My parents raised me to believe in whatever God I wanted. I just had to do my research. So, I was kinda raised atheist? Coming up in 1980s and 90s North Carolina meant that there was Jesus in my face every day--whether I wanted it or not. This continued throughout college which is why when Bill Maher started doing his Religiocity thing, I became a fan. I used to watch Real Time regularly. And this is why I’m really torn about this current kerfuffle with Bill Maher calling himself a “house nigger.”
I watched the clip, a conversation between Maher and some Nebraska politician. The politician told Maher he should come work in the fields of Nebraska. He insinuated Maher couldn’t handle that kind of good ‘ol American work. Maher fired back with feigned indignation with something akin to, “Field work? I’m a house nigger.”
So now, everyone is calling Maher a racist. Liberals and progressives are calling for the show’s cancellation, including some celebrities like Chance the Rapper. Conservatives are appalled at the racist scandalamity Maher has found himself in. There are black folk on Facebook saying that the word should forever be stricken from our lexicon and collective memories. Hell, even alt-right racists are calling Maher racist.
I think I might disagree.
Maher did what white folks have been doing to black folks since day one in this country-- Taking something that isn’t theirs and appropriating it for themselves. Maher used the N-word with contextual prowess. But in doing so, he disrespected black history, black experience, black suffering, black thought, and most of all, black victory. A millionaire white progressive just compared himself to a slave in America. He used that joke, which would have been hilarious if Dave Chappelle had said in that interview chair, for himself. He took black angst, and wrapped it up in snark, and used it promulgate whiteness, and then served it to his fellow agent of whiteness in a debate about nationalism.
Was Maher racist? I don’t think so. With something as charged as a white guy using the n-word, Maher considered the potential consequences. And he probably figured he could weather the storm. But that’s the problem. Maher perpetuated systems of whiteness by appropriating a theme related only to black comedy and whitewashed it. He got his Tom Sawyer-picket fence on. That’s it. His audience is mostly white, some even booed in the audience. Maher just shrugged them off. He told what he thought was a funny joke.
But it stuck in me the wrong way. Maher could have used his privilege for the actual cause of disrupting systems of whiteness in this country. After catching the backhanded work ethic insult from the politician, Maher could have looked him in the eye and said, “Field work? Huh? I’m white. You better go do what you normally do and exploit some Mexicans.” Same feigned indignation, but an even more powerful impact. But Maher didn’t want to piss off that demographic of white folk. So instead, he used the n-word for himself.