If you watched comedian Larry Wilmore’s roast of President Obama at his final White House Correspondents dinner, then you recall the drop-the-mic, cringe-worthy moment when Wilmore ended his diatribe by directly addressing the president as “my n*****.”
Black folks’ reaction to Wilmore’s controversial ending appeared to split along generational lines. Millennials and some Gen Xers (not this one, by the way) were quick to defend Wilmore, who is Black, as “keeping it real” to squash any notion that he had crossed a boundary during the televised event, in front of a predominately White audience. I heard from older Black Americans who were outraged and felt Wilmore should be reprimanded by his community, at the very least, and blackballed in his profession, at best.
That brings me to Bill Maher. The late-night talk show host and comedian, no stranger to controversy, has apologized for using the “N” word during a live interview with a Republican senator from Nebraska on his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher.” The conversation wended from the two talking about adults acting like adolescents and taking over Halloween from children to Sen. Ben Sasse commenting that Nebraskans don’t have time for such nonsense, and inviting Maher to visit and come “work in the fields with us.”
That’s when Maher, feigning insult, shot back, “I’m a house n*****.”
Some audience members chuckled and others audibly gasped. I get it. Hearing a White man utter a word that has incubated hate and loathing toward Black people for centuries, in that moment, I don’t blame them. There are rules. (Right?) And though Maher is known for making up “New Rules,” in fact, at the end of every show, this time he might have taken his “honorary brotha” status too far.
Maher apologized but that hasn’t muted calls for his firing. Some articles I’ve read question the future of the show, and include a laundry list of Maher’s politically and religiously incorrect statements throughout the years. What I have yet to see is a list of the dozens of times Maher has spoken out passionately in defense of President Obama, taking on Black pundits like Cornell West, who by the way was dissing Obama again on “Real Time” a week earlier. (I thought Maher was going to strangle him with that scarf around his neck.) Maher has consistently and unabashedly railed against institutional racism and policies that have left African Americans disproportionately imprisoned, in poverty, unemployed and under-educated.
I believe Maher to be a genuine and forceful advocate for Black equality in America, so I accept his apology. From all I have seen of Bill Maher, the “N” word is not a weapon he’d wield to inflict pain and insult on someone like me. No more than Larry Wilmore would. Both comedians took a risk in using that word in those settings, but neither meant to harm. Wilmore’s, I suspect, was planned. Maher’s was not. Because Maher is White, the rules governing the use of that word dictate that he overstepped.
That word can be offensive no matter who utters it. But let’s not act as if Bill Maher is suddenly some yahoo with a Confederate flag tattooed on his arm. By comparison, I was more upset when Wilmore said it.
When Maher used the “N” word, he was referring to himself. When Wilmore used it, he was referring to our Black president, who no doubt has been called that by some of his detractors behind his back. (Come on, we know it’s true!) Throughout his presidency, Obama was disrespected more than any president in history, because he’s Black. I imagine that, like Maher’s audience, some of those who were watching chuckled when Wilmore turned to Obama and said “my n****”, while others gasped. I know what Wilmore meant; he didn’t mean to be vile or offend the president or people like me, no more than Maher did. Although, I initially thought, like those Southwest Airlines commercials, “Wanna get away?” Under a rock, in a storm cellar, on the moon, anywhere except within rewind, YouTube, or DVR of what I believe was an uncomfortable, if not embarrassing as hell moment for our president and first lady.
I didn’t watch the episode of “Real Time” when Maher transgressed, but I read about it and cringed. That said, it isn’t my wish to see either comedian blackballed. However, whether that word is used to offend, feed hate, get a laugh, or give a high five, I do believe we need a new rule regarding use of the “N” word. Stop giving it power.
Shawn Taylor is a writer and entrepreneur in Chicago. You can find her on Twitter @tshawntaylor.