On Wednesday, a thread titled “exposing Camila Cabello‘s racist and downright disturbing Tumblr reblogs” made the rounds on Twitter. The thread contained a series of screenshots and corresponding links to the pop star’s now-deleted Tumblr account, which detailed several times she used the N-word and posted other offensive material to her Tumblr account from 2012 to 2013.
Naturally, 22-year-old Cabello used an excuse that’s become increasingly easy lean on when unsavory elements of one’s social media past come back to bite: She was just a teen. “When I was younger, I used language that I’m deeply ashamed of and will regret forever,” Cabello wrote in an Instagram story on December 18, which she later posted to Twitter. “I was uneducated and ignorant and once I became aware of the history and the weight and the true meaning behind this horrible and hurtful language, I was deeply embarrassed I ever used it.”
She added that she already apologized for offensive posts before—back in 2013—and that she never intentionally meant to harm anyone. “I’m 22 now, I’m an adult and I’ve grown and learned and am conscious and aware of the history and the pain it carries in a way I wasn’t before,” Cabello wrote.
The court of public opinion is thought to be overly cruel and unyielding, unable to see past a single moment of poor judgment, unwilling to view mistakes of the past as anomalies that don’t reflect the present. But that indictment is hard to argue in the case of Cabello, whose behavior appears to have been part of a years-long pattern. Cabello’s racism has long been a topic of discussion in some internet circles, ever since her days in Fifth Harmony. What may have looked like stan wars between Cabello ride-or-dies and loyalists of fellow former Fifth Harmony singer, Normani Kordei, often actually exposed deeper battles based on Cabello’s liberal use of “nigga” in old tweets and the deluge of racist abuse that Normani long endured from Cabello fans and—rumor has it—Cabello herself.
In 2016, Cabello was the target of a hack that exposed a slew of text messages, photos, and DMs. In one leaked Facebook Messenger direct message between Cabello and a friend from 2012, Cabello allegedly wrote, “I WORK MY BUTT OFF AND CRY AND GET BULLIED BY FOUR NIGGERS,” apparently referring to her Fifth Harmony group members. Her friend replied, “LOL, YEA, BUT NORMANI IS ACUTLLY [sic] A NIGGER.” The texter, presumed to be Cabello, laughed in response.
While Cabello fans have long denied the veracity of these messages, Cabello herself did not deny the leak in a 2018 interview with the Sunday Times. When prompted by the Times to comment on the “big data hack” as well as an old 2013 tweet in which she called President Obama “ma nigga,” she said the following:
“That’s why I barely go on social media. There’s no way to live life without making mistakes or saying the wrong thing. I’m not going to live like some perfect pop singer. I’m a human, and the inhuman part of this is public scrutiny. I want to stay away from anything that makes me think I can’t live my life the way everybody else does.”
Teenagers aren’t adults. I write this not as a knock on them, but as an attempt at empathy. Their not-quite-fully-developed brains are rife with poor decision-making processes and emotional responses, making even the brightest and most precocious teen prone to making questionable choices. Yet the internet’s memory is forever, and whether through screenshots or internet archives like the Wayback Machine, our every dumb post is now cataloged for posterity. That’s why there’s a wry belief that the least a person should do when they’re becoming famous—or a viral sensation—is delete anything incriminating from their social media accounts.
But our values in our teens can also act as the bedrock for our values in adulthood, and for every teenager who atones for offensive things they said or believed when they were 16, there’s another who doesn’t. And some things are harder to forgive and forget than others. Enter Camila Cabello.
There are a lot of non-black teenagers who are deluded into thinking that they can use “nigga”—especially online—without issue. And Cabello’s old Tumblr account—which contained the use of “nigga” in various shapes in forms, from fake Lil Wayne quotes to her literally responding of to an anonymous Tumblr ask with “nigga plz”—is a perfect example of this.
While a teen Cabello reblogging a Tumblr post of aesthetically pleasing pink and green clouds overlaid with Chinese characters that claim to translate to “mah nigga” is deeply stupid, it’s not the most disturbing thing she reblogged. Far worse were photos like that of a white woman on a basketball court playing holding up a KFC bucket of fried chicken in lieu of a ball while her black competitor watches the chicken hungrily. Or the drawing of a sad brown blob crying because KFC was closed. Or the screenshot of a Google search that reads “why do asians speak the ching chong language.”
In Cabello’s apology, she noted that she didn’t understand the full weight, history, and meaning behind the offensive content she shared and the harmful things she said. And maybe that excuse flies for that deeply unfunny Chris Brown and Rihanna domestic violence post she reblogged, a relic of the far less empathetic sensibilities of the early 2010s. But she didn’t need a deep understanding. It doesn’t take a doctorate in black studies to know the N-word—in all its forms—holds some weight. And most American teens reach high school with a basic understanding that jokes about black people and watermelon are highly inappropriate.
There’s a road to redemption for clueless teens who tweet “nigga plz” when they’re 14 years old. That road starts to look a little more precarious when it’s covered in fried chicken memes and alleged DMs with liberal use of the N-word with a hard “er.” Cabello’s overwhelming urge to subvert accepted social standards, to the point of curating her public blog to showcase a GIF of a black child marveling at fried chicken and watermelon, suggests something a little more sinister at play.
Yes, Cabello was a teenager, but it’s hard to believe that she didn’t know better. And Cabello’s apology was full of shallow platitudes that didn’t address, specifically, what she was specifically apologizing for—beyond being found out. It’s a nebulous grandstanding that will do nothing to quell nearly eight years of legitimate ire that has developed against a woman who has been clowned for racism for the majority of her career.
Too often excuses are made for teenagers who spout racist, homophobic, sexist, and other offensive remarks, citing their age as a buffer for its offense. But what of the teens who feel the sting of such remarks? Their age doesn’t protect them from bigotry any more than those who dish it out. Maybe our teen selves shouldn’t define us, but as of now, Cabello’s is still defining her.