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What the Offensive Acts of Justin Bieber, Jonah Hill, and Pharrell Williams Really Mean

Three of pop culture's biggest celebrities dropped racial and homophobic slurs this week:

  • Multiple videos leaked of Justin Bieber using racial slurs.
  • Jonah Hill called a papparazzo an anti-gay slur.
  • Pharrell was featured on the cover of Elle UK Magazine wearing a Native American headdress.

What happened?

Jonah Hill

SMH, Jonah Hill. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Should we label these celebs as racist or homophobic -- or did they just make excusable "mistakes"?

What were Justin Bieber's racist jokes about?

Two old videos of Justin Bieber leaked this week. One shows Bieber --whose mentor, let's not forget, is Usher -- singing racial slurs, using the N word while laughing and vowing to join the Klu Klux Klan, and the other shows him making a hideous racial joke. Here are both clips:


Now some context: Bieber was 15 years old at the time of the videos, and he's pointed to his young age as an explanation for his actions while apologizing.

"As a kid, I didn't understand the power of certain words and how they can hurt. I thought it was ok to repeat hurtful words and jokes, but didn't realize at the time that it wasn't funny and that in fact my actions were continuing the ignorance."

He also said the video was made as a joke, or a parody of a parody. (Not Funny, Justin. Please don't ever go into comedy.)

The racist videos were kept a secret for years and even led to a court case between Team Bieber and the man who obtained them. Team Bieber called it blackmail:

Whether or not it was blackmail, fans are very upset with Bieber.

And people are even asking others to stop supporting him altogether with #boycottbieber:


As part of his response, Bieber also Instagrammed a few passages from the Bible:

His actions bring up a few questions:

  • Is youth or naiveté a good excuse for being racist? Is it OK to make those kinds of jokes when you're a teen?
  • Is ignorance a good excuse for racism?
  • Do stupid racist jokes mean more and have a stronger impact than they seem?
  • How can celebrities like Justin Bieber make amends and help to address racism?

Is Jonah Hill's homophobic slur excusable?

Jonah Hill, the Academy Award-nominated star of movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, Moneyball, 22 Jump Street, and Superbad, also made waves for using a gay epithet towards a member of the paparrazi.

Come on, Jonah, keep it cool. (Flickr)

Hill called a male photographer a gay slur and said "suck my d***". Ugh.


Hill was clearly being followed around and provoked by the paparazzi taunting him, following him, and filming him -- possibly even trying to provoke a strong reaction? Hill's comment looks like an angry outburst in the heat of the moment. Still ...

A couple of fans aren't happy. One even questioned the subtle homophobic humor that takes place in his past films like The Sitter.

In The Sitter, Hill gives a It-Gets-Better speech to another character. (Flickr/Daniel Oines)

And 21 Jump Street:

But mostly, people are giving Hill a break, especially since he has been openly supportive of the gay and lesbian community, and has been extremely apologetic.

Hill spoke directly to the camera on "The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon" apologizing and offering himself as an example of what not to do:

OK, Jonah. We hear you, but we've still got questions:

  • Why would Hill, an advocate of the gay and lesbian community, choose to sling such a hurtful, loaded term? Why didn't he just walk away?
  • Does it matter that he said it if he didn't mean it? What does it even mean to "mean it," anyway?
  • Is it excusable to toss around hateful terms in the heat of the moment?
  • Does Hill's outburst make it OK for anyone to use offensive terms like these when they are angry? Are there lines no one should cross no matter what?

For many members of the LGBTQ community who've been hatefully called that word before, the answer is yes, using derogatory terms (whether you "mean" them or not) does matter.

Why did Pharrell Williams pose in a Native American headdress?

And then there's Pharrell's magazine cover on this month's of Elle UK:

The headdress is incredibly sacred for Native Americans. When a non-Native American flaunts a headdress as mere accessory, it's received as flippant, offensive, disrepectful and racist. It turns a meaningful part of Native culture into a costume.

So why'd Pharrell do it? The thing is, Pharrell was at a photoshoot being guided by stylists. There were a lot of people involved in creating the Elle UK cover. And the decision to wear the headdress was not made by himself.

In response, fans are voicing their opposition to Pharrell's cover under the hashtag campaign #nothappy.

Pharrell did apologize, very briefly:

“I respect and honor every kind of race, background and culture. ... I am genuinely sorry.”


  • Who's more responsible for the offensive misuse of the headdress - Pharrell or the magazine?
  • Is Pharrell's apology sufficient?
  • Do casual acts of disrespect like this set the stage for even more offensive and hurtful behavior?

What do you think about this string of racist and homophobic acts? How should celebrities be held accountable when making discriminatory actions like this? Are these cases different from other similar cases involving celebrities and high-profile people like Alec Baldwin or Paula Deen or Donald Sterling?

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What the Offensive Acts of Justin Bieber, Jonah Hill, and Pharrell Williams Really Mean

Jennifer Cain

Jenny Cain is a freelance writer from Orange County, California, and former banana slug, or UC Santa Cruz alum. She teaches classical and jazz piano to high school students and audits classes at UC Irvine. Inspired by Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the Supreme Court’s 3 badass lady justices, she’d like to see the U.S. elect their first woman president. Like, yesterday.

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