October 28, 2020

Reckoning With Ghosts of Social Media Past

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My social media presence from high school and college includes everything from photos of theme parties and Halloween costumes I now understand as cultural appropriation, to banter with friends in which we casually invoked racist or sexist stereotypes.

While I could dismiss this as youthful ignorance, it doesn’t change the fact that my behavior a decade ago was harmful. Would it be selfish to remove the evidence of my mistakes? Or would it be worse to have processed the toxic nature of these posts and allowed them to stay up? I am not seeking credit or absolution, but I want to do the right thing.

— Anonymous

When a public figure is taken to task for their social media history, I wonder why they did not do themselves the favor of cleaning up their online presence as their public profile grew. I am never sure if they are so comfortable with their past behavior that they don’t think it should be erased or if they are so clueless about how fame functions that they don’t consider the ways in which their past will come to light.

That said, you ask an important question. The short answer is: Clean up your social media. If there are people to whom you need to make amends, do so. You’re an adult now, so act like one. We have all made mistakes, and sometimes there is glaring evidence of those mistakes. You are doing the necessary work of interrogating your past and I commend you for taking responsibility and not merely dismissing your actions as “youthful ignorance.” You were young and ignorant, yes, but that doesn’t make the behavior less toxic.

You aren’t making some noble gesture by leaving your checkered past in plain sight for anyone to stumble upon. You aren’t hiding anything by deleting social media posts from a decade or more ago. By cleaning up your online presence, you are demonstrating an awareness that social norms change and that you, like nearly everyone, harbor or once harbored prejudices.

What’s important is taking stock of who you are and how you behave both on and offline, now. Do you hold yourself accountable for what you say and do? Do you hold the people around you accountable when they say racist or misogynist or other bigoted things? Do you advocate for marginalized people as much as you advocate for yourself? Flagellating yourself over your social media history doesn’t accomplish anything. Actions speak far louder than words. Do the work, every day, of being actively anti-racist and feminist. Forgive yourself for your past and honor a promise to yourself that you will never be that person again.


I manage two men who are younger than me. They have a lot of potential and a genuine passion for the work we do. But they won’t ask me for help. From their work product, it’s obvious that they struggle. They hide any problems from me until the last minute, and then turn in work that is far below my expectations. To work around this, I generally tell them that the deadline is a week before it actually is, and when they turn in a terrible first draft, I work through it with them. Or I just redo it.

Am I doing the right thing? How do I give them the confidence to ask me for help?

— Anonymous, San Mateo, Calif.

Your employees are grown-ass men in a professional environment. Stop babying them! It is not your job to do their job in addition to yours. Potential and passion are well and good, but competence is just as important. Mentorship is not synonymous with mothering. You are enabling their refusal to ask for help.

Be honest about what they are doing well but also how their work product is falling short. Establish a timeline for them to improve and identify consequences you follow through on if they don’t learn how to collaborate with you and produce better work. Make it clear (even though you already have) that you are not only their leader, you are also a knowledgeable and willing resource to help them become stronger and more effective employees. That is all you can do. If their masculinity is so fragile that they cannot ask for help and improve their work, I assure you there are other people on the job market who will not need to be work-parented. I do not say this lightly but if they cannot rise to the occasion, find employees who will.


I’m employed at a consulting organization. The founders are three middle-aged white men who come from family money. Employees are nearly entirely women, many of color, single and in their late 20s-early 30s. There are a handful of other employees, people of color, in their late 30s-early 40s with young kids.

Everyone’s salaries and bonuses are transparent. Performance reviews are done with care. The founders provide benefits linked to their values. But there is one major aggression — the founders LOVE white people activities like skiing, sailing, etc., and team building is centered around such activities. Lots of people don’t want to do them. It is seemingly impossible to move into middle management if one does not engage in these team building days.

What would be a good way to change this aspect of the culture?

— Anonymous

I cannot stand mandatory fun — any sort of activity or potluck or other gathering with co-workers that demands your presence either implicitly or explicitly. The expectation that you should work a rigorous schedule and also spend your free time with your colleagues instead of your friends and family is exhausting and ridiculous.

That your founders, who seem like decent guys, don’t understand that not everyone enjoys their very expensive, very white pastimes is willful. They choose not to understand why their employees may not know how or want to alpine ski or sail free solo or whatever because they can cosset themselves in that way.

I don’t know if you can change the culture at your organization — the founders are who they are. But you can be honest about the bias inherent in pairing team building and professional advancement with exclusionary activities that employees may not be familiar with or interested in for any number of reasons including race, class, gender and ability. Even if someone has already raised this, do so again, and suggest more inclusive team building activities. You might also mention how women, for example, struggled to advance in certain industries because of all the business meetings and networking that took place on golf courses and in strip clubs and bars after work when they were taking care of their families. (This is, in fact, still a problem in certain sectors.)

Your founders see themselves as good guys but there is room for improvement. If they are as aligned with their values as you suggest, hold them to that by demanding this very reasonable accommodation.


Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at [email protected].