I felt a sense of deja vu hearing about Bill Maher being taken to task for saying “nigger” on his “Real Time With Bill Maher” HBO series, which aired on June 2nd. You see, I debated Sarah Silverman on Maher’s previous talk show incarnation — ABC’s “Politically Incorrect“ — on August 22, 2001, talking about her use of “chink” in a joke. And the second topic was: Can non-Blacks get away with saying “nigga?”
Check out this video at the 14:24 mark:
“Blacks are like, ‘Whites cannot say this word’. I disagree,” he argued. “This word has changed in the last 10, 15 years.”
Fellow panelist Anne-Marie Johnson of the Screen Actors Guild strenuously objected, saying the culture had not changed that much. “According to WHO?” he asked defiantly. “According to culture!” she shot back.
“Every African American in this room uses that word night and day,” Maher asserted. “It’s in every song. It has been co-opted as a term of endearment.”
“From Blacks to Blacks,” I corrected. “Not Whites to Blacks.” Even though Johnson insisted that as an African American, she was the only person on the stage qualified to assess how the word hurts and of its proper usage, Maher was not deterred.
“‘Nigga nigga nigga nigga (times two)’ is in every song. People come up to me and go. ‘Bill, you a nigga!’ But I can’t say, ‘Thank you’ or I go, ‘Please don’t use that word?’ Or I can’t use that word back?”
“That’s amongst Blacks,” I repeated. “Not for White people to call Black people ‘nigger.’ That still doesn’t work!”
But on the June 2nd show, Senator Ben Sasse suggested that Maher visit him in his home state of Nebraska (“Would you like to come work in the field with us?”) and Maher quipped, “Work in the fields?! Senator! I’m a House Nigger!” He was forced to issue a quick apology, the only one I’ve known him to make in his career. And on his show the following Friday, June 9, the host had to endure backlash from three African American guests.
Ice Cube told him, “It’s been used as a weapon against us by White people… when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a White person say it, it feels like that knife stabbing me, even if they don’t mean it.”
I tried to explain it to you almost 16 years ago, Bill, but oh well…
Maher endured the punishment, not wanting to make matters worse by seeming to back away from the apology he’d already issued. He offered a brief explanation to Dr. Michael Eric Dyson why the word came to mind — “the word is omnipresent in the culture”— similar to what he said back in 2001, but not as forcefully. He was insistent that his use of “nigger” was more a function of him being a comedian, not being racist: “That’s what comedians are somehow wired to do,” always trying to make a joke and make people laugh.
Dyson mentioned that in his book, he remembered being called “nigger” for the first time when he was seven. “I re-read it this week,” Maher interrupted. “I mean, I felt even worse.”
Well, guess what, Bill, if you felt bad about how horrendous it was for a young Black child to hear that, how’s that any different from an Asian child being called “Chink” or “Jap?”
In July 2001, Maher had Silverman on his show without inviting me to defend myself — well, his producers, Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein, were her managers (Holy conflict of interest, Batman!). She got to address how upset she was at MANAA (the media watchdog group I co-founded in 1992) for calling her out for saying “Chink” in a joke on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien.” Maher was furious that Silverman was being asked to apologize for it, calling our reaction “fake pain, fake outrage.”
“I would like an apology from all those people who’ve made this country such a drab, Orwellian place, where no one can say or feel anything! How about an apology from them?!”
Watch it here around the 11:31 mark:
If that wasn’t enough, while asking Silverman about who I was, Maher quipped, “He’s the head Chink in charge.” ABC had the wisdom to bleep out that word. When I got equal time a month later on August 22nd and the panel was debating the hurtfulness of racial slurs, Johnson pointed out that an Asian American (Kenneth-Chiu) had recently been stabbed to death by a White man who wrote “Chink” on his family’s car. But that wasn’t enough to persuade Maher. “And we’re talking about a lone nut!” he concluded, dismissively. “And to indict the entire society for that is disingenuous!”
In the second segment of the show, I raised the Chiu murder again, telling Silverman: “I bet you would say that his family should take some comfort in knowing that the term didn’t really hurt him!” Maher got indignantly angry at me: “It is a cheap political trick to somehow link that horrendous crime to a joke!”
Contrast that with Maher’s contrite behavior this past Friday night when Symone Sanders (former Press Secretary to Bernie Sanders) reminded Maher that LeBron James was recently called a nigger (actually, that slur was spray painted on the gate outside his home). Funny how Maher didn’t likewise dismiss that example as the actions of “a lone nut.”
As for his blind spots, Maher told Dyson, “We are all evolving…day by day,” explaining that when he was growing up in New Jersey in the ‘50s and ‘60s, race wasn’t an issue. So he’s still learning.
I’m curious to see if Bill Maher has evolved to the point of understanding the hurtfulness of Asian slurs and not just the ones used against African Americans. Or does he have to test them out on his show and wait for the reactions?
Guy Aoki is the Founding President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) the first all-volunteer, non-profit organization solely dedicated to monitoring the mass media and advocating balanced, sensitive, and positive depiction and coverage of Asian Americans. For almost 25 years, he wrote the “Into the Next Stage” media column for the Rafu Shimpo and for 17 years wrote syndicated radio shows for Dick Clark.