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Political comedian Lenny Bruce, who was often arrested for the provocative material in his act, once theorized that if everyone used the N-word matter-of-factly in daily life, it would be robbed of its power to “make a 6-year-old black kid cry” when someone at school used it on him. In a way, that’s exactly what some in the African-American community have done by using the word freely among themselves when addressing each other. But in times when hate crimes are on the rise, when we have an administration actively and gleefully dismantling civil rights gains, and when the word is being scrawled on LeBron James’ home, Lenny Bruce’s dream that we could defuse the word-bomb is still far from a reality.
Which is why Bill Maher’s joking use of it on the June 2 edition of Real Time has caused such a backlash. There are plenty of contexts in which a white person using the N-word would be appropriate and inoffensive. Maher used the word once before while appearing on Larry King’s CNN show when commenting on Newt Gingrich’s accusation that then-President Obama held a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview.” Maher responded that “Kenyan, of course, was code for n—er.” In that situation, he was condemning Gingrich’s coy racism with a harshness that was justified and incisive. This time, however, was not the same.
No social commentary or political insight. Just bumbling shock in pursuit of a lame joke.
The reason the N-word is so volatile is that it carries hundreds of years of poisonous baggage. It is associated with how African-Americans were perceived as less human than whites, and it represents the atrocities committed as a result. The word evokes kidnapping, rape, mutilation, humiliation, forced poverty and murder. Even now, it implies a physical threat. We are sensitive to its use — and have a right to be — because the effects of that word and all it represents remain a part of our daily lives.
But we also have the responsibility not to punish every time it is used in poor taste rather than maliciously, because that muddies the waters regarding the reason for our outrage. Intent is important. Clearly, Maher’s intention was not to demean blacks. To put it in perspective, compare Maher with Phil Stair, the public official from Flint, Michigan, who was recently recorded using the N-word while blaming black people who “don’t pay their bills” for the water crisis facing the city. He has since resigned. A major difference between people like Maher and people like Stair is that the public official’s bias has a direct and practical effect of the people he represents. His is a betrayal of the principles the country stands for.
Was Maher insensitive? Absolutely. Inappropriate? Definitely. Smug in appropriating the word for cheap humor? Check. Yet, there was no malevolent intent.
Maher is a worthy and incisive voice in political humor who made a mistake and apologized. Inadvertently, he caused the issue to be debated, raising awareness and hopefully sensitizing people. I just wish it was for an insight rather than an insult.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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