Did Justin Bieber Set White People Back?

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Yesterday, as you probably heard, Justin Bieber was arrested for street racing and driving under the influence. Because I’m me, I made a joke:

The premise is easy to understand. Individual people of color—and especially women—can’t make mistakes without it saying something about their class. When Richard Sherman makes a post-game outburst, for instance, the reaction goes beyond him, and becomes an indictment of *black people*. When you apply this standard to a white person—like Justin Bieber, for instance—it sounds absurd, which is the joke. It *is* absurd, and racism (or sexism) is the only reason anyone would say something similar about a woman or a minority. The people in my immediate Twitter circle got this, and retweeted the joke. But as it spread through various timelines, it lost its context and attracted the anger of internet racists. For example:


More interesting than this, however, were the irony-deprived people who challenged the idea that Bieber was white, or reflected poorly on white people.




Whether they realize it or not, these people are trying to protect the “value” of white racial identity by casting Bieber from the fold. He *can’t* reflect badly on white people because he just isn’t white, and whiteness[^1] can’t fail, *it can only be failed*.

And how does one fail “whiteness?” By associating with black people, or adopting their perceived behavior. To wit:


This is textbook racial policing, and it’s utterly fascinating.

[^1]: “Whiteness”—like “white privilege”—is a jargon-y term that obscures more than it describes. But in the absence of a better alternative, that’s what I’m using.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Thank you — insightful. I would not have guessed that people would not only not have gotten the joke, but then feel a need to be defensive about it.

  • Lucy Montrose

    “He’s Canadian, not white”?! …
    *laughs hysterically*

    Dude, Canada is WHITER than the United States. As of 3 years ago, 82 percent to 66 percent: http://ca.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110309095038AALZXdu

    I’m pretty disturbed in any case by his reverence for whiteness at all costs, and his psychological defense mechanisms in service of it…