No. Justin can not use the n-word—and neither can you.
Yesterday, a video surfaced of a 15-year old Justin Bieber using the n-word in a tasteless joke. He was being recorded for a concert film and he’s shown playing video games and telling jokes.
“Why are black people afraid of chainsaws,” he asks. Someone off-camera cautions him not to say it. “Run n*gger n*gger n*gger run,” he says, a smarmy grin on his face.
Before the day was out, his apology, swift and detailed, was sent to The Hollywood Reporter, saying in part: “I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake.”
No one believes Justin Bieber is racist or thinks less of Black people. And no one thinks he discriminates against African-Americans when it comes to who he associates with and does business with in the entertainment industry.
Bieber is Usher’s protégé and Floyd Mayweather’s mascot. This kid is no Donald Sterling. The video is five years old and Bieber was 15 when it was recorded. He made a crass joke, which he admitted was stupid in the video although TMZ conspicuously didn’t post that part.
And he’s not the first to get caught out there.
When Eminem was 17, he was pissed off at his (African-American) ex-girlfriend. He went in the studio and spewed out: “All the girls I like to bone have big butts/No they don’t/’cause I don’t like that n*gger shit/I’m just here to make a bigger hit.”
Eleven years later, the recording surfaced. Eminem’s apology was genuine: “It was something I made out of anger, stupidity and frustration when I was a teenager. I hope people will take it for the foolishness that it was…”
In 2014, it’s a non-issue for Eminem, as it should be.
And it should be a non-issue for Justin Bieber as well.
Here’s why it’s not.
I hear kids of all colors use the word nigga as a term of endearment. It makes me cringe but it’s so pervasive at this point that I really think it’s entered the lexicon for good.
When Jay Z was on Oprah, she took Jay Z to task for using the n-word in his rhymes. He told her that our generation’s experience with the word was much different than hers. “In our own way,” said Jay, “We’ve disarmed the word.”
Jay-Z has a point. When a white kid says, “my nigga” to a friend, we know he’s not hurling a racial slur. The word has been disarmed. (And believe it or not, the disarming of the word is bringing it full circle. In the early 1800s, white folks occasionally referred to themselves and their white friends as niggur and it didn’t have a negative connotation).
But Justin Bieber wasn’t referring to himself or greeting a friend. He was making a joke about an entire group of people. And the connotation of the joke only made things worse: Run n*gger run? Really.
We all agree that the word as a slur against all people is wrong. But there’s a thin line between a racist word with a loaded history being unacceptable and a slight spelling tweak of that same word being totally fine.
We may have “disarmed” the power of nigga. Is the goal now to make nigger acceptable as well? —Aliya S. King
Aliya S. King is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books, including the New York Times Bestseller, “Keep The Faith,” with recording artist Faith Evans. She has written for VIBE since 1998. Find her at aliyasking.com and @aliyasking.