Tales From the Teenage Cancel Culture

A few weeks ago, Neelam, a high school senior, was sitting in class at her Catholic school in Chicago. After her teacher left the room, a classmate began playing “Bump N’ Grind,” an R. Kelly song.

Neelam, 17, had recently watched the documentary series “Surviving R. Kelly” with her mother. She said it had been “emotional to take in as a black woman.”

Neelam asked the boy and his cluster of friends to stop playing the track, but he shrugged off the request. “‘It’s just a song,’” she said he replied. “‘We understand he’s in jail and known for being a pedophile, but I still like his music.’”

She was appalled. They were in a class about social justice. They had spent the afternoon talking about Catholicism, the common good and morality. The song continued to play.

That classmate, who is white, had done things in the past that Neelam described as problematic, like casually using racist slurs — not name-calling — among friends. After class, she decided he was “canceled,” at least to her.

Her decision didn’t stay private; she told a friend that week that she had canceled him. She told her mother too. She said that this meant she would avoid speaking or engaging with him in the future, that she didn’t care to hear what he had to say, because he wouldn’t change his mind and was beyond reason.

“When it comes to cancel culture, it’s a way to take away someone’s power and call out the individual for being problematic in a situation,” Neelam said. “I don’t think it’s being sensitive. I think it’s just having a sense of being observant and aware of what’s going on around you.”

The term “canceled” “sort of spawned from YouTube,” said Ben, a high school junior in Providence, R.I. (Because of their age and the situations involved, The New York Times has granted partial anonymity to some people. We have confirmed details with parents or schoolmates.)

He talked about the YouTuber James Charles, who was canceled by the platform’s beauty community earlier this year, in May, after some drama with his mentor, Tati Westbrook, also a YouTuber, and a vitamin entrepreneur. That was a big cancellation, widely covered, that helped popularize the term. Teenagers often bring it up.

Ben, 17, said that people should be held accountable for their actions, whether they’re famous or not, but that canceling someone “takes away the option for them to learn from their mistakes and kind of alienates them.”

His school doesn’t have much bullying, he said, and the word carries a gentler meaning in its hallways, used in passing to tease friends. Often, the joke extends beyond people. One week, after students were debating the safety of e-cigarettes and vaping, some declared that Juul was canceled.

It took some time for L to understand that she had been canceled. She was 15 and had just returned to a school she used to attend. “All the friends I had previously had through middle school completely cut me off,” she said. “Ignored me, blocked me on everything, would not look at me.”

Months went by. Toward the end of sophomore year, she reached out over Instagram to a former friend, asking why people were not talking to her. It was lunchtime; the person she asked was sitting in the cafeteria with lots of people and so they all piled on. It was like an avalanche, L said.

Within a few minutes she got a torrent of direct messages from the former friend on Instagram, relaying what they had said. One said she was a mooch. One said she was annoying and petty. One person said that she had ruined her self-esteem. Another said that L was an emotional leech who was thirsty for validation.

“This put me in a situation where I thought I had done all these things,” L said. “I was bad. I deserved what was happening.”

Two years have passed since then. “You can do something stupid when you’re 15, say one thing and 10 years later that shapes how people perceive you,” she said. “We all do cringey things and make dumb mistakes and whatever. But social media’s existence has brought that into a place where people can take something you did back then and make it who you are now.”

In her junior year, L said, things got better. Still, that rush of messages and that social isolation have left a lasting impact. “I’m very prone to questioning everything I do,” she said. “‘Is this annoying someone?’ ‘Is this upsetting someone?’”

“I have issues with trusting perfectly normal things,” she said. “That sense of me being some sort of monster, terrible person, burden to everyone, has stayed with me to some extent. There’s still this sort of lingering sense of: What if I am?

Alex is 17, and she hears the word “canceled” every day at her high school outside Atlanta. It can be a joke, but it can also suggest that an offending person won’t be tolerated again. Alex thinks of it as a permanent label. “Now they’ll forever be thought of as that action, not for the person they are,” she said.

“It’s not like you’ll sit away from them at lunch or something,” she said. “It’s just a lingering thought in the back of your mind, a negative connotation.”

During a mock trial practice a couple of weeks before a big competition, the song “Act Up” by City Girls was playing. One of Alex’s teammates, who is of Indian descent, rapped along with the lyrics, which include a racist slur.

The students, who until that point had been chatty because their teacher wasn’t in the room, went silent. “I was the only black person in the room,” Alex said.

Alex and another friend on the team explained to their teammate why he shouldn’t have used that word. “We’re a team, so we can’t have tension exist there,” she said.

He said he understood why they were uncomfortable but that it wouldn’t necessarily prevent him from using it again when singing along. He wouldn’t take it back.

“You’re canceled, sis,” her friend told the teammate. It was partially to lighten the mood, but also partly serious.

“It’s a joke, but still, we understand you have that opinion now and we’re not going to get closer,” Alex said.

Despite his initial tough stance, the teammate didn’t rap the word again, and Alex said that he had remained respectful during practice. The team took ninth and 11th place at the competition.

It was orientation day for freshmen at Sarah Lawrence College, where one new student was unnerved by a social justice group’s presentation. The presenters discussed pronoun use and called on the entering freshmen to “‘battle heteronormativity and cisgender language,’” the student said.

Even if you accidentally misgendered someone, the new students were told, you needed to be either called out or called in. (“Called in” means to be gently led to understand your error; call-outs are more aggressive.) The presenters emphasized that the impact on the person who was misgendered was what mattered, regardless of the intent of the person who had misgendered them.

The freshman thought back to a time when her father had misgendered a friend of hers. Her father had asked her to apologize on his behalf. She did. “‘I only get mad when people intentionally try to misgender me because they feel like they have to correct who I am,’” she recalled her friend saying.

Sarah Lawrence has fewer than 1,500 undergraduates. One upperclassman she became friends with said that she had been canceled in her own freshman year.

But, this upperclassman said, the politics enforced through cancellation don’t always fit neatly into the social dynamics of college.

“I think where it loses me, we’re taking these systems that are applying huge abstract ideas of identity’s role and we’re shrinking it into these interpersonal, one-on-one, liberal arts things,” the upperclassman said.

Among the upperclassman’s friend group now, the idea of cancellation is “basically a joke.” Too many people had been canceled. At a recent party the upperclassman had attended, one guy said, “‘If you haven’t been canceled, you’re canceled.’”

One night during Mike’s freshman year at a New York state college, he and a group of friends were headed to a party downtown. As they were waiting for their Uber, someone cracked a political joke, and then the casual conversation turned confrontational. One of Mike’s friends asked his roommate, D, if he was a Trump supporter.

D had a history of making the group uncomfortable. Mike and their mutual friend Phoebe said that he would made sexist, homophobic and racist remarks in past hangouts.

D “blew up” at the friend who asked the question, and when the friend tried to change the subject, he became more upset. Mike stepped between the two to defuse the situation. “He got in my friend’s face, and that was the last straw,” Mike said.

He tried to cool D down; it didn’t work. D called Mike a homophobic slur, multiple times. The group split up. Mike didn’t return to his dorm that night, staying at a friend’s place instead.

“Even before this, we could tell, if I weren’t roommates with him, we wouldn’t have been friends,” Mike said. “So that was the breaking point for me, him saying that when I was sticking up for him.”

D left an apology note on Mike’s desk, which mostly tried to “justify his actions,” Mike said. “That set in my mind that he didn’t really feel bad about what he did,” he said. “He just felt bad for himself, that he would be looked at in a different light.”

A couple of days later, Phoebe, Mike and D sat down and D repeated the apology. Phoebe and Mike heard him out but said it didn’t clear him of wrongdoing and that he would have to demonstrate that he was different now. Both said that while D appeared sad about losing his friends, tearing up during their discussion, he didn’t show remorse.

Other friends didn’t accept the apology. “We wouldn’t tolerate it anymore, we cut him out of our lives,” Phoebe said.

Thus canceled, D moved from sadness to frustration and anger, Phoebe said. He grew “very bitter,” Phoebe said. She noticed that he had unfollowed and blocked the group on Snapchat and other social media a few weeks later.

“He did feel bullied by this whole canceled idea,” she said. “But in this case, no one felt bad doing it, because he didn’t really take responsibility for a lot of the things he said.”

Mike, though, still lives with D. He had signed on to live with him before the ordeal. They don’t speak. D has stopped acknowledging Mike and most everyone from their old group. “I’m definitely not living with him next year,” Mike said.

Phoebe managed to keep things civil. “Every time we see him, I still say hi,” she said. Sometimes, but not always, he nods or says hi back.