Calling Justin Bieber ‘black’ is the biggest insult to us all

Opinion

.Justin Bieber arrives at the premiere of Open Road Films' 'Justin Bieber's Believe' at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on December 18, 2013, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

.Justin Bieber arrives at the premiere of Open Road Films' 'Justin Bieber's Believe' at the Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on December 18, 2013, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

On a scale of 1 to 10, how high (or low) would you rate Justin Bieber’s street credibility?

It’s an odd but pertinent question, given the singer’s meteoric rise to fame, his associates in urban music and sports (which, oddly enough, includes an improbable kinship with the best pound for pound boxer in the world), and the obviously self-destructive bad boy persona the singer has cultivated recently.

Ready explanations for Beiber’s success, including the legions of loyal “Beliebers” who rally to his defense almost as passionately as they do his concerts, are hard to come by. However, can the Canadian hitmaker’s success reasonably be attributed to his “acting black“? In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, one observer has linked Bieber’s musical ascension to a demeanor that’s become increasingly “urban” – and not just because of his links to black pop culture figures like Usher and Floyd Mayweather.

Bieber’s career trajectory may have been unusually rapid, but it’s not that hard to explain — and little of it has to do with acting black, or even being white. The formula is a tried and true one in the Internet age: Take one YouTube sensation from Canada, toss in angelic looks and an Autotune-ready voice, and you have the perfect prescription for a breakout sensation that’s all but irresistible to young females.

Love him or hate him, Bieber is the latest singer to fill a vacuum in the public’s imagination for a teen heartthrob. It goes without saying that age group is big business, worth billions in album sales. Although most of his predecessors were part of a wave of boy bands that captured the hearts of millions of pre-pubescent girls — which at one point in the not too distant past included New Edition and the Jackson Five — Bieber is the latest in a long-running fad. Given that his bubblegum sound and high-pitched falsetto hardly falls into the genre of Blue-Eyed Soul, it’s hard to make the argument that he’s cribbing from a playbook of black artists.

Bieber’s proximity to black artists — or the idea that he’s “emulating of black contemporaries” — falls far short of the mark in explaining his widespread popularity. In fact, the suggestion that he’s “acting black” on some level is a current into rather perilous cultural waters.

Blackness is becoming increasingly hard to define these days, but in one sense, the idea of “acting black” — to the extent anyone can successfully define the term, and what it implies — automatically conflates black skin with bad behavior.

Justin Bieber emerged on the music scene and cut his teeth as a pop star, and only by dint of his recent run of legal troubles has the singer been tagged with the feared “trying to be black” label. By attempting to link his behavior to some amorphous or ill-conceived idea of blackness, people who raise this argument virtually concede that black culture is synonymous with drug abuse (of which Bieber has stood accused), violence and run-ins with the law. It also reinforces the pernicious idea that dabbling in drugs and running the streets is somehow “cool” or some manifestation of racism rather than incredibly poor judgment.

If there’s any unfortunate rule of thumb the pop crooner demonstrates, it’s the time-honored tradition of a white artist closely aligned with marquee black artists being practically inoculated from charges of racism once the inevitable accusation of racial insensitivity surfaces. If it worked for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Eminem, it certainly will for young Mr. Bieber.

Looking at Bieber’s career through the lens of race also conveniently bypasses an enormous elephant in the room. The artist comes from a long line of child stars that followed a similar path: their careers burn white hot, then went super-nova and burned out completely. In television, movies and music, the road to success is littered with children for whom success came early but departed in a hail of erratic behavior and sometimes, untimely death. For this group, acting out had little to do with “acting black” as a means to achieve notoriety (they were famous enough already).

If there’s anything or anyone Justin Bieber is emulating, it’s the long list of train-wreck children who couldn’t handle the wages of early fame. He’s more a gender-reversed Lindsay Lohan or Amanda Bynes than he is a Chris Brown.

There are a lot of descriptive terms that can be used to describe him: troubled, spoiled, drug-addled, drunk or entitled being just a few. Whatever you do, don’t equate Bieber’s behavior with blackness.