This weekend, Usher joined the ranks of artists who have now vouched for Justin Bieber. “He is unequivocally not a racist,” wrote the R&B powerhouse on Instagram Saturday, about his one-time protégé. Bieber recently found himself once again embattled, this time over five-year-old videos that show a young Biebs making juvenile, racially offensive jokes and tossing around the N-word. Usher, of course, has a long association with the pop star — he even cowrote the singer’s 2009 “One Less Lonely Girl,” which Justin is seen tweaking in one of the videos into “One Less Lonely N****.”
While there has been no shortage of media and social-media outrage over the remarks, by and large the celebrity community has been forgiving. Other prominent African-American celebrities who have proclaimed support for Bieber in the past ten days include Floyd Mayweather, Soulja Boy, Whoopi Goldberg, Mike Tyson, Mack Maine, and 50 Cent. Repeatedly dropping the most vilified, racially charged slur in the English language might quickly torpedo a career, and there have been more than a few “Can Justin Survive?” pieces penned in the days since. Following two written apologies by Bieber in which he owned up to his “childish and inexcusable mistakes” and takes pains to remind people that the comments were made five years ago, it seems the damage to the singer may not be permanent.
Certainly, there are those less inclined to cut him slack, among them the Rev. Al Sharpton, Lupe Fiasco, and Cee-Lo Green, who said that “being a kid is no excuse” for using the N-word. It may not be an excuse, but if Bieber is ultimately forgiven, it will likely be because he was a clueless 15-year-old when the videos were shot, as this is not the first time in the past year that his tone-deafness has gotten him into trouble. But, at the end of the day, people just don’t believe the guy is a racist. In other words, vile as using the N-word is, context matters.
And, yet, there is a point of view that says some words are so unacceptable that, in fact, context doesn’t matter.
Last week, Jonah Hill said it doesn’t. I no more believe Jonah is a homophobe than I believe Justin is a racist. Yet there was such an outcry over his F-word rant at a paparazzo that he took to The Tonight Show last Wednesday to offer one of the most touching mea culpas I’ve ever heard. And, the most instructive part of what he had to say? After insisting that he didn’t mean to use the F-word “in a homophobic way,” Hill added, “I think that doesn’t matter.”
“How you mean things doesn’t matter,” he said. “Words have weight and meaning. And, the word I chose was grotesque, and no one deserves to say or hear words like that.”
He’s right. No one deserves to hear it, even if, as so many will contend, the world’s most popular gay slur is often used “not in a homophobic way.”
We have certainly evolved on that word. Thirteen years ago, I was one of the minority in media who, without qualification, decried Eminem’s use of the word 17 times on The Marshall Mathers LP. I said so repeatedly on the Grammy Awards red carpet, a short time before the record was named Best Rap Album, and Elton John — in so far as I am concerned, to this day, one of the worst moves of his career — joined Em on stage for a performance of “Stan.” At the time, and in years since, Elton said he did not consider the artist who rapped such lyrics as “Hate f*****s? The answer’s yes,” to be hateful, and viewed the Grammy duet as Eminem’s “olive branch” to the gay community.
Increasingly, the F-word is being seen as a counterpart to the long-tabooed N-word — as a term so beyond the pale in its potential to harm that there is no context in which it is acceptable. But, that has taken time. Might we be seeing the same sort of evolution on the T-word, as well? RuPaul and many of his counterparts in the drag community hope that is not the case. In an inspired bit of casting at Sunday’s Tony Awards, the world’s most famous drag queen introduced Neil Patrick Harris’ rocking performance from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. As he read from the prompter, Ru — not in drag but no less flashy in a hot-pink jacket — seemed almost to stumble for a split second when he reached the point in the intro copy where he had to say the word “transgendered.” Coincidence? Maybe not.
As you may be aware, a long-simmering disagreement between Ru and some in the trans* community over language came to a boil last month when, in a podcast interview with Marc Maron, the Drag Race diva vigorously defended his use of the word “tr***y,” and lambasted those who argue that it should be considered so offensive as to be unacceptable under any circumstance. Sides were quickly drawn, on Twitter and elsewhere. Carmen Carrera, a transgender model and former Drag Race contestant, was among RuPaul's most vocal critics, while veteran drag stars (Lady Bunny, Justin Vivian Bond) and newer ones (Bianca Del Rio) aligned with Ru, warning of the dangers of policing language.
Ru doesn’t want to be told what he can say. “...They’re just words,” he declared in the Maron interview, suggesting that people offended by the T-word need to “get stronger.” Further, Ru and his allies argue that those who object to the word are focusing on the wrong enemy — asserting that when used by those within the community, the word is celebratory, even empowering. In other words, they’re arguing context. And, in perhaps the most shocking comment of the whole interview, RuPaul claimed ownership of all three slurs included in this piece:
“I can call myself a n****r, f****t, tr***y all I want to, because I’ve fucking earned the right to do it. I’ve lived the life.”
I’m not sure what earning the “right” to use hurtful language even means. While I can’t lay claim to Ru’s trifecta, I have been subjected to one of those slurs many times in my life, but never once would I then turn around and use it, even in “fun” on someone else. But, sure, okay, he has the right. I understand that there is a community within which the T-word is considered nothing but harmless fun.
But, why cling onto a word that you know can cause harm? Justin Bieber apologized. Jonah Hill did as well, acknowledging that these words do in fact have weight and meaning. As for RuPaul, not only has he not apologized, he’s doubled down. Context and intent do matter, but context changes over time. Maybe we need to evolve along with it.