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Bill Maher's use of the N-word whips up a storm

Bill Maher used the N-word during his interview with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.
Bill Maher used the N-word during his interview with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.

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By now, you've probably heard about the controversy surrounding Bill Maher, the host of HBO's weekly political show, "Real Time with Bill Maher."

During the live broadcast of the show last Friday night, he used the N-word during his interview with U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska). During their exchange, Maher said he should visit Nebraska more.

“We’d love to have you work in the fields with us,” Sasse said.

“Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n-----,” Maher said.

Maher's comment was a reference to slaves who were chosen to work in the homes of plantation owners. They ostensibly had it easier than those who worked in the fields.

The reaction was swift and negative. HBO called Maher's behavior "completely inexcusable," and social media was equally scathing, with people like Chance the Rapper calling for Maher's dismissal.

Maher has since apologized: “The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

Justin Simien is the writer/director of the film, "Dear White People," and creator of the Netflix series of the same name. Karen Grigsby Bates is an NPR correspondent and a member of the Code Switch team. They spoke with The Frame's John Horn.

Interview highlights:

On who is allowed to say the N-word:

Justien Simien: It's not so much about whether you are allowed to say it. It's about what happens when you do say it — how it affects the people that you supposedly care about and want to supposedly champion. How it hits their lives and how it hits their hearts and how it can really cause, in some cases, violence and negative situations for black people. So I think that if you are a person who's got black folks in your lives, I don't understand why you would use it. I would hope you would have more empathy for your friends and your comrades to just let us have that one thing.

Karen Grigsby Bates: There are often people who say, Well, my brother-in-law is black and so I can use it. Or in Quentin Tarantino's case, My mother's boyfriend was black and I liked him a lot so I can use it. What kind of excuse is that? That's so bizarre.

JS: Also, where does the desire to use it come from? Why do you want it so bad? You know what I mean? This is a case where we turned our poison into medicine, but for you to deny the history of that word, it just feels really insensitive. 

On whether Maher's comment adds to the growing voice of prejudice and white supremacy:

JS: I'll say this: I noticed a lot of people jumping on that conversation who were certainly politicizing the issue to justify racism. I did notice that a lot. It's an unfortunate reality of where our country is at right now, where situations like these are so easily politicized and weaponized. But I think there have been bigger gaffes. And when we have full-on devoted racists who also have their own shows, I think it cuts both ways. I think Bill has done a lot in terms of progressive, liberal agendas. I think this is a moment where he made a mistake. I think it should be made very clear to him why it was a mistake.

KGB: He's apologized, but the question is: Has he apologized because he really means it, or because it's expedient and it allows him to keep going without getting mired down in some of the outrage that's followed him? My question is, What did we learn from this? What we learned is that sometimes people that we think are not going to act this way, act this way because they feel entitled. 

JS: He's been saying really Islamophobic things for a very long time on his show, very anti-Muslim sentiments, very anti-trans sentiments that, frankly, haven't paused the world. That's an interesting aspect of where we are as a country. He used a word and he shouldn't have used it. Like Karen said, I'm not exactly sure he learned why not to use it. But he's been saying stuff like this about other groups that, frankly, are more marginalized and don't really have a platform to stop the world when someone does that against them. So, if anything, I hope that this is at least the beginning of a wakeup call that these things really do have consequences. It's not just about feeling. It's about actual oppression in this country.

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