal good, even if free speech scolds refuse to see it.

Issac Bailey is professor of public policy at Davidson College, a 2014 Nieman fellow at Harvard University and author of Why Didn't We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland. Twitter: @ijbailey.

The views in this article are the writer's own.