I’ve never considered myself to be a person that gets offended easily. In most cases, I can generally let even the crudest jokes pass without feeling personally attacked. The Internet tends to be a place made for those with thick skin. Despite all of this, I am still completely put off by the racial slurs casually used by YouTube celebrity Felix Kjellberg—better Known as PewDiePie.
For those who don’t know, Kjellberg has been under fire after a YouTube Gaming live stream that took place on Sunday. During the stream, Kjellberg was quoted saying, “What a fucking ni**er,” in regards to another player in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. This, along with Kjellberg’s previous scandal that involved the use of Nazi imagery, has caused people to begin questioning whether or not Kjellberg might be a racist.
As far as that question goes, I don’t believe Felix Kjellberg is racist…completely. In the past, PewDiePie has proven to be racially insensitive with his humour. While those jokes were, without a doubt, in bad taste, to label him a racist is a bit unfair without doing the same to a lot of comedians in the world. The difference with this most recent incident is that there was no attempt at comedy; Kjellberg wasn’t setting up some elaborately crude joke with a racial slur as the punchline, it was a natural reaction for him.
Shortly after making his comment, Kjellberg tried to defend himself by saying that he tried to think of the worst word that he could at that moment. The problem with this defense is the casual way that he managed to use the word at the drop of a hat. It suggests that he says things like the N-word on regular basis or at least in casual conversations when the camera is off. This theory is strengthened by the fact that he immediately said, “I’m sorry but-“ as though he had merely dropped a normal curse word in front of a teacher at school.
As I stated earlier, I don’t believe that PewDiePie is completely racist; rather, I believe he’s racially insensitive. For someone as influential as Kjellberg though, that really isn’t any better. In truth, it might actually be worse. With over 50 million subscribers, to say that Kjellberg is an influential figure would be a massive understatement. For someone with as much power as him, casually using racial slurs in any context certainly sends a message. It sends the message that it’s okay to use such extreme language as a way of expression.
As someone who’s been using the Internet since I was a child, I’m not typically phased when I hear about someone throwing around racial slurs. As much as I hate the word itself, it’s impossible for us to police the use of it and stop it from existing. What really upset me about this whole situation is the way that Kjellberg’s use of the word is being defended by his faithful audience.
When it comes to the N-word specifically, “it’s just a word,” is usually the go-to defense whenever it’s used. This response has been voiced frequently by many of Kjellberg’s loyal fans, claiming that in 2017, the N-word shouldn’t hold a meaning. The problem is that it does hold relevance—to an entire race of people. A word that has been used for 150+ years to dehumanize people can’t lose its value overnight, if ever. I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve never been a victim of racially fuelled hate crimes, but my parents—along with their friends and family before them—can’t say the same thing. I’ve heard enough stories so that even though the word doesn’t hold power over me personally, I can begin to understand how they felt. In the end, the N-word serves as a reminder of hate, much like the antisemitic images Kjellberg once joked about.
While Felix’s fans are more than willing to tolerate and excuse his offensive language and gestures, more and more companies are beginning to express their opinions on PewDiePie’s toxic behaviour. After the Nazi imagery scandal, Disney completely cut their ties with Kjellberg. After this recent act, the developers behind the first person mystery adventure Fire Watch took a clear stance against Felix. Game developer Campo Santo’s co-founder Sean Vanaman announced that he’d be invoking copyright strikes against any PewDiePie videos that feature his games.
Though I agree with the decisions of companies speaking out against him, I don’t see it having an effect on Kjellberg in the long-term. PewDiePie has unfortunately built a fanbase that will likely never go against him. Even without the sponsorship of a company like Disney, Felix still remains the biggest person on YouTube with no real chance of that changing anytime soon.
I only hope that there’s a sliver of sincerity behind his apology and that he realizes his responsibility as someone with such a following. If not, I think the Internet would be much better off with one less person normalizing the use of hate speech disguised as free speech.