Shade and the Culture of Contempt

In some campus healing places, justice places, coldness and malice lurk. 

Among collegiate social justice communities can be found great work. Invaluable efforts, compassion, a sense of duty. And sometimes: scorn, antipathy, and spiteful interpersonal put-downs that wrench apart friendships, poison experiences, and drive some into depression. 

The spite and scorn I speak of are certainly not exclusive to activist communities. Indeed, meanness and coldhearted venom exist widely across society and birth the very oppression and marginalization activists seek to combat. Maliciousness is not something concentrated to one social realm. One might expect groups dedicated to justice to rid themselves of these destructive forces, though. This, in some cases, has not happened. 

Some activist cultures on campuses across the country have sprouted bitterness, nastiness, and even viciousness, all cached under the legitimizing term “shade” (which has many different meanings and traces its roots to an array of marginalized spaces). While many who cast “shade” do so to effectively and cleverly deconstruct hurtful hierarchies and discourses, a significant portion of shade-throwing has another hidden, duplicitous purpose: to mock, taunt, jeer, and put down other students. Jadedness and a strained sense of community often result from this seemingly innocent “shade-throwing.”  Catharsis and deconstruction so often morph into ad hominem attacks, disparagement, humiliation, and sneering insults. Clothes are mocked. Mannerisms jeered at. New haircuts snickered at and identities questioned and decisions ridiculed and opinions scoffed at. Hurt and pain result, little more – no social justice mission advanced. 

These groups have reason to be indignant and reason to believe that these tactics might prove useful. Deconstruction, satire, humor, and mockery have long existed as productive ways to critique oppressive systems of power. Marginalized people have often effectively dismantled and delegitimized dominant value systems with cutting criticisms and caricature. In these cases, justice workers have put the untruth of the dominant structure into hilarious and disgusting relief with aggressive and sometimes derisive tactics.

This does not mean that criticisms of outfits, mannerisms, talent show skits, and personal attacks are not hurtful and cruel. Criticism can respectfully solve problems and critique systems, but the mantle of social justice should not be used to sanction cruelty and construct hierarchies within activist communities.

This malice that has stood unchecked for so long amounts to viciousness. People step on others’ personal dignity and call it “shade” to provide comments with undeserved authority. This contemptuousness serves as a defense mechanism for those who find themselves immersed in negativity: a way to protect one’s self-esteem when confronted not only by marginalization but also by the derision of alleged partners. What began as deconstruction became a vehicle for personal insecurity – a strange hierarchy of shadiness. And it has destroyed friendships, activist efforts, and even organizations in its wake. 

I should know. I regret to say that I have acted viciously and thrown my fair share of shade. I have hurt, and I have been hurt. And I’m done. 

Directing productive “shade-throwing” toward cultural figures, systems, and oppressive social phenomena is one thing. Featuring friends, acquaintances, and fellow organization members or activists is toxic, inviting of animosity, and almost never productive. There are reasonable ways to channel frustration that do not involve cold and hurtful ad hominem attacks towards fellow students. This culture throws everyone into a mudslinging pit and ensures that no one can rise above the fray. Miserable division results. Social justice is made to wait for those scoring cheap points at the expense of friends and colleagues.

We must raise our standard of interpersonal respect and demand not only that cold attacks stop but also that dignity is held in highest esteem. 

It will take leadership and boldness on top of those efforts, though. This culture makes it difficult to stand up for respect and kindness. People who do so are often the ones most harshly ridiculed, as they represent a threat to the shade hierarchy. 

The situation may seem hopeless, but it is not. This culture is entirely and quite easily repaired, and it starts on the individual and leadership levels. Anyone can stand up for respect and healing. Even though it might take some courage to speak truth to what has become entrenched. 

I for one will begin with myself. I will be positive and kind, no matter how hard it is to rid myself of ingrained habits. I am not afraid to be called foolish or naïve or any other names that might come my way. Healing is a process that begins slowly, and I’ve come too far to be sidelined by petty attacks. The causes we’re working for are too important. 

quote from Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison comes to mind:

“If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

We can, and I will.