Several years ago, National Action Network and I came out strongly against use of the n-word in any context by anyone. We took the firm position that any racially disparaging term must never be accepted or normalized in society. We marched in front of major record labels, and protested against Don Imus who lost his TV and radio shows after I and others demanded accountability for his use of derogatory and inflammatory language. We stepped in when Rush Limbaugh was attempting to buy an NFL team franchise (after making all kinds of disparaging comments), and we have been outspoken on this issue even when others did not stand with us. Yes, a lot of people – including Black rappers – attacked our position, but we remained steadfast. Despite my tremendous respect and personal friendship with Bill Maher, I must now hold him accountable as well. Maher should know better. And since he does, he ought to be dealt with accordingly.
Earlier in the week, we learned that someone scrawled the n-word at the gate of the home of NBA player LeBron James. “No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being Black in America is tough,” James said. “And we got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.” He is 100 percent correct. For Maher to use that same exact word the same week is beyond reprehensible. To think that it’s OK to joke around and use that term is either insensitive or arrogant, or both.
Just because Maher is liberal and a friend, does not mean he gets to say such a hateful term.
Words have tremendous power. As a comedian, commentator and host of his own weekly show, Maher knows this just as well as anyone. He knows the power and influence that he yields in shaping public discourse and opinions. The fact that he thought he somehow earned a pass for him to say those words is simply outrageous and unacceptable. That is why NAN and I call for an immediate meeting with HBO to discuss this very grave matter. Just because Maher is liberal and a friend, does not mean he gets to say such a hateful term; there must be one standard. If we use the language of desecration, it normalizes the socialization of desecrating a people of goods, services and human and civil rights.
The n-word has a long history of hate, murder, violence, oppression and terror associated with it. People forget that even in the not-so-distant past, it was used to delegitimize an entire group and deny them voting rights, fair housing, jobs, access to upward mobility and so much more. Today, it is still being used to target, harm and attack folks no matter how successful or famous they are. We cannot accept usage of this term even when it is in the context of a bad joke. A joke, I might add, that made reference to ‘working in the fields’. There is no misconstruing what the subject matter was here. Maher should be ashamed.
I will be the first one to admit that I myself have said it in the past, but as I have stated publicly, I began to understand the power of words years ago and how they can dehumanize, marginalize and exploit people in many ways. This is precisely why NAN and I have been so vocal on this issue for the past decade, and we have no plans of ceasing our work now. At a time when people of color are still being killed in hate crimes, nooses are found in places like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, attacks are taking place across the country and the n-word itself is spray-painted at the home of an NBA star, we must loudly condemn the acceptance of the use of this abhorrent word.
Friends told me this morning that if you take this position you may never be on Maher’s show again (and I have been on frequently). My response is simply this: should Bill be on that show again?