As reported, Bill Maher has lined up a panel of guests who will no doubt attempt to help him talk through the furor he created when he called himself the n-word last Friday on his HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher".
While the host has already offered a partially well-wrought apology in the face of intense pressure and criticism, this is not his first public go around with the loaded racial epithet.
In 2001, following a similar controversy tied to comedian Sarah Silverman's use of the anti-Chinese racial epithet "chink," Maher invited her, Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and the actor and activist Anne-Marie Johnson to discuss the issue on his ABC show "Politically Incorrect". David Spade, much to his apparent and understandable embarrassment, was there too.
As you can see in the video below, the discussion around Silverman's joke seems even more broken and fraught than it probably did at the time. It's doubtful Silverman — or any accomplished comedian for that matter — would perform it today, let alone go on network TV to tell an Asian-rights activist they were wrong for taking offense to it.
Talk turns, as one would expect, to the n-word. The combative exchange between Johnson and Maher starts at about 13:40. It does not go well for the host.
"Blacks are like 'whites cannot say this word,'" he says. "I disagree. This word has changed in the last 10, 15 years." "According to who?" asks Johnson. "According to culture . . ." Maher booms back at her. "Ask any African-American person in this audience what that means," Johnson replies with an appropriate amount of alarm. "Every African-American person in this audience users that word night and day, it's in every song it's all through culture" says Maher.
With Johnson declaring "you're wrong, you're wrong," Maher brings up the worn old penny about the n-word now being a term of endearment, explaining to a black woman how she should feel. He then states to the light-skinned Johnson, "First of all, I wouldn't even know you were black if you didn't tell me."
"I love it when white people try to define what is 'African American,'" says Johnson. "I'm African American regardless of my skin color or my hair," she added. "I think I'm only one on this stage who's qualified to talk about the meaning of the word, how it hurts, how it doesn't hurt, where it's used, the history of it. Because I live it everyday." David Spade continues to look miserable.
Having heard that impassioned demand for understanding, Maher nonetheless continues, "It's in every song on the radio, okay? Nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga, nigga is in every song, okay? People come up to me and go, 'Bill, you a nigga.' But I can't say 'thank you' or I go 'please don't use that word'?"
After talking about the group NWA and his mother, Maher adds, "I'm saying when the word has come this far into the mainstream, for a very good reason they co-opted the word to make it less powerful." As Johnson notes that she objects to its use in rap music because it shows a lack of appreciation for history, both Maher and Silverman trumpet "words evolve!"
"Listen, folks" says Johnson, "it's not a word we can use. Can you please pass me the tea, and pass me the nigger too? It still hurts." Following that, Silverman and Maher continue to try to paint Aoki and Johnson as somehow villains for being hurt by epithets (or, as they seem to think, lying about claiming to be hurt.) Seen through today's lens, it's deeply shameful.
Now, yes, some 16 years have passed since this segment, 16 years that have seen a great deal of changes in how we talk about race in the public square. Undoubtedly, there have been a great many changes in Maher as well: he evinced none of the strident defensiveness seen here in his apology this Saturday.
And, yet, when you combine this footage from 2001 with the ease and self-satisfaction apparent in his use of the very same epithet on Friday, it paints a picture of a man who's quite willing to disregard the pain he might cause black people all so he can say his precious n-word.
Who Bill Maher will become down the road may be a different creature. Up until Saturday, however, he appeared to be one incapable of listening to the pleas of someone reasonably, passionately, persuasively asking him not to hurt them from, literally, three feet away. It makes the case for his honest rehabilitation shaky.
Maher may say he's undergoing a process of self discovery, but he was given all the tools he needed not to wind up where he is now over a decade and a half ago. He didn't learn a thing.