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Jenna Marbles and Shane Dawson apologise for past racism

Older YouTubers are distancing themselves from videos that made them big names ten years ago – it’s a vital step toward genuine progress for racial representation.

YouTube will turn fifteen years old this year.

Back in 2005 the site was full of snappy videos of cats, quirky millennials making cringy loud-mouth content, and funny dance crazes that are horrendously dated now. It was not the Gen Z content powerhouse that it has steadily become and creators did not need to take accountability for outrageous or offensive humour in the same way as they do today.

It’s for this reason that many original YouTubers from yesteryear are having to retrospectively clear up their channels and apologise for old content. Most of it was never acceptable – black face, paedophilia references, and mean spirited jokes – but until recently many of them never had to openly address their problematic roots.

Jenna Marbles and Shane Dawson are two of the latest examples. Both have had extensive careers as vloggers, comedians, beauty personalities, and musicians, and they’ve been consistently present on the platform for over a decade. Today they’re considered progressive, championing the LGBTQ+ community and routinely expressing their passion for inclusivity and acceptance. Look back at either of their work from 2011 and 2012, however, and you’ll find a ton of outwardly offensive racist jokes and questionable black face impressions that are gaining renewed traction in the midst of recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US.

Jenna has released an apology video directly referencing this old content and has said she may never return to her YouTube channel, while Shane also dropped a video titled ‘Taking Accountability’ that acknowledges his past mistakes. Both Shane and Jenna’s videos have been met with mixed responses, sparking debate over the contentious issue of ‘cancel culture’.

Cancelling a famous person or content creator is more an idea and buzz phrase than it is an actual reality. Rarely does anyone genuinely get ‘cancelled’, but YouTubers have such personal relationships with fans that any slip up can alter their public image and relevance significantly.

People have pushed for both Jenna and Shane to remove themselves from the internet, and Jaden Smith has expressed anger toward old footage of black face and paedophilia jokes that has recently resurfaced. There is clearly a big call for these creators to step away from the spotlight, regardless of how old these jokes are or the changes they’ve made since.

This outrage and pushback is absolutely valid and warranted. Shane’s old content in particular was horrifically offensive, so much so that I wonder if he really can bounce back from all of the hate he’s currently receiving. But there seems to also be an equal amount of fans and viewers that see this renewed anger as incorrectly placed. Jenna’s video in particular is filled with comments that express sadness at her leaving YouTube, boiling the whole situation down to ‘cancel culture gone crazy’.

Regardless of who you think is wrong or right, the most important thing here is that both creators have, to their own extent, acknowledged that they were wrong for creating racist videos in the early tens.

The Black Lives Matter protests and the underlying racism that still exists throughout every nuance of our society has made these types of jokes and ‘edgy’ humour completely unacceptable as more of us have suddenly become aware of it. Even Jenna herself in her video described our current times as a ‘cleansing of any toxicity’ and this sudden wake-up call is a positive step forward that we’re all forced to reckon with.

Racial stereotyping should not be allowed to go under the radar or simply be classed as ‘edgy comedy’. We’ve been letting writers, content creators, and entertainment industry leaders use black characters as punchlines designed for white people to laugh at for way too long. This isn’t just a case of ‘cancelling’ Jenna or Shane because they’re horrendous racists, because I don’t think either of them are. It’s more about making sure that content creators recognise the problematic videos that helped them build an audience and publically acknowledge that they were never acceptable to make and distribute.

Removing Jenna and Shane off of YouTube won’t erase the content they’ve already made. In that sense, truly ‘cancelling’ them as pubic figures would be a little redundant. A more helpful and progressive approach here is to allow famous people to explain themselves, be earnest about their pasts, and reaffirm that they no longer support the type of content they used to make. This Twitter thread by @lavendearst perhaps sums this situation up best.

Whether Jenna will ever actually come back to YouTube remains to be seen, and we’ve yet to see how Shane continues over the next few months, but hopefully more creators will own up to their older mistakes in a similar fashion moving forward. It’s the only way to get real closure for those who grew up surrounded by offensive and racially charged content.

More ownership needs to be taken like this, and it’s not enough for individuals to simply walk away as a result of being ‘cancelled’ without informing the public on why their old material is unacceptable. Educating ourselves and realigning our standards is vital, especially right now, and the more open conversations we have the better informed we can be about racism in entertainment.