On Bill Maher’s House N*gger

The Restructuring of Political Correctness, Structural Racism and Bill Maher’s Lackluster Apology

I wasn’t going to deal much with Bill Maher’s use of the n-word. However, after painstakingly suffering through misguided hot takes and watching his abysmal follow-up episode I’ve chosen to breathe a little air into our lifeless understanding of anti-black racism in the 21st century.

Interestingly, in the world of white liberal politics, the n-word seems to slip out more often than many would like to admit and yet we as society and especially those who see themselves as left of republicans haven’t had the courage nor the patience to wrestle with why this word constantly rears its unsightly head. The Bill Maher fiasco is the latest incantation of this insufferable battle, and quite frankly, people’s interpretation of what happened and what needs to happen is downright infuriating. I’ve been so dismayed by people running to this wealthy, white man’s defense, downplaying the deleterious effects of using that word on national television and simply not showing the intellectual capacity to dissect why a white man could use that word with no sense of irony or immediate self-reproach that on more than one occasion while watching TV or perusing social media I literally became nauseous.

Can you imagine that despite the advent of #BlackLivesMatter, with the recent uptick in white nationalism and xenophobia, in this country—whose genesis is marked by centuries of violence towards Africans, who were kidnapped and brought to stolen land as chattel slaves and forced to toil under heinous conditions—a white man who calls himself progressive would use the term ‘house nigger’ for millions of ears and eyes to hear and see?

Yes, actually I can.

This occurrence, contrary to what society has worked to persuade many of us to believe, is far too common. It is the very commonplace-ness of ‘accidental racism’ that I believe many people use to justify disregard and dismissal of it being something worthy of diligent examination.

But let’s be clear, a non-black celebrity will always generate a lot of outrage when they are found using the n-word or any other racial slur. That is the reflex of a society that recently underwent the Civil Rights Movement, where loud and proud bigotry intensely atrophied, and was deemed, by many accounts, politically incorrect. While many regard this victory as an important step in the race towards justice and equity, it may also be evidence of the larger white supremacist system giving concessions to a marginalized group in order to both quell opposition and restructure itself in order to exercise more robust racial dominance for years to come. The lack of ‘racism out in the open’ does not indicate an absence of pervasive and insidious ‘racism behind closed doors’ or in private emails or among legislative colleagues or spray painted on black people’s homes or in the very themes of white fraternity and sorority parties.

The restructuring of political correctness gave rise to the belief that our society has made much more racial progress than it actually has—which in turn, has given birth to the cookie-cutter, heart-warming liberal idea that in every succedent generation there’s less and less racism. Yet many sociologists and other academic scholars have established that white supremacy isn’t actually dissipating in a real quantifiable way. Instead, racism has morphed and changed into something more resilient and less susceptible to challenge or critique. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s venerable tome, Racism Without Racists, goes into this phenomenon in great detail. Bonilla-Silva specifies the lengths by which contemporary society struggles to pretend racism doesn’t even exist. Indeed, it is not that racism is going away but that political correctness has been tasked with concealing it. In short, political correctness has now given racism the necessary cover to maintain itself in more pernicious and deceptive ways.

To this, the critics might say: “But Bill Maher isn’t a racist! Surely, his reputation as a truth teller and straight talker not only against bigotry and dogmatism but against the monstrous mendacity of conservatives secures his position as one of the most important progressive voices of our time. You aren’t seriously suggesting that behind closed doors Bill Maher is some sort of vulgar racist, are you?”

And my answer would be: of course not.

At the same time, offering that classic line of reasoning is how this discussion gets so tragically twisted that it becomes extremely difficult to untangle. Alas, let us first deal with the classic deflection of ‘but so and so isn’t a racist’. Many people, conservatives and liberals alike, are often found using very limited, elementary definitions of racism. This is a typical straw-man strategy that must be disrupted. The first important step is to reject almost all ‘dictionary’ definitions of racism. The dictionary, often written by white men, was created for shorthand use and not for the elaboration of complex subjects. For instance, one wouldn’t depend on the dictionary to explain the theory of relativity which in order to truly understand one would need comprehension of various principles in physics. Equally, if someone is seriously interested in learning about racism—in all its complexity including its infestation of law, politics, education, economics, or labor—one would consider a simple 1 or 2 sentence definition of racism in the dictionary hardly intellectually rigorous and wholly insufficient.

Engaging in the tired ritual of carefully discerning if any particular person is racist using trite, simplistic definitions of racism (which usually amounts to ‘does this person have a history of saying overtly racist things’) is often a useless, investigative pursuit. Political correctness taught many of us, at a young age, that saying overtly racist things in public is wrong whether or not one actually believes those things to be true. This fruitless investigation ties up so much of these discussions and exemplifies just how backwards our discussions on race really are. We live in a society where being labeled a racist is more socially damning than actually engaging in the racist behavior itself. The game then becomes evading that label with all the force and might one can muster, and in so doing, disregarding the need to take a genuine look inside to see what led to the misgiving. Even Klansmen and women of today when asked are they racist will deny that label despite engaging in obvious white supremacist behavior.

To help with this cycle of confusion, I’d like to propose or better yet reintroduce the definition of structural racism into the discourse. Specifically, white people living in a multi-racial, white supremacist society by definition have a structurally racist positionality within that system and are all, in fact, structurally racist. Being white in a white supremacist society doesn’t mean that you cannot be oppressed by other violent systems like capitalism or patriarchy. However, it does mean you receive constant social, economic and political advantages as a result of deeply rooted historical structures. It is important that we move from an interpersonal understanding of racism to a structural understanding of racism because it will make the conversation around Bill Maher and others much more clear. First and foremost, a white person, in a structurally racist position, using that word on television is a racist act under any context, regardless of intent. Secondly, while it is painful to hear that word used by any white person—as it conjures up painful, intimate memories of interpersonal racism—its utterance is a symptom of a much broader, unexamined collective subconscious that when left unchecked leads to tremendous inequality. We must not waste time in determining if this or that person is racist but instead identify their structural position, and therefore their ability to maintain the integrity of white supremacist structures, in a system designed to control and violate black people.

What was also unnerving was Bill Maher’s general response to people’s outrage and Michael Eric Dyson’s inability to parse out an important point about underlying bias even in those who claim to be anti-racist.

Bill Maher and Ice Cube

In his “I’m gonna pretend like it wasn’t a big of a deal but bring some black friends to reprimand me but not really” episode, Maher seemed incredibly uncomfortable in both conversations with Dyson and Ice Cube wanting to move quickly past any accusations that might insinuate that there may, in fact, be some racist bones in his body. Even Ice Cube, in his soliloquy, which was far more coherent than Dyson’s disjointed series of questions, and who tried to make this a teachable moment not only for Bill but for Americans across the country, was quickly interrupted by Maher with him saying “that point has been made”. It appeared that Maher made this interjection because he couldn’t take being in the hot seat for more than a few moments. Unfortunately, this is part of the continued attempt to evade serious introspection that is and should be part of the daily struggle against the socialization everyone inherits when growing up and living in a white supremacist society. Instead, he opted to qualify his half-baked apology with irrelevant and ridiculous assertions.

One of these assertions being that the word is “in the lexicon” and so therefore, he insinuates, it’s acceptable to accidentally use that word. This argument is equivalent to a 2nd grader cussing in class and telling the teacher they only cussed because they heard their mommy say it at home. It is a completely understandable argument for a child in elementary school, but for a 61-year-old man who claims to be one of the most fervent and determined voices of the fractured progressive effort in the United States it is a pathetic argument that cheapens the reality of what happened. It was a cowardly deflection of responsibility.

Bill Maher also consistently alluded to the culture of comedians and how in many respects they, like him, are practically helpless to their own comedic reflexes and instincts to avoid toeing the line on major issues. Again, this as a deflection that ruins the ability to have a serious conversation on the persistence and constant emergence of racism in this society. He is, however, correct in saying that it was a reflex and it is that same reflex that shows up in hiring practices, gentrification, judicial sentencing and split decisions made by police officers that are too often lethal. Yet, there is no exploration of how this impulse got there and what steps he could take to challenge those impulses.

White people wanting to use the n-word and even accidentally blurting it out is a subtle but important signal that many of them, even those who incorrectly label themselves as ‘not racist’, do not possess as strong of racial politics as they would like to believe. Moreover, if you are going to apologize then apologize but don’t qualify your apology with justification after justification. It comes off as evasive and insincere. And that’s ultimately what we were left with: an effort to do some damage control and quickly move on from what could have been a valuable discussion on how racism and prejudice live inside all of us. Bill Maher, perhaps, showed his true racist colors in dodging and avoiding fully coming to grips with himself much like our society-at-large continues to do as well.

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