As to Bill Maher’s recent use of the N-word on live television, the comedian is probably scratching his head. What exactly are the rules on when, where, how and if the word can be used? Can a non-black, attempting a joke, use the word in public?
On his HBO show, Maher had the following exchange with Nebraska’s Republican Sen. Ben Sasse about adults dressing in costumes for Halloween.
Sasse: “It’s frowned upon we don’t do that quite as much.”
Maher: “I gotta 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 n—–.”
The reaction came fast and hard. Several black celebrities slammed him. Chance the Rapper wants Maher’s show canceled, tweeting: “Please HBO Do Not Air Another Episode of Real Time With Bill Maher.” Actor Jeffrey Wright tweeted: “‘House n—–,’ eh, Bill Maher? Hi, I’m black twitter. … When even house n—–ship is appropriated, there’s pretty much nothing left. And, I mean, who really wants that s—?” He later added: “On an historical note, Bill Maher is the first person ever to think being a ‘house n—–‘ is hip.”
After HBO criticized Maher’s “deeply offensive comment,” comedian D.L. Hughley, who uses the N-word in his standup, said: “Now that HBO apologized for Bill Maher saying n—–, how about they hire a few? I ain’t seen black people on HBO since ‘The Wire!'”
Over at MSNBC, the Rev. Al Sharpton said: “There are no exceptions that make this acceptable. Yes, comedians are expected to cross some hard lines. I get it. But let’s be clear. Free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word, and that’s what I’m doing now. … You cannot allow anyone to act like there’s anything funny in any context about using that word. You have to have one standard, no matter who it is.”
Yes, this is same Sharpton who called the then-Mayor of New York City David Dinkins, a black man, a “n—– whore.” Sharpton, whom President Donald Trump has called “a con man,” rose to fame by championing the cause of Tawana Brawley. This then 15-year-old black New York teen falsely told police that she had been raped and sodomized by a group of white men. One of his associates broke from him and said that Sharpton knew that Brawley was lying. But Sharpton, said the former associate, insisted that fanning this “controversy” would make them “the biggest n—–s in New York.” He lectures Maher on racial etiquette?
Maher, in using the N-word, is one of many comedians who do so, and not the only non-black. Comedian Jay Mohr uses the word, in standup and on Twitter, and does so without the sort of backlash we’re seeing against Maher. To add to the confusion, rapper Kanye West, during a concert, granted white fans their “only opportunity” to use the N-word while singing the lyrics to one of his songs. Black comedians like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Katt Williams and Kevin Hart have used that word. Today teenagers of all races and both genders consider it hip to call each other the N-word.
HBO, where Maher’s show airs, is subscriber-, not advertiser-, based. It airs lots of R-rated movies and other edgy content. So it’s akin to paying to see Maher’s nightclub act. You expect it to be risque. Complaining about profane language on HBO is like complaining about hearing “Jesus” on “The 700 Club.”
Maher has said worse without the furor. In his standup, for example, he called Sarah Palin the C-word and even described her son, who has Down syndrome, as “retarded.” He has called her a “dumb t—” — a derisive slang word for female genitalia. On his show, he called Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Republican tax lawyer who ran for president, “two bimbos.”
But “house n—–” is the red line that Maher crossed?
The real problem is the normalizing of the word “n—–.” At a mall, I saw two young black boys running. One got ahead of the other. In this mall, whose customers were mostly white, the black kid lagging behind said, “Hey, n—–. Wait up!” I recently received the following letter:
“I am a 60-year-old white man. The other day, I listened to three black men in the neighboring backyard repeatedly using the N-word. The phrase I heard most was, ‘that n-word said’ or ‘that n-word is’ or ‘that n-word did.’ Why does this word qualify as a ‘hate crime’ if a white person says it when blacks say it all the time?”
Excellent question. Let’s ask Sharpton.