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YouTube star PewDiePie used the n-word in a live stream, after months of denying he’s racist

The incident also came mere weeks after the vlogger distanced himself from white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

YouTube star PewDiePie is under fire for a publishing a controversial video ... again.

In February, the extremely popular Swedish gaming vlogger, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, became the target of massive backlash after months of seeding his videos with Nazi imagery, including one instance where he displayed a sign reading “Death to all Jews.”

Now he has courted controversy by uttering the n-word during a gaming live stream.

The excerpted live stream, which reportedly took place Sunday on YouTube’s gaming-specific subsite, YouTube Gaming, features Kjellberg playing a “last-man-standing” shooter game called Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. In the video, Kjellberg says, “What a fucking ni**er” regarding another, unidentified Battlegrounds player. The incident has reignited debate over whether Kjellberg’s frequent, self-proclaimed “jokes” about anti-Semitism, racism, and Nazi leanings are really jokes at all.

The content of the live stream clearly violates YouTube’s hate speech policy, but even though it reportedly aired on YouTube Gaming, it does not currently appear to be hosted on Kjellberg’s Gaming live-stream channel.

Following the previous controversy over his anti-Semitic videos, YouTube canceled Kjellberg’s popular reality show Scare PewDiePie, and the prominent YouTube studio Maker, owned by Disney, canceled its partnership with him as well. He has continued publishing videos to his own YouTube channel since, and offers a subscription tier for his live-stream videos on YouTube Gaming.

In response to the new n-word controversy, some within the gaming industry are proactively trying to distance themselves from PewDiePie. One of them, a developer named Sean Vanaman, has issued DMCA takedowns of all PewDiePie videos in which his games appear — including the popular Firewatch and all other games produced by his creative studio, Campo Santo.

On Twitter, Vanaman spoke out strongly against PewDiePie and urged other developers to follow suit:

Vanaman is referencing PewDiePie’s status as the most popular personality on YouTube, an influence that can’t be overstated. As of his February controversy, PewDiePie had 53 million subscribers, a number that has since risen to 57 million. Just as his supporters defended him in February, insisting along with PewDiePie that the media was taking his string of “satirical” Nazi jokes out of context, many are now arguing that PewDiePie used the N word during the live stream simply because he was “heated” or momentarily upset, and that it bears no greater significance:

A number of his defenders also minimized the controversy by arguing that it was overshadowing the anniversary of 9/11:

But the public generally hasn’t bought into such excuses, and longtime PewDiePie detractors as well as former fans have expressed their dismay.

The incident comes less than a month after PewDiePie, who has been dogged by arguments that he himself is a white supremacist ever since the February controversy, distanced himself from the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally and related protests that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. However, his initial noncommittal response could be read as a winking embrace of the philosophy behind Unite the Right rather than a self-mocking repudiation of it:

After his tweet in response to Charlottesville garnered criticism, Kjellberg distanced himself more explicitly. “I want nothing to do with these people,” he claimed in a video. He went on to insist that he didn’t realize there were “actual Nazis out there” when he had previously made Nazi “jokes.” He then added that Nazi memes weren’t “funny anymore” and that he would no longer be making them.

PewDiePie has yet to make a public statement regarding this weekend’s n-word incident, and neither he nor YouTube has responded to Vox’s requests for comment.

Update: In a YouTube video posted Tuesday morning, Kjellberg apologized for the incident, stating that “in the heat of the moment. I said the worst word I could possibly think of, and it just sort of slipped out,” and that he found his own behavior “extremely immature and stupid.”

“I'm disappointed in myself, because it seems like I've learned nothing from these past controversies,” he added. “It’s not that I think I can say or do whatever I want and get away with it. That’s not it at all — I’m just an idiot.”

“It was not okay. I’m really sorry if I offended, hurt or disappointed anyone with all of this. Being in the position I am, I should know better... I know I can’t keep messing up like this... I owe it to my audience and to myself to do better than this, because I know I’m better than this.”

Kjellberg stated he really wanted to “move forward” by “improv[ing] myself” but did not give specifics about how he would do that.

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