Racism is a huge and divisive issue in America, and around the world. While no one wants to be labeled a racist, it's important to call out people who make statements that stereotype, demean, dismiss, or defame people of other races or nationalities. The purpose of these call outs isn't necessarily to punish a celebrity who said something dumb—but rather so we can all reach a greater understanding of how we discuss race, and how those discussions impact us all.
Before we get started, let's be clear about a few things. First, we're not saying that anyone who makes a racially insensitive statement is necessarily a terrible person. Some of the people on our list listened and learned after their unfortunate statements and moved forward better for it. Second, we're NOT using the sociological definition of "racism," which refers only to systemic, institutional oppression based on race. For the purpose of this list, "racism" is defined as simple bigotry based on race or nationality. Okay, now that we're all on the same page…
Here are 15 actors who made insanely racist statements.
15 Justin Bieber
We're guessing that there aren't a lot of Justin Bieber fans reading this list. But then, we're kind of surprised that there are a lot of Justin Bieber fans to begin with. We don't blame a kid who realizes his life's dream as a young teen for being a bit obnoxious and mouthy. But young Biebs has gone well past that. We know that he's been awful to fans on occasion, disrespected the flag of Argentina, and was unthinkably rude to a guy who was just trying to mop a floor.
This Canadian singer and occasional actor makes our list for a racist joke he told even though he knew he was being filmed. For some fans, the tacit expectation that they'd be cool with a crude joke containing the N-word was as awful as the joke itself. If you really want to see it, it can be found on YouTube. Maybe we shouldn't hold teenagers to the same standard as adults, but 15 is plenty old enough to know why racist "jokes" aren't all that funny.
14 Kevin Sorbo
Remember when an unconsequenced murder in Ferguson, MO led to protests and even some rioting? And then the cops showed up and proved that they don’t use excessive force…by using excessive force? Most of the country thought that was all terrible. Kevin Sorbo (Hercules, Supergirl) didn't. According to a rant on his Facebook page, Sorbo declared that the residents of Ferguson were "animals" and "losers" who "blame The Man" for their problems. He went on to assert that African Americans are probably sorry they elected Obama. Way to understand the big issues, Kevin.
Most people, when someone is shot and killed, do tend to blame those who fired the shot rather than the one lying dead. But not Kevin Sorbo. Maybe he thinks playing fantasy characters gives him the power to know what's in the hearts of other people. Sorbo walked back his statements, a little, while suggesting that everyone should only read stories from "conservative watchdog groups."
13 James Woods
If you're a fan of grown-up cartoons like The Simpsons and Family Guy, it can be easy to think that James Woods is a funny, cool guy with a good sense of humor. What you might not get from those performances is that in real-life, Woods is less like a guy you'd want to hang out with and more like the loser he played in Casino. Shame, that.
Earlier this summer, Woods took flack for his mean-spirited tweet about a trans child and his family, asserting that the child would eventually murder his parents, dismember them, and stuff them in a freezer. Charming. When he's not insulting children online, Woods complains about liberals, refers to Black Lives Matter as a "hate group," and often calls anti-police-violence demonstrators "animals." Most recently, Mr. Woods was flamed for comparing the removal of statues honoring Confederate 'heroes' with a non-existent attempt to remove the statue of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.
12 Shaquille O'Neal
Sadly, basketball great Yao Ming has had to listen to racist bullcrap from a few angles. An ESPN writer (but not the editor, oddly) was fired for his use of the phrase, "Chink in the Armor" in reference to Ming's opponents. It wasn't even the first time the phrase was used by the network. Sadder, some of that racist shade came from Shaquille O'Neal.
In an interview, O'Neal is quoted as saying, 'Tell Yao Ming 'Ching chong yang wah ah-so," mocking the Chinese language with all the skill of a 3rd grade bully. Fans were shocked, the NBA threatened a fine, and Shaq was called out by news outlets at home and abroad. The only person who didn't complain was Yao Ming himself—who essentially said that while he wasn't offended, he imagined most Chinese people would not see the humor in the statement. Hint: if it's a private joke between friends, maybe keep it private next time. Under enormous pressure, Shaq gave a halfhearted apology for the remark, the old "IF anyone was offended, I apologize." Weak sauce, Shaq.
11 Hulk Hogan
Is anyone really shocked that the loudmouth wrestler in a flag bandana has antiquated views on what it is to be an American? Probably not. Still, it's a drag to think of someone who's been idolized by children as a virulent racist. It's also a little galling that one of the instances outing him as such was a sex tape that he ended up making millions of dollars on.
In 2015, Hogan was dropped from the WWE like a racist rock after an enraged tirade about his daughter, Brooke, dating an African-American man. The tirade, part of a leaked sex tape, contained numerous uses of a common racial slur, enraged fans, and forever branded him as a garbage person. A half-hearted apology referred to his use of slurs, but made no mention of the actual content. Regardless of the vocab you use, keeping your children away from those of other races is pretty dang racist.
10 Charlie Sheen
Is there anything offensive that Charlie Sheen hasn't done at some point? He's routinely dishonest, violent toward women, a nightmare to work with, intoxicated in public, and yes, racist. How? For starters, Charlie Sheen is a "birther," which means he joined the cadre of idiots publicly musing that our 44th President wasn't born in this country. Say it ain't so, Wild Thing! One might think a guy whose real name is Carlos Irwin Estevez would be cooler to people from other countries. You'd be wrong. Sheen is also a consummate drug addict and violent guy, which makes him seem far more like his character from Ferris Bueller's Day Off than we'd care to admit.
Sheen has also used racial slurs when they made no sense, such as calling his ex, Denise Richards, the N-word. Um, what? When condemned, Sheen trotted out the tired line that he can't be racist because he's friends with a black person—in this case, Tony Todd. We have to wonder what Tony Todd's fans think of him keeping such low company. At the same time, we wouldn't presume to argue with Candyman.
9 Miley Cyrus
The concept of cultural appropriation is a tricky and divisive one. Technically, anyone who wears a bathrobe with a tie or uses Arabic numbers and letters is borrowing from another culture. Still, affluent white people affecting trends from other, often oppressed, cultures is a hot button issue for a variety of reasons. The former Disney star took the typical trajectory after leaving the network—becoming as outrageous and provocative as she was able. That's none of our business * sips tea * but the racism, on the other hand—yuck.
In 2009, Cyrus posed for a candid picture with friends, using fingers to pull their eyelids into a "slant eyed" pose commonly used to mock Asians. When she was called out, Cyrus gave a half-hearted apology that was oblivious to the racist implications of the photo. Eventually, someone must have sat her down for a long conversation (we're guessing it wasn't Billy Ray) because a few weeks later, Miley Cyrus did appear to understand the error of her ways. Her next apology seemed more sincere.
8 John Wayne
If your Dad or Grandfather is reading this over your shoulder, now might be a good time to send them away. John Wayne is a cowboy hero to men of a certain age, having starred in staple man-films like True Grit and How the West Was Won. His career as a tough guy was even more impressive when you realize that John Wayne's given first name was Marion. Really.
We're not here to lambaste John Wayne for supporting Nixon, being an outspoken Republican, or even for his membership in the John Birch Society (though some of those things are questionable). If it weren't for an interview Wayne gave to Playboy magazine in 1971, his penchant for white supremacy might not have become common knowledge. Because it did, we leave you with this single quote from Wayne: "I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to the point of responsibility."
7 Paris Hilton
One of the things America does well is creating celebrities out of random rich people for no good reason. Nowhere is this more evident than the fact that we all know who Paris Hilton is. She's blonde, an heiress, she had a TV show on FOX, and she carries her tiny dog in a tiny purse. That's already more information than any of us need.
This Paris Hilton quote comes from an interview with the New York Times, "I can't stand black guys. I'd never touch one. It's gross." The quote is part of a hilarious story of the time Paris made out with someone at a party, not realizing he was "a black guy" until the lights came up. In the interview, Hilton was asked 'how black' someone had to be for her to shun them. Her reply? "One percent is enough for me." Now that is gross. Rumor has it that the guy in question was Vin Diesel.
6 Matt Damon
In addition to being an award-winning actor, writer, and producer, Matt (middle name Paige) Damon does charity work and helms Project Greenlight—a yearly contest that aimed to discover promising new screenwriters and directors. It's because Damon is such an enormous Hollywood figure that the things he says have such power, and should be scrutinized when necessary.
Damon was accused of a racist bit of mansplaining for his behavior during a Project Greenlight meeting in 2015. As presented (it was edited, as most "reality shows" are), Damon interrupted a black female filmmaker, essentially to explain diversity to her. She, and many viewers, were frustrated and offended by the comments—which were more rude and obtuse than outright racist. Nonetheless, Damon was roasted over the internet's hottest coals. The good news? Damon made a heartfelt statement affirming his commitment to diversity, telling his detractors that he heard their comments, and avowed to do better.
5 Mark Wahlberg
It's easy to fall for the handsome charm of Mark Wahlberg. Artistically, he's a dynamic actor and a savvy producer. We loved him in everything from Three Kings to The Departed to Ted. These days, he's involved in humanitarian efforts and has a foundation that helps at-risk youth. So it's unsettling to realize that Wahlberg is atoning for some violent racist acts in his youth.
Wahlberg did not deny the charge that he threw rocks and shouted racist slurs at schoolchildren. Later, he was charged with attempted murder after beating, and permanently blinding a Vietnamese man. It seems he told the police he "split open" the head of a "slanty-eyed gook." Wahlberg's history is less surprising when you realize that 4 of his siblings did multiple terms in prison, and that he routinely had access to cocaine at age 13. He has expressed regret for the acts he committed in his youth and affirmed his dedication to "stay on the straight and narrow."
4 Adam Sandler
Whatever you may think of the films of Adam Sandler, they make money. That means he gets to keep making films regardless of whether or not they measure up artistically. Seldom is this more obvious than in the green lighting of Ridiculous Six, Sandler's idea of a spoof of the classic The Magnificent Seven. During filming, the Native American cast members as well as the cultural advisor walked off set. They'd had enough of the misrepresentation of Native American culture, dress, traditions, and misuse of feathers. They were incensed at Sandler's refusal to change the name of a female character called "Beaver's Breath." Really.
When asked about the incident, Sandler trotted out the usual excuses, "it was taken out of context," and "it's really pro-Indian," and even "there's no mockery of American Indians at all." While Adam Sandler insists that the entire cast was "in on the joke," the dozen-plus people who walked out might disagree.
3 Tim Burton
We think of Tim Burton more as a director than an actor, but he has been credited (or appeared uncredited) in at least ten films. Because he's mainly a director though, that's the context we'll discuss here. Every so often, a film journalist will point out the startling lack of diversity in the casts of Burton's films. In and of itself, that might not be racist. But it does warrant follow up questions. That's where it gets tricky.
When asked specifically about the stark whiteness of the cast of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, (with the exception of Samuel L. Jackson, Burton's first major African American character after more than 40 years of directing films), Burton explained that "either things call for things, or they don't." Essentially, he's saying that if minorities are needed for a film, he'll cast them. The problem with that is that it presumes that Caucasian is the default color for humans who aren't named "Pondercherry." Maybe that explains all of Johnny Depp's white makeup.
2 Shia LaBeouf
Despite appearing in some beloved and moneymaking films, Shia LaBeouf seems…kind of unstable. Another Disney star gone wild, he began a downward trajectory in 2005 by assaulting a neighbor with his car, and later—a knife. Since then, he's been involved in an array of embarrassing incidents, from obscene or racist outbursts, to drunk driving, threats, minor violence, and various combinations of these.
Earlier this year, LaBeouf was arrested and charged with 'drunk and disorderly conduct.' He fought with police and accused the cops of racist behavior, screaming that he was arrested by a black cop, "for being white." Shia went on to declare that "black people go to hell." Not sure what gave him that idea. Later, LaBeouf owned up to his behavior, calling it "a new low," and saying he was "deeply ashamed." He went on to admit his problems with addiction and his commitment to sobriety in the future. Time will tell, eh?
1 Mel Gibson
Honestly, who else could have possibly been at the top of this list? Mel Gibson's name is now synonymous with racism. Between the overt anti-Semitic messages in The Passion of the Christ, and his various outbursts (some of which we were able to hear with our own ears), Gibson's racism is a foregone conclusion. Shame, that. Who doesn't want to like William Wallace? Besides the English anyway.
Narrowing Gibson's many racist statements is not easy. "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" is as baffling as it is offensive. Calling it "an unfortunate incident," he excused himself, saying he was "loaded and angry." Gross. Later, he infamously left a recorded message threatening his ex-girlfriend with "being raped by a pack of…" well, we're not finishing that statement, one that went on to explicitly say that what a woman wears is likely to inspire sexual assault. As a final insult, he called the releasing of his recorded rants a "betrayal." Pardon us if we don't weep for Mel.
Agree or disagree with our list? We'd love to read your respectful, slur-free comments!