Friday’s moment when TV host Bill Maher uttered the n-word was not the first time he crossed the line where race is concerned. Long before Real Time With Bill Maher was a thing, Maher once talked over, insulted and questioned the blackness of veteran black actress Anne-Marie Johnson, all while arguing that white people should be able to say “nigga.”
Back in August 2001, Maher was still hosting the first iteration of his political debate show, a show called Politically Incorrect. He had guests Anne-Marie Johnson, offensive-ass comedian Sarah Silverman, comedian David Spade and activist Guy Aoki on his show to discuss race after an incident during which Silverman had made an inappropriate joke using the word “chink.”
Maher made the assertion that the word “nigga” (or “nigger,” as it were) had changed over the last 10-15 years, to which Johnson asked him, “According to who?”
“According to culture,” Maher replied condescendingly. “According to the fact that it’s in every song.”
Johnson, visibly upset by this, told Maher to ask every African American in his audience the meaning of that word. But before she could complete her thought, Maher talked over her and told her, “Every African-American person uses that word night and day. It’s in every song; it’s all through culture.
“The word has changed,” Maher said. “It has been co-opted as a term of endearment ... ”
At that point, Aoki jumped in and told Maher that the word had been co-opted as a term of endearment between black people, and Johnson told Maher that she was the only person on the panel qualified to talk about the issue.
“First of all,” Maher responded to Johnson, “I wouldn’t even know you were black if you hadn’t told me.”
The conversation continued, with Maher continuing to assert that it was OK for white people to use the word because there was even a group with the word in its name, N.W.A. He then repeated that the word was in every song on the radio.
“Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga,” Maher said. “It’s in every song. I have people walking up to me going, ‘Hey Bill, you a nigga,’ and I can’t thank them?”
The video is a disgusting example of how Maher, and white people who argue for the use of the word in general, refuse to listen when black people try to tell them the word is harmful.
Never mind that black people and even other people of color (in this instance, Aoki) have tried explaining how the co-opting of the word is for black people only; Maher and his ilk want in, and they are going to get in by any means necessary, even if it means yelling down a black woman and questioning her blackness because of the lightness of her skin color.
At any point, Maher could have conceded Johnson’s point and left it alone, but his egomaniacal need to be right wouldn’t let him. He had to have this one thing, because it was so very important.
As someone on my Facebook feed aptly noted, just not saying the word is the “easiest, simplest way that white people can show themselves denying their white privilege.”
“Literally all you have to do is NOT do it. Just don’t do a thing. With that, you show respect for our humanity and acknowledge the complicated history of the word, & let us have this thing to grapple with as you opt out because not everything is yours,” Mela Machinko wrote.
And that is the crux of it. Beyond white people’s need to deny the racist history of the word is an insidious desire to be part of everything, whether it is meant for them or not.
Yes, we get it; not all white people. But a good lot of you who argue for the use of the word will, in fact, call black people racist when they tell you it’s not OK to use it. How does that work, exactly?
I’m including a video clip of the full segment below because it’s worth watching the part that features Silverman and Aoki debating her use of the word “chink.” She, too, felt as if that should be OK, even as Aoki told her that people of Asian descent consider the word to be a slur.
White privilege is a dangerous thing, and as I have said before, white fragility leads to white violence. The violence is not always physical; what Bill Maher did to Anne-Marie Johnson as shown in the clip was a form of violence. Instead of listening to her and trying to understand his point, he inserted himself into a debate where he really had no place.
White people: It is not up to you to determine how and when a racist word that has been used pejoratively against people of color is offensive. It is not up to you to decide when it’s OK for white people to use the word. And it is definitely not up to you to question someone’s blackness in defense of your ignorant-ass argument.
It doesn’t matter who you hear say the word, how many times you hear it used or how many rap songs you hear it in.
“Nigga” is not your word. Stop trying to justify saying it.