In recent days, right-wing grievance factories Fox News, Breitbart, and the New York Post have published stories aimed at pop superstar Billie Eilish, with the latter writing, “Despite being a new darling of the left for her vocal opposition to former President Donald Trump, Grammy-winning pop sensation Billie Eilish finds herself in the midst of a race scandal after video emerged on social media appearing to show the star mocking Asians, including using a racial slur against people of Chinese descent.” The Post even branded her a “lost cause”—a nod to her recent single.
The drama all began when a TikTok user who goes by “Lena” posted a heavily edited mash-up video to the social media site featuring one clip of Eilish appearing to mimic an Asian accent and another of her using the world “chink” while singing along to a song. “Lena’s” post was viewed more than 187,000 times and accompanied by the hashtag #billieeilishcancelled. Even though users weren’t privy to the full context of the videos, or exactly when Eilish—who is 19—made the errors in judgment, the online outrage brigade echoed “Lena’s” hasty attempt to “cancel” Eilish, flooding the teen’s mentions on all her social channels. Their efforts were amplified by right-wing media, even though they decry so-called “cancel culture” daily.
On Monday night, Eilish issued an apology on her Instagram Story—and lent some context to the viral video compilation:
“i love you guys, and many of you have been asking me to address this. and this is something that i WANT to address because i’m being labeled something that i am not. there’s a video edit going around of me when i was 13 or 14 where i mouthed a word from a song that at the time i didn’t know was a derogatory term used against members of the asian community. i am appalled and embarrassed and want to barf that i ever mouthed along to that word. this song was the only time i’d ever heard that word as it was never used around me by anyone in my family. regardless of my ignorance and age at the time, nothing excuses the fact is that it was hurtful. and for that i am sorry. the other video in that edited clip is me speaking in a silly gibberish made up voice… something that i started doing as a kid and have done my whole life when talking to my pets, friends, and family. it is absolutely gibberish and just me goofing around, and is in NO way an imitation of anyone or any language, accent, or culture in the SLIGHTEST. anyone who knows me has seen me goofing around with voices my whole life. regardless of how it was interpreted i did not mean for any of my actions to have caused hurt to others and it absolutely breaks my heart that it is being labeled now in a way that might cause pain to people hearing it. i not only believe in, but have always worked hard to use my platform to fight for inclusion, kindness, tolerance, equity and quality. we all need to continue having conversations, listening and learning. i hear you and i love you. thank you for taking the time to read this.”
Now, speaking as a half-Asian dude (my mother is Korean American), while Eilish’s “gibberish” excuse leaves much to be desired, the broader point here is that no one should be “canceled” over selectively edited clips of them caricaturing an accent or unwittingly uttering a slur when they were 13 or 14 years old, because then you’d have to “cancel” damn near everyone. Do you remember how unlearned, simpleminded, and reckless you were at 13? You’re supposed to fuck up at that age, because it’s the only way to learn. But unlike prior generations, kids these days document these youthful fuckups via smartphone video and social media, thereby producing damning artifacts for future generations to dig up and, given the sheer speed of culture in the age of social media, recontextualize and reinterpret.
I’m reminded of a similar incident involving Eilish’s idol, Justin Bieber. In 2014, a clip surfaced of the pop star as a young teen using the N-word as the punchline to a racist joke. Bieber immediately issued an apology, writing, “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.”
Then, in late 2019, he posted the message “STAND AGAINST RACISM” to his millions of Instagram followers, along with the caption: “When I was young I was uneducated and found myself saying really hurtful things not knowing the power of my words. Racism Is still very prevalent and I want to use my voice to remind we are all human being and all of EQUAL VALUE BEFORE GOD!”
Eilish has clearly evolved well past the child in the TikTok videos, regularly using her platforms to speak out against racism and bigotry in its various forms. Those who fail—or outright refuse—to progress as people are the problem, not a 19-year-old who’s shown that she’s willing to do the work. Conservative publications that carry water for a certain hateful reality-TV host should take note.