“Work in the fields…Senator, I’m a house ni**a.” – Bill MaherThe N-word rolled off the tongue in that moment for Maher, as he spoke with Republican Senator Ben Sasse on an episode of Real Time. The audience laughed approvingly at the remark while Maher attempted to downplay the moment, shaking his head and waving dismissively. Whether the comment was to unnerve Sasse, to be edgy and funny, or both, Maher’s use of the word wasn’t only unjustified but unnecessary, showing a lack of awareness and disregard for a word that is still used to dehumanize and demean black people.
The argument of why white people should not be able to use the N-word has been discussed for decades, and yet the problem persists. In the case of Maher, a Democrat that many might deem as “progressive,” his use of the word is a reflection of the interactions between white liberals and black people, and how the former can be just as problematic as their blatantly racist counterparts.
Following Maher’s interview with Sasse, a video of the former defending his use of the N-word to black actress Anne-Marie Johnson on his old show Politically Incorrect in 2001 resurfaced. The video, which also included comedian David Spade, activist Guy Aoki, and comedian Sarah Silverman, began with the group discussing a then-recent controversy where Silverman had used an Asian slur during a comedy routine. Ultimately, Maher used the debate to argue that the N-word should no longer be offensive and that white people should be able to use it too. That part of the discussion begins around the 9:06 mark.
“Every African-American person uses that word night and day. It’s in every song; it’s all through culture,” Maher said. “The word has changed. It has been co-opted as a term of endearment.”
Johnson responded by saying only she was allowed to use the word because she is a black woman to which Maher said: “I wouldn’t even know that you were black if you didn’t tell me.”
“I love it when white people try to define what is ‘African-American,'” Johnson replied. “I’m African-American regardless of my skin color or my hair. I think I’m only one on this stage who’s qualified to talk about the meaning of the word, how it hurts, how it doesn’t hurt, where it’s used, the history of it. Because I live it every day.”
Still, Maher defends his use of the word, referencing rap music and its reclaiming of it. The justification is so tone-deaf ignorant commentary disguised as faux-wokeness, never once taking into consideration what Johnson has to say and assuming that every black person in his audience consistently uses the word.
The controversy currently surrounding Maher is reminiscent of the commentary provided in Jordan Peele‘s Get Out. An integral part of the film is its critique of liberal white people and the microaggressions they exert onto black people. Maher is particularly reminiscent of Dean Armitage, the father of Rose Armitage, who proudly proclaims to Rose’s black boyfriend Chris Washington that he would’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time if he had the chance, and even seeming to show some sense of awareness when around Chris. However, as the film progresses, Dean’s true intentions for Chris are revealed, offering a very extreme commentary on how liberalism and racism intersect in America.
“The liberal elite who communicates that we’re not racist in any way is as much of the problem as anything else,” Peele said in an interview with the New York Times. “This movie is about the lack of acknowledgment that racism exists. In the Trump era, it’s way more obvious extreme racism exists. But there are still a lot of people who think: We don’t have a racist bone in our bodies. We have to face the racism in ourselves.”
Although Maher has since apologized for using the N-word on Real Time (we will see what happens with Ice Cube and Michael Eric Dyson, who will serve as the guests on his first show following the controversy), it still speaks to an ongoing problem that black people endure in this country — that both from the right and the left racism is inescapable. But at the very least, one is more outright than the other.