One week after sparking controversy by using a racial slur on live TV, Bill Maher has made a return to his HBO series, “Real Time,” with a lukewarm discussion about race, white privilege and freedom of speech. On the live Friday night broadcast of his political talk show, to cheers of support, Maher greeted his studio audience by saying, “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst.”
(Disclaimer: Because this episode contained a lengthy discussion of a racial slur, we’ve decided to leave the word in full below. If seeing it written out upsets you in any context, please stop reading now.)
The comic opened the show with a few jabs at President Donald Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, but the centerpiece of the night was his one-on-one discussion with African-American author and activist Michael Eric Dyson.
“I want you to school me,” Maher told Dyson at the top of the segment. “I did a bad thing.”
But there was very little “schooling” during the debate, in which Maher took the opportunity to re-apologize for referring to himself as a “house nigga” on June 2 during an interview with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.).
Dyson questioned why Maher was apologizing at all, given the fact that he has railed against a so-called culture of apology in the past.
“There is a lot of bullshit apologizing in America, and I am against that,” Maher conceded, but he added that he thinks in certain cases (such as slavery or Native American genocide), apologies are “appropriate.”
“For black folks, that word, I don’t care who you are, has caused pain. I’m not here to do that,” Maher went on to explain.
“Now, the guy who was here [Sasse], it’s not his fault ... it’s all on me. But he said a weird thing, the comic mind goes to a weird place sometimes. But it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice ― it wasn’t ― if it brought back pain to people, that’s why I apologize, really, and I reiterate tonight.”
Dyson tried but ultimately failed to truly challenge Maher, who, after the author explained the history behind the slur, downplayed his guilt by reiterating that he simply made a bad joke.
In the past, Maher has argued that “nigger” (or “nigga”) is no longer offensive, given the fact that the word has been reclaimed as a term of endearment by black people, especially in hip-hop music. Which made Ice Cube, best known for being a member of the ’90s gangsta rap group N.W.A, a fitting guest in the second half of the show, when Maher exasperatedly apologized for the third time in the evening.
The rapper brilliantly called out the fact that an apology is not necessarily the only thing that black people need from Maher right now: Accountability and acknowledgment of what made him feel comfortable saying “nigger” in the first place would be nice, too.
“I accept your apology, but I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche,” the rapper said, adding:
“I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they’re a little too familiar. Or there’s guys that might have had a black girlfriend or two ... and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. It’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife. You can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not going to let that happen again. I know it’s in the lexicon, you’ve heard people talking. But that’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.”