The Shane Dawson debacle is proof of how marketable racism was on YouTube until now

While white, problematic content creators have been free to reach and profit from millions, black YouTubers are often at risk of being penalised for speaking out

Shane Dawson apologises for past behaviour

Between the pandemic and global civil unrest, 2020 seems to be the year of reckoning. Now that racist systems and behaviours are being exposed, everyone from celebrities to social media executives are having to provide answers for the issues they failed to curb. $300bn-dollar company, YouTube, is one of them. After years of urging, it is finally pulling up and purging racists that have long thrived on the platform.

For those of you who aren’t plugged into YouTube’s most recent source of controversy, Shane Dawson, I’ll give you a quick rundown. He’s an American YouTuber who creates comedy, film and beauty content. He has totalled 33 million subscribers across three channels and has a net worth of $12m. And he has also been exposed for, among other things: blackface, pretending to masturbate over a then 11-year-old Willow Smith and a podcast justifying paedophilia.

What followed next, was an inevitable YouTube apology video, titled, “Taking Accountability”, for anyone in doubt.

At the time of writing, the video has racked up a whopping 11 million views and still, days after going up is trending on YouTube. The irony is that his apology seems to have earned him some fame due to the popularity of this story.

While the video started off fairly well, with him acknowledging his wrongdoing, it wasn’t long before the focus shifted back from accountability to centring Dawson’s personal feelings, as seems to be customary in YouTube apology videos.

Dawson may well have struggled with personal issues over the years. I sympathise with that. But there are few, if any, instances in which flagrant racism can be explained away by unrelated emotional struggles.

This isn’t the first time a white person caught in the throes of a racism scandal has relied on similar methods as a means of diminishing negative responses to their actions. Just look at the number of instances of unprovoked racial attacks on black people ending with attackers relying on tears to shift sympathy and blame from themselves, onto their victims. The presumption of white innocence can carry people a hell of a long way.

Look back at scenarios where other influencers, such as Jeffree Star and James Charles faced “cancel” campaigns after the exposure of racist content, for example. Rather than facing scrutiny, their majority white audiences accepted their apologies on behalf of the black people they offended, essentially condoning their behaviour and absolving them of blame.

There seems to be a feeling of invincibility among successful white influencers who’ve issued apologies for racism; one poorly scripted apology video, and it’s sorted. So scripted, that training on performing a convincing apology video exists online, with James Charles likely the most prominent influencer to offer such services as part of his YouTube reality competition, “instant influencers”.

Now, don't get me wrong, everybody makes mistakes and should be given the chance to grow. However, given how often blackface has been called out in numerous controversies on and off YouTube for decades, it makes little sense to rely on ignorance at this point.

In Dawson’s case, his racist content was posted 10 years ago. He was in his 20s. He was knowledgeable and mature enough to understand that what he was doing was racist and unacceptable. After all, he did admit in his apology video that he created content for “shock factor”. This suggests to me that he knew racist content would be shocking enough to attract viewers but not to stop his career from evolving. These were not secretive one-off tweets, put out at a young age, forgotten about, and then re-discovered later. They were in some cases scripted, intentionally planned pieces of content intended to rack up views on YouTube.

The fact that so many other problematic public figures-turned-YouTubers such as Stefan Molyneux and Richard Spencer have been successful in gaining immense popularity following racist content highlights the painful truth that racism is marketable.

There is some contribution from YouTube to this, given how complacent it has been. Even the recent banning of Molyneux, Spencer and David Duke, former KKK leader, for hateful speech seem too little, too late. YouTube only seems to have demonetised Dawson’s videos across his three channels after his apology.

The platform aims to keep people watching video content for billions of hours daily, could it be possible that these top YouTubers were seen as part of those traffic goals?

In my experience running a YouTube channel, MoChunks TV, which has amassed over 1.6 million views, I have had YouTube flag up some of my videos as unsuitable for monetisation, videos in which I spoke out against racial issues. Since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve noticed putting “black” in my YouTube titles has resulted in reduced ads in my videos.

Tati Westbrook accuses Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star of 'lying and gaslighting'

Though Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, has highlighted difficulties in regulating the huge influx of videos the platform sees on a daily basis, from the inside looking out, and from the outside looking in, YouTubers from marginalised groups are still likely to be silenced by the algorithm when speaking up against racism, or prejudice of other kids, while offensive content gets around the system and continues to rack up money from ads.

As a YouTuber myself, I can confirm that like attracts like. Of course, some people disagree with me but the majority of my audience and I are similar. Dawson, Pewdiepie, Jeffree Star, James Charles and more were able to thrive because their supporters were probably receptive to inherent racism, and other damaging views too.

This is bigger than a few problematic YouTubers. The real issue lies with the audiences and platforms that allow them to thrive. Until that is dealt with, racist YouTubers will continue to exist, be offensive, get called out, “apologise” and do it all again.

Mo Chunks is a presenter and media producer. She is also a speaker and writer. You can find her personal social media at @MoChunks and the MCTV brand at @MoChunksTV

For her content on YouTube, click here

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