Fans of Justin Bieber are having their faith in their hero tested yet again, after the pop star was caught on camera telling a racist joke.

This weekend, The Sun newspaper published a video in which Bieber tells a joke about black people, with a racial epithet as its punchline. Before he delivers this punchline, one of his friends warns him not to use the word.

The story throws up all sorts of issues surrounding the usage of words and the changing nature of language. 

The film released by The Sun is five years old and was made when the singer was 15. Since it was made public, Bieber has released a statement saying that he did not realise how hurtful certain words could be when he was younger.

“I’m very sorry,” the Canadian singer said. “I take all my friendships with peoples of all cultures very seriously, and I apologise for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable behaviour.

“I didn’t realise at the time that it wasn’t funny, and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance. Thanks to friends and family, I learned from my mistakes and grew up, and apologised for these wrongs.”

Word use is not stable and meanings can change over time. The word “awful”, for example, was originally used to describe something that inspired awe. Similarly, in the 1400s, a “nervous” person was one who was sinewy and vigorous, reflecting the word’s Latin origins.

The word used by Bieber is a US corruption of the Spanish noun “negro”. For centuries the word was not considered derogatory, although it is worth bearing in mind that the people who thought this also considered it acceptable to own black slaves. By the 1900s, the word had become pejorative, with “coloured” and “negro” suggested as alternatives. Civil-rights activists used “black” in the 1960s, and “African American” from the 1990s onwards. The word remains part of black American street slang. As a result, a number of black pop singers continue to use it in their lyrics. Attempts by white singers to do the same never end well.

Bieber is not alone in making this mistake. Last week, it was revealed that Louis Tomlinson, of the group One Direction, has also been caught on camera allegedly using the same racial slur as Bieber.

This has caused outrage on Twitter. One fan wrote: “Using the n word isn’t cute.” Another added: “Like how dumb can u be?”

Last year, Bieber caused controversy after visiting the Anne Frank house while on a tour of the Netherlands. In the guest book at the museum, he wrote: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a Belieber.”

Internet commentators were outraged that Bieber could reduce Anne Frank, symbol of the inhumanities suffered by Jews during the Second World War, to the status of a “Belieber”, as the singer’s fans are known.

But racist slurs are not the sole preserve of pop stars. Last month, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson was forced to ask for viewers’ forgiveness after appearing to use the same racist term during filming for the BBC series. Clarkson – who, at 54, does not even have Bieber and Tomlinson’s tenuous excuse of youth – recited the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” nursery rhyme in order to choose between two cars.

At the time, Downing Street condemned any use of the word. It added that David Cameron, a friend of Clarkson’s, would certainly not use it.

Adi Bloom

Questions for debate and discussion

  1. What do you understand by the word “racism”?
  2. Should celebrities be held responsible for their past actions?
  3. What action can we take to prevent racism in our own lives?
  4. Discuss what celebrities and the media could do to prevent reinforcing insulting or discriminatory behaviours.

Related resources  

Tackling racism
In this BBC Class Clips video, an Asian boy talks openly about his experiences of racist remarks and attitudes.

Racism/sexism in Disney
This Powerpoint presentation uses popular cartoons as a springboard for the exploration of prejudice and discrimination.  

Racism and xenophobia assembly
This simple assembly presentation explores racism through sports, poetry and an interesting thought for the day.

Racism in a multicultural society
Discuss the origins of modern racism and to what extent racism is still a problem in today’s society.