Bill Maher, Ice Cube and that pesky offensive word
I’ve been wanting to comment on the Bill Maher “house nigga” controversy but decided to wait until after his show this week featuring Professor Michael Eric Dyson and iconic hip hop artist Ice Cube. So now that I have, what follows is a messy jumble of thoughts I’ve had about this subject.
I watched the Bill Maher show last week in real time (no pun intended.) After Maher mentioned wanting to go to Nebraska, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse (R) invited Maher to come “work in the fields with us.” At that moment, I thought it was a bizarre thing for Sasse to say and I immediately thought of something slavery-related. So that when Maher replied, “Senator, I’m a house nigga!” I laughed. But I also knew it was a mistake.
Though he came across as defensive in making it, Maher’s explanation had the ring of truth. He’s a comedian and is always trying to make the audience laugh. He didn’t expect Sasse to make that “working in the field” statement and just riffed with whatever came to mind. In his position, I would’ve made a slavery related joke as well.
But I’m black.
I thought Ice Cube’s appearance late in the show was more on point than Professor Michael Eric Dyson’s. Now I like Dyson. I’ve read some of his books and any time you listen to him with his rapid fire polysyllabic delivery you’re going to be entertained and educated at the same time. But I thought some of his rebuke of Maher missed the mark and got into the weeds.
Ice Cube’s message hit home saying, “I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar– or they think they too familiar — or its guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two who made them some Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard (it), it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin,’ but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back. I know they’re tryin’ to get it back.”
Cube said it well. I don’t know many blacks who want to hear that word coming out of a white person’s mouth. Realtalk, that’s a line that people feel.
But there isn’t consensus on this. Many blacks share Ice Cube’s position that the word should only be used by blacks. Other blacks feel that no one should use such a degrading term. And there are other blacks that feel it’s okay for use by certain white friends. I know it can be confusing for non-blacks. But even if you’re a white person who has dated blacks and have been able to use the word in that relationship, that “pass” isn’t global. It’s fraught with peril anytime a non-black person decides to use the word publicly. Perhaps Maher, who has dated black women in the past, was simply too comfortable like Cube alluded to, and it freed up his tongue. It shouldn’t have. Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you can go there. It’s always a risk.
If there’s any white celebrity who would probably be issued a pass to use the word it would be Eminem. Eminem has put in so much work elevating hip hop and helping bring new artists to the fore that he could get away with using the word. But even he doesn’t use it. That’s saying something because there isn’t much that Eminem won’t say.
On a side note: It’s ironic that it was Ice Cube who so eloquently took Maher to task given his own controversial history. Ice Cube was on the show to promote the 25th anniversary and re-release of his album “Death Certificate.” While it’s an epic album, it was criticized after its original release for strongly misogynistic, racial and antisemitic lyrics.
But I digress…
So after I say that Cube schooled Maher, I still have problems with how society responds to the word. I loathe the fact that context means nothing to people. I hate having to write “the N word” like I’m a child instead of using the word that I’m talking about. Newspaper articles on the word often warn readers they’re about to use the word in the article. Are you kidding me? Are people that fragile?
Maher mentioned the recent uproar over comedian Kathy Griffin being fired from CNN and having shows canceled after she made a horrible joke holding up a fake bloodied head resembling Donald Trump. When I saw the photo I thought it was tasteless, grisly and unfunny. But I didn’t think she should be fired or have shows canceled or treated as if she actually did cut Trump’s head off. It was a bad joke. Move on.
We live in a world where people can’t even use the word “nigger” in teaching. A Brandeis Professor, a Chicago elementary school teacher and a Los Angeles middle school teacher have been taken to task for using or spelling out racial slurs while teaching classes on history and/or racism.
This is madness. We’ve got to understand that context matters. A Baltimore teacher was fired last year for yelling at her students that they should want to learn instead of acting like a “punk ass nigger who’s going to get shot.” That firing was justified. But we can’t equate that and a teacher using the word to teach a history class! It’s not the same thing!
So while I was glad there was a teachable moment that using slurs is a risky proposition even for comedians these days, we still have to acknowledge that there’s a difference between what Bill Maher said and what David Duke says. I won’t pretend there isn’t. I won’t give oxygen to a false equivalency. I will fight against living in a world of contextual irrelevance.