The following exchange took place during last June 2nd’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher was interviewing Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse:
Maher: “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.”
Sasse: “You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
Maher: “Work in the fields…. Senator, I’m a house nig**r!”
Outrage ensued. There were calls for HBO to cancel Maher’s show. HBO condemned what Maher said, calling it “offensive” and “unacceptable.” The Rev. Al Sharpton, of all people, called Maher “disgraceful,” saying what he said was “outrageous,” and that Maher should be “held accountable.”
Please allow me to refresh your memory with regard to the “outraged” Mr. Sharpton. David Fagin, writing for The Huffington Post:
Those of us who grew up in the eighties remember Mr. Sharpton’s rise to “prominence” rushing to the defense of Tawana Brawley, an African-American teenager, who, back in 1987, falsely accused a local prosecutor, and others, of rape. Mr. Sharpton was found guilty of libel as a result of that case and ordered to pay $65,000.00.
Hank Berrien, writing for The Daily Wire:
When radio host Don Imus uttered what many thought was a racist comment in 2007, Sharpton called for him to be fired, saying, “You cannot allow the airwaves to become the toilet of racist language in America.”
Of course, when Sharpton used the ‘N-word” for other blacks, or called whites “crackers,” or Jews “diamond merchants,” or called gays “homos,” that was quite another story, apparently.
Or, even worse, as when Sharpton’s incendiary rhetoric helped incite the Crown Heights riots in which a Hasidic Jew was murdered.
Incidentally, Mr. Sharpton considers Mr. Maher a “friend.” But, "he doesn't get a pass because we're friends." (With friends like that…)
You know what, Rev? Bill Maher does get a pass. And not because we’re friends, although I would certainly be delighted to make Maher’s acquaintance. But because, as you well know, Maher is not only not a racist, but is a liberal who calls out racism in other people. And because all he did was make a joke (a natural, almost automatic comedic response to Sasse’s bizarre phrase) that included a word that is considered offensive when used by non-blacks (yet somehow OK when used by African Americans in all sorts of contexts), and then, not only did he issue a public apology, but apologized again and again during his next show on June 9th, and then listened contritely and held his tongue while being condescended to and patronized by sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, rapper and actor Ice Cube, and activist Symone Sanders. Such a squandered opportunity. One (or more) of those three prominent African Americans could have easily transcended the bitterness that seems to pervade race relations (on both sides) now more than ever, and responded with grace and sensitivity to Maher’s heartfelt apologies, but, alas, Dyson, Cube and Sanders took the easy way out and simply trotted out the tired, destructive “us vs. them” bromides so tragically prevalent in our present day society.
Black, white, or purple, if you’re a believer in equality for all, you should absolutely be offended by the N-word. As, it represents a time, not that long ago, when inequality was law and the tragic mistreatment of an entire race of people was, by and large, tolerated. But it also needs to be judged in context. Is it being used to degrade a person or a nationality, such as when it’s painted on a prominent athlete’s front door, or used as term of condescension, say, by our current Attorney General? Or, is it being used to make fun of oneself in a comedic punchline? As in the context of how Maher, and a million black comedians before him, used it. What would have been the reaction if a Chris Rock, or a Richard Pryor, or Bernie Mac said it? Would there have been any reaction at all? At the very least, I doubt Al Sharpton would have uttered a peep.
I think the N-word needs to be, like Fagin says, “judged in context” no matter who utters it. But right now, we have a situation where it is permissible for African Americans to use it, even in a tasteless or degrading manner, but it is not permissible for non-blacks to use it in any way whatsoever. As Ice Cube said to Maher during the June 9th show (as quoted by Variety’s Sonia Soraiya):
“It’s a word that has been used against us — it’s like a knife. It can be used as a weapon, or it can be used as a tool. And it’s been used as a weapon against us by white people,” Cube said. “That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back,” he added.
That’s the issue. It’s “our” word now. Fagin again:
For as long as I can remember, the N-word’s been, not only accepted by the black population, but embraced; in all forms of art, entertainment, and, most importantly, everyday speech. Whether it’s a ground-breaking Richard Pryor HBO special, a hilarious Chris Rock observation, a legendary NWA album - which, btw, proudly features the N-word in their name, a classic SNL skit, or a simple greeting amongst two friends, it’s been accepted, and even joked about, that, while white people are absolutely forbidden to even think about it, blacks can say it anytime, anywhere, in any context, and, for some reason, it’s perfectly fine.
This dichotomy is divisive, and perpetuates the N-word’s evil power to degrade and offend. For the word to truly lose its venom, it must be permissible for everyone to use it in the proper context. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get there. As I wrote, in November of 2013:
I don’t know if the N-word will ever become an inoffensive part of our mainstream vocabulary, and I don’t know if the swastika will ever symbolize anything other than hatred. But I do hope both things happen someday. Because words and symbols have no power unless we bestow it upon them, and what we can bestow, we can remove. If those victimized by the N-word and the swastika are somehow able to sap their evil, then maybe we would be closer to having moved on from those particular atrocities, and the heinous connotations of that word and of that symbol would become relics of a bygone era.
Given the relentless race-baiting of Al Sharpton and his ilk, the intransigent bitterness of Ice Cube and his ilk, and the barely under the surface racism and intolerance of our current President and his ilk, we have a long way to go.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with Fagin’s brilliant concluding paragraph:
... if we, as well as the media, were as quick to condemn with fury and outrage the actions of those around us, as we are the words spoken by a few comedians, we probably wouldn’t have a pu**y-grabber as our president. Wouldn’t you agree, Sen. Sasse?