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Nicki Minaj’s Story Was Ridiculous But Maybe, Just Maybe, This Can Be A Teaching Moment

Nicki Minaj’s COVID-19 vaccine tweets took on a life of their own earlier this week. On Monday, Minaj went to Twitter to express that her hesitancy about getting vaccinated was why she did not attend this year’s Met Gala. She included in her reasoning an extremely implausible story of her “cousin’s friend” in Trinidad allegedly becoming impotent with swollen testicles and having a broken engagement after receiving the vaccine.

The thread quickly blew up, with many people roasting Minaj over the outlandish and unsubstantiated story. As Blavity previously reported, the rapper herself ended up in a nasty exchange with MSNBC reporter Joy Reid, who had called on her to “do better” and not mislead her tens of millions of social media fans. Various other Black media figures later joined in on the criticism. Over the course of this week, this initially minor internet tiff has grown into an international controversy. Minaj continues to be roasted, left and right. She was the butt of the joke on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, as well as condemned by conservative commentator Meghan McCain.

It’s easy to mock Minaj, as these and countless other examples demonstrate. I’ve been laughing at her cousin’s friend’s “flat tire” as much as anyone. But Minaj’s tweets, as ridiculous as they were, speak to a much larger phenomenon than the foolishness of one misguided celebrity. Data shows that, even as more people get vaccinated throughout the country, around 20% of the population still say they are unlikely to take the shot. Vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans is especially dangerous, as we remain significantly more likely to get sick or die from COVID-19 due to health care disparities.

And the research says that the dismissive or judgmental approach is not the way to reach them. Instead, as the Los Angeles Times reports, experts advise that the key to convincing skeptics is to engage them in a way that takes their concerns and feelings seriously rather than just yelling the correct information at them. For Black folks, having members of our own community engaging in such outreach has proven key to convincing doubters.

Such strategies take a great deal of patience and restraint — how hard is it to respond to the swollen genitals story with anything other than a joke? But with the pandemic nowhere close to ending due to the continual spread of the virus, largely through unvaccinated folks, reaching the people who remain unconvinced is crucial. Overcoming such hesitancy is important, not only for the vaccine skeptics, but for other vulnerable populations, including vaccinated folks at risk of breakthrough infections and children too young to take the shot.

In order to reach vaccine skeptics like Nicki Minaj, we have to overcome not only our urge to ridicule them, but our instinct to be angry at them for endangering the lives of others. In Minaj’s case, the anger against her comments has been as strong as the mockery, and from even more prominent sources.

As Blavity previously reported, Dr. Anthony Fauci dismissed the possibility of Minaj’s secondhand story being true, while Trinidad and Tobago Health Minister Dr. Terrence Deyalsingh did not hide his annoyance as he explained that his agency has had to deal with debunking the claims made by Minaj.

“Unfortunately we spent so much time yesterday running down this false claim,” Dr. Deyalsingh said with frustration. “What was sad about this is that it wasted so much time.”

It’s very understandable why heath officials who have to deal with treating unvaccinated patients and public officials fighting to stop the spread of COVID-19 would be angered by Minaj adding fuel to the vaccine-skeptic fire. And for all of us who have had to worry about vaccine-skeptical family members or friends, our anger comes from a very personal place, as these types of comments made by celebrities and people in positions of power can quite literally put our loved ones lives in danger.

Minaj has done herself no favors by doubling down on her comments, viciously attacking her critics and condemning the media for misrepresenting her and taking her statement out of context.

And yet, on this last point, there may be a sliver of validity to Minaj’s defense. She accurately points out that, elsewhere in the same initial thread, she discussed her intention to eventually get the vaccine in order to go on tour while supporting a follower getting the shot for work.

Minaj went on to share positive stories from followers who took the vaccines, and she later polled her followers on which of the vaccines they recommend.

None of this negates the ignorance of the vaccine-skeptical tweets in the thread or the harm that those tweets can cause for people who use them as reasons to resist vaccination. But this context does show Minaj as a person who is genuinely unsure about the vaccine (as opposed to someone actively opposed to the shot and disingenuously using “uncertainty” as a cover). She is as much a victim of the disinformation being spread about COVID-19 as anyone else.

So while it may be satisfying to dunk on her for her outrageous story, doing so won’t convince her or her millions of devoted followers to get the vaccine. Not only that, but our mockery actually risks making up her mind (and the minds of everyday people like her) in the wrong direction. In recent days, Minaj has become an unlikely champion of the far right anti-vaxx crowd. Conservative pundits like Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson are using her story to push their own agendas, and Minaj is embracing this support as she swings against her critics.

By mocking Minaj — however justified we have felt in doing so — we may be unwittingly playing into the hands of those who, maliciously and disingenuously, fight against vaccines, masks and other COVID-19 prevention measures (even while many of the loudest anti-vaxx right-wingers are themselves quietly vaccinated despite efforts to convince others not to take the life-saving measure). Instead of Twitter beef and social media outrage, Minaj’s wild comments could be a teachable moment. The 38-year-old and other folks like her who believe tall tales about COVID-19 and the vaccinations need to be taught correct information and have the lies about COVID-19 called out.

But this can be a teachable moment for the rest of us as well.

With the pandemic picking up as COVID-19 ravages unvaccinated Americans and overwhelms hospitals across the country, we can either double down on our anger at the unvaccinated or extend grace and compassion to the victims of disinformation. With the COVID-19 death toll growing by the minute, we should decide whether we want to write off our doubting friends and family members or whether we want to reach out to them and maybe even save some lives.

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