I am an old white man and when I was a teenager, I knew a founding member of the West Coast Black Panthers, Brother Lennie Eggleston, and several of Malcolm’s associates one of whom was Hakim Jamal who took over the Malcolm X Org of Afro American Unity the year after Malcolm was murdered. They routinely used the expression “house n****er to describe a black American who they viewed as collaborating with the enemy. I would contend that there is a context in which the word is not just acceptable but rather so useful and descriptive that any substitute has less impact. When in the course of academic conversation people refer to “the N word” they sound like they are talking to 1st graders and the same is true of those who say “F bomb” and other sanitized euphemisms. Nor is using the expression “house ni**er” the same as just throwing around the racial epithet “ni**er” as is done in casual conversation and rap tunes etc. It has a powerful historical meaning.
I grew up in the civil rights era hearing this word used by blacks and militant whites alike as a powerful wake up call to bigots of various races. To confiscate this very valuable tool from people of all races in the context of academic conversation, even humorous political statement as in Maher’s case, is to say that this word has no historical context in which it cannot be substituted and overlooks the reality that many white Americans are more empathic to the condition of race in the United States than some black Americans who just don’t get it. In real American history there were slaves who worked in the house and got special treatment, often causing that slave to have a perverse allegiance to the master and that is precisely why this word is so powerful. You cannot erase history with political correctness. I understand that there are very few “contexts” in which this word should be used. I consider sanctioning Maher the equivalent of a tantrum although his usage was a bit gratuitous and not funny enough or relevant enough and thus fell short of what he was going for. There are too many better fights to pick. In a world with Jeff Sessions in it, we should not have time for Bill Maher’s faux pas.