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PewDiePie’s racist slur highlights how YouTubers benefit from white male privilege

After a video of the YouTuber using a racial slur surfaced online, questions about the platform’s lack of diversity take centre stage

By Anna Freeman

PewDiePie, a.k.a Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a the highest earning YouTuber in the world, is once again facing a huge backlash for using racially-insensitive – or, to be blunt, racist – language during one of his livestreams.

The online gamer used the ‘n-word’ on Sunday while recording himself playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, in an incident that has once again posed the question: Is PewDiePie racist? The answer is, in short; probably, and at length; he is just another white, privileged pseudo-celebrity who has absolutely no understanding of the prejudice many others face.

This certainly isn’t the first time Kjellberg has found himself in hot water for using racist iconography and language on his platform. As a quick recap, let’s recall him tweeting that he had joined ISIS, performing a Nazi salute, paying strangers to hold up a sign that read ‘Death to all Jews’, and telling white supremacists to ‘keep doing what you’re doing with tiki torches’.

Although such behaviour has been brushed off as a mere ‘joke’ by Kjellberg and his enormous fan base in the past, this recent display of casual racism points to a deeper problem with social media celebrity and its veiled contempt for true diversity. With nearly 60 million subscribers – more than any other YouTube star – Kjellberg’s words cannot be rationalised as a childish mistake; they are significant.

After games developer Campo Santo announced on Twitter that it would be filing DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) suits to remove Kjellberg’s videos of himself playing their games, as well as developer Simogo requesting that he take down the videos of him playing their game Year Walk, the YouTuber shared a response video on Tuesday, trying for a more remorseful tone.

‘You probably won’t believe me when I say this but whenever I go online and I hear players use the same kind of language that I did, I always find it extremely immature and stupid,’ he said. ‘And I hate how I now personally fed into that part of gaming.’

What is most troubling about the use of a word so loaded with racial violence is how flippantly, and accidentally, Kjellberg employed it. This was not one of his trademark tone deaf ‘pranks’, but an instance where a racial slur was the first word he could think of to insult another gamer, suggesting that he perhaps uses it frequently off camera. Kjellberg is clumsy at best, and racist at worst.

The YouTuber industry is now a multi-million dollar industry, and last year, the PewDiePie channel topped the list of highest earning in the world, raking in a huge $15million per year. And, when you scroll down the list of channels making the biggest bucks, eight of them are fronted by white, mostly male, entertainers. The YouTube world really does have a diversity deficit.

Social media has been championed as a ‘prejudice-free’ way of being an online success, but the reality is far more complex. Although the platform may not necessarily skew towards white, heterosexual individuals intentionally, age-old structural discrimination is still at play. As Olly Lennard points out in The Independent, there is a big difference between going viral and enjoying long-term social media fandom, with the former being random and unbiased, and the latter feeding into tropes of desirability dictated by mainstream culture.

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Una publicación compartida de PewDiePie (@pewdiepie) el

This isn’t to say that influential and compelling YouTube channels run by people of all different races, cultures, sexualities and abilities aren’t widely available, it’s just that those given the most airtime by brand and advertising agencies tend to belong to white, heteronormative culture. Just look at channels like SMOSH, Roman Atwood, Miranda Sings and Good Mythical Morning, which show a line-up of conventionally attractive, privileged white guys who claim to talk for the millennial masses, but who have been beneficiaries of a relatively new fame phenomenon because of their entitled position.

Back in 2015, prominent YouTubers behind AsapTHOUGHT and AsapSCIENCE channels used their platform to call out the industry’s privilege gap. ‘If YouTube itself and YouTube events had mandates that ensured that other diverse voices were heard, it would inspire a new generation of YouTubers to feel represented and passionate,’ Gregory Brown, one half of the duo, said in a video, ‘It’s hard to keep going to these events and not seeing enough diversity or women on the panels and in positions of power.’

Although, ironically, the pair are themselves cisgendered, white males, they seem to be some of the only people actually acknowledging their own privilege. When Tana Mongeau, an American YouTuber, posted a video entitled The N Word earlier this year, it made for highly uncomfortable viewing. While the issue of using the ‘n-word’ detailed in the video is in stark contrast to Kjellberg’s employment during his livestream, it illustrates the disconnect between YouTubers and the lives of so many young people.

In the video, Mongeau says how upset she was when one of her fans screamed the ‘n-word’ in front of her, and that she felt scared for life, while fighting back tears from her eyes. It’s not that she is displaying racism and prejudice in a traditional sense, but the teen failed to comprehend how her position as a white woman doesn’t allow for her to understand the real connotations of being racially abused by this word. And, therefore, making a video centred around her feelings about the incident only feeds into the narrative of white privilege.

The YouTube industry is definitely not the only space where a lack of diversity is failing to recognise the breadth of human experience, but it is the one often shouting the loudest, and influencing tomorrow’s generations. Creating equal platforms is a constant struggle against existing social, economic and political structures, but ensuring that all voices are heard will help pave the way for a more inclusive online community. And, hopefully, throw YouTubers like Kjellberg off their gold-plated thrones.


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