Should a person’s racist past be forgiven?

Kaviena Spencer, a broadcast journalism student. Photo by Kaviena Spencer

It seems like every few months, a new celebrity or public figure is coming out and apologizing for past racist behavior. Our public figure this month is Michael Bloomberg, one of the current frontrunners in the Democratic presidential primary race, who is under fire for his comments in a 2015 speech in which he stereotyped black men and expressed his support of stop-and-frisk — a law which allowed police to target black and brown people — during his tenure as mayor of New York City.

Bloomberg has since apologized for his comments, but while some people have forgiven him, others haven’t been so quick to. This begs the question: Is there a right time to forgive racism?

Additionally, at what age is racism deemed inexcusable? At what age can we look at a person and say that they simply didn’t understand the effects of their actions, therefore their mistake is forgiven?

In 2014, a video was released showing pop star Justin Bieber using the N-word and making racist jokes regarding killing black people and joining the Ku Klux Klan. Bieber immediately issued an apology that stated he didn’t know how powerful and hurtful words could be.

Bieber also mentioned in the apology that through the guidance of family and friends, he had learned from his mistakes and has never used the word since. In the years since issuing that apology, Bieber has claimed to have accepted his white privilege and has taken a stance against racism.

A lot of people have forgiven Bieber for his past. I understand that the jokes that Bieber said were offensive and completely disgusting. However, a mistake that was once made as a child should not affect a person’s life forever.

When choosing to forgive a person for racist behavior, I look at how long ago the incident happened and their age when it happened. Bieber was 14 when the video was filmed. You could argue that he was too old to be using that word and he should have known better, but should he have?

Everyone, including black people, have said or done something that could be considered racist, homophobic, transphobic or simply disrespectful in their teen years because they were uneducated. The only difference is that most of them weren’t filmed, nor were they public figures, so no one is looking for them.

Should we do everything in our power to make sure they can never make a living? No, we hope that they learned from their mistakes and understand the damage of their words and actions.

With that being said, I don’t forgive everyone who had done something racist. For example, Jeffree Star, a popular beauty influencer, has a history of racist behavior. A video of the beauty influencer came out a couple years ago of him following around black women and calling them the N-word. He was also accused of calling Jackie Aina, a black beauty influencer, a gorilla.

In more recent news, it was discovered that Star had a Nazi-themed brand. When it’s constantly coming out that you have committed racist behaviors, you don’t get to keep apologizing and hoping that it goes away. 

I was taught that once is a mistake, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern and more than three times is who you are. During the times of these behaviors, Star was an adult and knew the effects of his actions — his story is not the same as Justin Bieber’s.

To put it in better terms, problematic past behaviors should be forgiven if and only if the person did it as a child and they have grown from their mistakes. However, in the year 2020, as society has much more access to knowledge, forgiveness is not an option.

If you are committing racist behavior and you know for a fact that what you’re doing is wrong (i.e. being non-black and saying the n-word, doing blackface, being non-black and wearing box braids, dreads etc.), you don’t deserve to be forgiven.

 You deserve the repercussion because you had to have knowledge that what you were doing was wrong. We live too far into the digital age for you not to research why wearing a hairstyle that is not for your type of hair is problematic. We have seen way too many people’s lives “ruined” for you to post a picture of you wearing blackface and hope that everyone will see it as a joke.

 The only people who should have a say in forgiving racism are the group of people being affected. White people do not have the right to tell people of color what is and isn’t racist and who should and shouldn’t be forgiven.

 I don’t expect every black person to forgive a non-black person for their racist past. It’s a personal decision for all of us. I just don’t think people should continue to be criticized for mistakes that they apologize for and try to fix.