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Justin Bieber’s Racist Joke Apology Actually Gets It Right

Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber performs on March 23, 2013, in Bologna, Italy Roberto Serra / Iguana Press / Redferns via Getty Images

The pop singer's mea culpa hit all the right notes

Over the weekend, when video footage surfaced of Justin Bieber telling a racist joke, the cycle of celebrity scandal kicked into high gear. The video was posted by TMZ in the morning; by the evening, the Associated Press had an apology out of him.

The only thing unexpected about the order of events? Even though the joke is awful — and in some ways made worse by the fact that he was unconcerned enough about it to say it in front of a camera crew — the apology itself is solid.

As TIME’s Katy Steinmetz reported last month, when Donald Sterling was the celebrity-apology story of the moment, there are a few points that experts look for when assessing whether an apology is forgiveness-worthy, a no-go or just plain weird. You can read Bieber’s whole statement over at The Hollywood Reporter, but here are the points that make it pass muster:

  1. Bieber states what he did wrong and admits that it’s wrong: “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.”
  2. He says he’s sorry and owns the mistake, rather than using cop-outs like refusing to take responsibility (“mistakes were made”) or placing blame for being offended on those who are (“sorry if you’re offended”): “I’m very sorry. I take my friendships with people of all cultures very seriously and I apologize for offending or hurting anyone with my childish and inexcusable mistake.”
  3. He explains why the error is not one that he’ll make again, along with his hopes that his apology will help others do a better job of not making the same mistakes: “I was a kid then and I am a man now who knows my responsibility to the world and to not make that mistake again. Ignorance has no place in our society and I hope the sharing of my faults can prevent others from making the same mistake in the future.”

His only potential misstep comes with mentions of his age at the time, which can get a little close to making excuses or implying that the mistake was less bad than it seems. But, as a bonus, Bieber’s apology manages to fold in a nod to the deeper problem at hand, “the power of certain words and how they can hurt.” There’s no “I didn’t mean anything by it,” and he acknowledges that, even if he doesn’t think his joke was expressing a real racist sentiment, he was still participating in a larger history of racism. Even though he characterizes telling the joke as a “mistake,” he’s not saying that he accidentally spoke words he didn’t mean to say but that he didn’t understand what the words he said on purpose really meant.

So, kudos to Justin Bieber, or at least to whichever member of his entourage crafted the statement. But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: it was less than two months ago that he got some practice, apologizing for visiting a contentious shrine to Japan’s war dead.

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