Profanity and hate speech are not the same thing.
I’ve been trying as hard as I can to stay away from commenting on these “Justin-Bieber-is-a-Racist” videos that have recently surfaced.
For one thing, Bieber was 14 years old when he made these comments. And he’s offered a solid apology that makes no excuses for his words. In any case, I tend to blame the parents when their little ones voice white supremacist views. (Where, by the way, are Bieber’s parents in all of this?) I know some of you think that white supremacy is some sort of biological fact, like rainbows and dog poop. Stop thinking that. Parents are responsible for intervening and reshaping their kids racist beliefs and attitudes.
Bieber-Mom, Bieber-Dad: I’m looking at you.
But I’ve also tried to ignore this new “scandal” about race because it’s become all too apparent that the cycle of media exposing, shaming, and defending racist (or sexist or homophobic) spectacles is just another manifestation of one of America’s most fundamental and contradictory traditions—simultaneously denying and defending oppression. We point out the ubiquity of racism in order to normalize it, not to tear it down.
Take for example the entire reason I’ve even decided to jump into this fray: John McWhorter’s recent article titled “Justin Bieber: Not a Racist, But Is He Really a Nigger?” I think the click-bait headline gives you a pretty good sense of how far down the rabbit hole McWhorter goes.
Here’s the gist: According to McWhorter, Bieber saying “run, nigger, run” and expressing an interest in joining the Klu Klux Klan isn’t racist at all. It’s just forbidden. Using denigrating and offensive language about people of color is just what white boys do to blow off steam. After all, McWhorter points out, it’s confusing for white people that they aren’t allowed to use the word nigger. Making it taboo is just begging for it to be used as a form of rebellion and self-expression. You understand that right, America?
Moreover, Bieber has black friends and “identifies closely enough with black culture.” Saying “nigger” is a show of “empathetic affection” or hapless bravado (McWhorter isn’t exactly sure which). After all, non-black people today are blacker than ever.
I am not making any of this up.
At face value, McWhorter’s arguments are so utterly fallacious that it barely merits further analysis. But since he decided to throw together a hodgepodge collection of every excuse in the book for using hate speech and racist language, I’ll just take a moment to tackle a few of them here:
First, profanity and hate speech are not the same thing. Here’s the difference: Slurs are words that denigrate, dehumanize, and belittle another human being for belonging to a group different than your own. Slurs cause mental and emotional damage that have material and structural impact. They remind others that you see them as less than yourself. Getting your mom to clutch her pearls because you scream “fuck!” is not the same thing as demeaning an entire group of people.
Second, joining a white supremacist group is racist. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence, but apparently it had to be said. Racism refers to a society and value system based on racial hierarchy, and the Klu Klux Klan firmly places white people at the very top of its color-coded pyramid. And from the White House to the heartland, they’ve enforced these norms with brutal violence. (Sorry, Klu Klux Klan, I know you’re trying to rebrand).
And finally, hate speech should not be the way you have fun. This, too, is pretty straightforward. If you’re into cheap thrills, ride a motorcycle, or run naked down your town’s busiest street. Put a whoopee cushion on your friend’s chair. Dye your hair green. Do anything besides use words rooted in a long history of enslaving, raping, kidnapping, selling, lynching, murdering, incarcerating, and profiling people who look different from you. Find pleasure and humor in something other than the idea of joining a terrorist group responsible for the deaths and subjugation of millions of people they considered inferior.
You know why? Because that’s what decent people do. Having fun at the expense of people with less power and resources—that’s what bullies do. It’s not empathy and it sure as hell is not affection. And if avoiding hate speech toward other people strikes you as a great injustice in a society where it is illegal to give food to hungry people, then there is something deeply wrong with you.
And, by the way, this last guideline is one I apply to myself. As a straight person, I prefer to not use harmful words about gay people because I might harm someone. More than that, derogatory language serves as a way of asserting who belongs to a space, and who does not. I am fully aware that some people in the LGBTQ community have reclaimed historically pejorative words for their own use. Oppressed people find all sorts of ways to cope and survive that have nothing to do with what more powerful people want. That’s kind of the point.
Look, I have no stakes in proving or disproving Justin Bieber’s racism. But just because white supremacy is a deeply entrenched part of our culture doesn’t make it right. Justifying, trivializing, and excusing racism is an age-old hustle for people like McWhorter. If only they’d spend more time trying to undo it instead.
Khadijah Costley White is a faculty member in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.