Bill Maher is problematic. So is Ice Cube. But in this case, it took the latter to remind the former that you shouldn’t feel “too familiar” with oppressed groups. Certainly not “familiar” enough to feel comfortable dropping a racial slur.
The Daily Beast sums up last week’s transgression: “Responding to a silly dig by [Sen. Ben] Sasse (“We’d love to have you work in the fields with us,” he joked), Maher quipped, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”” Yeeeah, not okay. To be fair, he did apologize almost immediately, and the apology seemed genuine:
“Friday nights are always my worst nights of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show. Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and I’m very sorry.”
That’s all very well and good, but what’s better is to examine why that was such an easy go-to joke in the first place. Last night, Maher had not only Symone Sanders, an activist who served as national press secretary for Bernie Sanders, and author (and Token Black Friend) Michael Eric Dyson on as guests, but he invited the multi-hyphenate rapper Ice Cube on the show to promote the anniversary re-release of a classic album as well as give him the opportunity to talk about Maher’s use of the N-word.
The best of Cube:
“I accept your apology. But I still think we 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 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.”
He then went on to say that “[W]hen 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 stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it.”
Maher did his best to listen, but couldn’t resist being defensive and interrupting. Thankfully, he gave most of the space to Ice Cube, and also invited Sanders to give her take on things. She brought up how context is important, and how the way that Maher used the word, in reference to house slaves, specifically demeaned and was a slap in the face against black women, since they were more often than not the ones working and being abused in the home. I was so grateful for her perspective.
Because here’s the thing. Ice Cube has said and done some misogynistic and antisemetic shit. I hope that he internalizes the advice and thoughtfulness he expressed in talking racism with Maher to examine the oppression he helps perpetuate himself. For example, when he says “[W]hen 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 stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it,” the same could be said for a word like, oh I don’t know, “bitch.”
When I hear women reclaiming that word, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a man say it, it feels like that knife stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it.
No one is perfect, and this was, as Sanders said, a great “teachable moment.” We could use more like them, and we could probably all stand to have one imparted to us in one way or another, even as we give them.
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