1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
LiteratureUnited States of America

Criticizing cancel culture as a 'woke' author

Elizabeth Grenier
September 13, 2021

The concept of cancel culture has been weaponized by the right in the US, but Black scholar John McWhorter sees it as his duty to criticize its excesses too.

John McWhorter
Linguist, professor and author John McWhorterImage: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

"Cancel culture" can be interpreted in different ways. But for Fox News pundits, the buzzword encapsulates how "woke" liberal elites are erasing American values and culture.

It is therefore difficult for anyone to criticize excessive forms of "anti-racist" deplatforming that have emerged in the US without sounding like a right-wing conservative.

"We are witnessing the birth of a new religion," said John McWhorter, a Black American linguist, author and associate professor at Columbia University who has addressed racism in the US for many years.

He has especially identified elements of anti-racism discourse associated with cancel culture that he sees as "very worrying," and which are the subject his forthcoming book, Woke Racism: How a new Religion has betrayed Black America, to be published on October 26.

McWhorter was invited to give a lecture on the topic at the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, which runs September 8-18.

Book cover 'Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America' by John McWhorter, white letters on a black background with red lines.
McWhorter's book 'Woke Racism' will published on October 26

From Critical Race Theory to 'extreme ideology'

The professor started by explaining how what he calls an "extreme ideology" emerged from Critical Race Theory (CRT).

Initially developed in the mid-1970s through academic work, CRT is a civil rights movement calling for the critical examination of how the United States' social, cultural and legal institutions serve to maintain the interests of white people — most often to the detriment of marginalized communities.

"These issues must concern us of course, but the new idea is that these concerns of battling power differentials must be central; that nothing else is as important," McWhorter explained.

While the linguist agrees that CRT scholarly research offers a valuable perspective, he says that it increasingly discourages nuance and diversity in academic debate.

Demonstrators react in front of graffiti on a statue of Winston Churchill, where his name is crossed out, with the words 'was a racist'.
George Floyd's killing, says McWhorter, gave power to the ideology worldwide; here a graffitied Churchill statue in the UKImage: Reuters/D. Martinez

From one perspective among many to a 'religion'

The entire cultural canon is being reviewed through this simplified framing, points out the professor, mentioning one recent example: Beethoven was merely an above-average composer, according to musicologist Philip Ewell.

In Ewell's interpretation, it's only because Beethoven was a white male that we have come to know him as a "master" who wrote "masterpieces" — incidentally, terms which, as Ewell points out, carry "both racist (master/slave) and sexist (master/mistress) connotations."

These are all ideas worth discussing, said McWhorter. But he finds that "things get disturbing when it's no longer one perspective among many, but a religion." 

Anyone who does not agree with the ideology will be viewed as a "white supremacist" who deserves to be tarred on social media and excluded from the public sphere.

The 'Elect': Neo-racists posing as anti-racists

Being "woke," a word that was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017, is another label that has evolved over recent years.

Slang from "awoken," it initially referred to people who are aware of systematic racism and other forms of injustice in society. It became a label for the movement emphasizing identity politics of marginalized minority groups but it is now also used by right-wing conservatives to vilify the left and liberals.   

While John McWhorther sees himself as woke, he attempts to create a sub-category among "his people," which he calls "the Elect." 

"The Elect are the 'hyper woke,' or more to the point, the Elect are the woke who are mean," he explains, seeing them as part of a third-wave of anti-racism.

The first wave battled slavery and segregation, while second-wave anti-racism fought for against racial injustice in the 1970s and '80s.

Third-wave anti-racism, which became mainstream in the 2010s, is actually for him a new form a racism. Its basic tenet: Since racism is deeply woven into the structure of society, white people who do not decry this institutional injustice are seen as living in "complicity" with established "white supremacist" structures.  

"The idea that whites are permanently stained by their white privilege, gaining moral absolution only by eternally attesting to it, is the third wave's version of original sin," as McWhorter put it in an essay in The Atlantic, pursuing his religious metaphor.

A woman wearing a mask painted with the words, 'white silence is violence'.
Third-wave anti-racism, explains McWhorter, teaches that whites who are not actively fighting against the system are racistImage: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

But if culture is to focus solely on battling power differentials, he says, it will lead in the end to lesser art, weaker painting or films — just like 13th-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas centered his entire writings on God, or like artists who were celebrated in communist or fascist regimes were the ones who expressed ideological values in their work.

"It is not revolutionary, it is anti-intellectual," says McWhorter. "We're being asked to abjure complexity."

'Cancel culture' versus 'consequence culture'

But is the fear of being "cancelled" for not endorsing the views of the Elect actually justified?

A number of commentators rather argue that cancel culture should be described as "consequence culture." They also point out that many celebrities who have complained about cancel culture are in no way threatened to lose their position of privilege for being criticized publicly, or even harassed online — as it happened to J.K. Rowling for example.

But the cases that worry McWhorter are rather those of not-so-famous people in position of power whose careers have been upended for not espousing "enlightened" views, or for having "irreparably sinned" by stating the N-word in a quotational context, for instance.

One professor in California was suspended following a discussion on filler words, such as "like" or "you know" in English. A common pause word in the Chinese language is "na-ge." During his lecture, the professor repeated several times the term, which sounds like the N-word, but means "that." Students complained, and he was suspended. 

"Those are cases that make the news because they're especially colorful," says McWhorter. "But it happens all the time." 

Keeping the debate open

Through the cultural influence of the US, this framing of topics has also been imported to Europe, says McWhorter. As discussed during a Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin panel, the original sin of slavery was transposed, for example, to colonialism.

As such, the reckoning that things need to be changed is essential, stresses McWhorter. He adds, however, that it is equally important to address how that change occurs.

The linguist believes that debates must be pursued gradually to avoid further polarization: "We need to have many voices at the table again."

Skip next section Explore more