A week after Bill Maher used the n-word on “Real Time,” Friday’s episode of his HBO show focused largely on a discussion of race, with black personalities essentially lecturing the comedian on why what he had done was unacceptable.
“I want you to school me. I did a bad thing,” he told Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, adding later: “For black folks, that word – I don’t care who you are – has caused pain. I’m not here to do that . . . It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice; it wasn’t. It brought back pain to people.”
For several minutes, Maher was on the hot seat and on the receiving end of questions. Actor-rapper Ice Cube didn’t seem to hold back, telling Maher that he and white people shouldn’t get too comfortable with saying the n-word, even if done without a hint of racism. He also said that he felt the comedian has been “bucking up against that line,” and that last week’s mistake was a “teachable moment” for Maher.
“What made you think that it was cool to say that?” Ice Cube asked.
Maher repeated his apology and said that he simply reacted, without thinking, to a comment by Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., about working in the fields.
Though he accepted the apology, Ice Cube dished out many reasons he felt Maher’s behavior was so problematic. He said, in part:
“I still think you 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’re a little too familiar, or they think they’re too familiar. Or, guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two that made them Kool-Aid every now and then, and then they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. You know, it’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man. You can use it as a weapon or you can use it as a tool. It’s when you use it as a weapon against us, by white people, and we’re not going to let that happened again . . . because it’s not cool . . . That’s our word, and you can’t have it back.
“. . . It’s not cool because when I hear my homie say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feel like that knife stabbing you even if they don’t mean to.”
The longtime HBO host drew widespread criticism last week after he using the racial slur during an exchange with Sasse on his show. The senator invited Maher to visit Nebraska and said, “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”
“Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n–,” Maher said in response. “No, it’s – it’s a joke.”
He apologized in a brief statement the following day, saying the word was “offensive” and that he’s “very sorry.” The backlash was immediate, with HBO also condemning the use of the word and with some calling for Maher’s firing.
Dyson, the professor and a friend of Maher’s who’s come to his defense on social media, asked the comedian about white privilege and whether he understands the need to challenge the “unconscious reflex” to say the racial slur even unintentionally.
“Yeah, but of course, I think I do. We’re all evolving. We’re all who were are . . . This happened once. A guy said a weird thing; I made a bad joke,” Maher said of the comment from Sasse that prompted the controversial response. “It was wrong, and I owned up to that. But it’s not like a career of this. It’s not like I went out there last Friday and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to break some new ground tonight.'”
Maher added: “You know, it happened and it was wrong, and people make mistakes and we’re all sinners . . . But I totally get that . . . I grew up in an all-white town in New Jersey, not Alabama – that’s the country . . . Race wasn’t even an issue. It didn’t exist, except my parents told me the right thing about it . . .”
Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and former press secretary for Bernie Sanders, criticized Maher for using the term “house n–,” saying it was an upfront to black women.
“As a white person in America, you would’ve been the master, the slave owner . . . It was mostly black women who were enslaved in the house, who were raped, who were beaten daily, day in and day out,” Sanders said. “They endured physical and mental abuse. For a lot of people in America, that was like slap in the face to the black community, particularly to black women.”
Maher, who’s on his 15th season of hosting “Real Time,” has been known to say or do controversial things on his show.
He drew criticism earlier this year when he interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial former Breitbart editor known for making inflammatory comments about Muslims, women and minorities. Maher had defended his decision, saying inviting Yiannopoulos on his show brought his views under scrutiny, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 2014, Maher was accused of hate speech when he said it was wrong to say only “a few bad apples” in the Muslim community have extremist beliefs.
Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f– kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book,” Maher said during an episode on “Real Time” with atheist scholar Sam Harris and actor Ben Affleck.
In 2001, Maher lost his ABC show, “Politically Incorrect,” following controversial comments criticizing military action to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly,” he said.
Maher apologized after his comments prompted companies to pull their ads. He said he was criticizing the government, not individual soldiers. ABC fired Maher afterward.