Bill Maher’s Apology, Ice Cube’s Truth, and The Power of Language and Privilege

Last night, on his show Real Time with Bill Maher, we saw a well-known talk show cost attempt to confront his own self-inflicted controversy, over using the n-word. The controversy stems from a conversation Maher had with (R-Nebraska) senator Ben Sasse. In response to Sasse’s invitation to come to Nebraska and “work with in the fields with us,” Maher responded, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n — –.”

In the moment, Maher didn’t backtrack, and Sasse simply smiled a toothy grin. Later, Sasse issued some strongly-worded rhetoric that was quickly lost in the shuffle. Also lost in the controversy is the fact that Sasse’s invitation to do menial labor in the fields was the spark that set Maher’s imagination searching for a comeback. How dare an unknown, young senator from Nebraska make the suggestion that the mighty Bill Maher act like a commoner, bringing corn in from the field. Jobs that many Nebraskans aren’t interesting in doing anymore either.

Most of the time, when a famous person does something clearly wrong, we might hear a hollow apology and then everyone moves on. But the social media uproar and the nature of Maher’s politically-focused celebrity changed the dynamics of this apology. Most people view Maher as a progressive. Known for his atheism, weed-promotion, environmentalism, and his political diatribes against Republican hypocrisy, Maher is generally progressive. On the other hand, Maher is also known for his Islamophobia, his misogynistic jokes, his frustration with millennials, and his anti-PC stance toward language and college protest.

Was Maher attempting to go deeper than a perfunctory apology? Yes…attempting. Unfortunately, Maher’s willingness to listen and learn were limited.

Maher started the show sitting down with his friend, sociology professor and cultural commentator Michael Eric Dyson. Maher was in a receptive mood, knowing what to expect from Dyson, who explained why the joke was unacceptable, and why a white man using the n-word in 2017 is a problem. Dyson assured Maher (and the viewing audience) that he knows Maher doesn’t have conscious intent to harm African-Americans, and that he has been an ally in the past. Maher was less prepared for the directness of Ice Cube’s declaration. The term “re-appropriation” applies here. The n-word has been taken back. Re-appropriated. There are two versions of the n-word. One ends with an “a,” while the other is the orignal.” The re-appropriated version ends with an “a” and is a term of endearment. It has been for over two decades. After working in a heavily (80–85%) Latino high-school for two years, it is somewhat shocking how often you hear it being thrown around. Why do Latino teenage boys feel comfortable saying the word? Because its the language of their neighborhood, and its in the music they listen to. They can say it (at least to each other) in part because their neighborhood and their family’s history is one that deals with the impact of oppression…but not the same oppression faced by Africans, forcibly enslaved and taken to the shores of the U.S. over the last 400 years of United States history. Still, the fact that they’re using the word forced all of the staff at the school to consider how the word is being used in our culture today.

Here are Ice Cube’s words toward Bill Maher:

I still think you need to get to the root of the psyche because I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they’re a little too familiar, or they think they’re too familiar. Or, guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two that made them Kool-Aid every now and then, and then they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. You know, it’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man. You can use it as a weapon or you can use it as a tool. It’s when you use it as a weapon against us, by white people, and we’re not going to let that happened again … because it’s not cool … That’s our word, and you can’t have it back.

… It’s not cool because when I hear my homie say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feel like that knife stabbing you, even if they don’t mean to.

Those that simply claim Maher needs to be fired probably haven’t seen how much he’s taken racists to task over the years, and how he is currently taking on the White House and the chaos we’re mired in. At the same time, his misogyny and views on Islam are far from progressive. Hiding behind the guise of being a comedian, his show is fundamentally about politics, and his end-show monologues are usually valuable and occasionally powerful. The problem, in this situation, is that he needed to look inward and broader. This isn’t so much about Bill Maher…its about the history we want to box away, or disown. It’s about the country’s wound that won’t heal and which too many people refuse to examine deeply. To listen without defensiveness is much easier when you realize its not all about you.

Of all the issues we are dealing with, firing Bill Maher is not going to solve much. Instead, it would have been helpful to hear him talk more about his own psyche and his own experience with the word, and with getting a “pass” from certain people of color. But he chose not to get too personal, which is how he’s always operated. “We all make mistakes” might be true, but that’s about relieving guilt, not about getting at truth. Ice Cube and Symone Sanders both gave their truths, and explained why this should be a teachable moment for everyone.

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