In a statement Saturday, Bill Maher wrote
Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I'm up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn't have said on my live show. Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.
Prior to the apology, Reverend Al Sharpton had contended
The n-word has a long history of hate, murder, violence, oppression and terror associated with it. People forget that even in the not-so-distant past, it was used to delegitimize an entire group and deny them voting rights, fair housing, jobs, access to upward mobility and so much more. Today, it is still being used to target, harm and attack folks no matter how successful or famous they are. We cannot accept usage of this term even when it is in the context of a bad joke. A joke, I might add, that made reference to ‘working in the fields’. There is no misconstruing what the subject matter was here. Maher should be ashamed.
Maintaining "regret" at saying something "offensive" for which he is now "very sorry" is as complete an apology we'll get from any public figure for anything, a little short of self-flagellation.
And so it is now not time to defend Maher or to consider the list of rap performers who use the "n-word" with no criticism from Sharpton or most of Maher's critics. Nor is it necessary to criticize Sharpton for implying that Maher somehow is responsible for anything pertaining to voting rights, fair housing, jobs, or access to upward mobility. If Al Sharpton remains credible in the eyes of a substantial number of people after his despicable record, no amount of reasoning will help. And- to be fair- he is not alone in his simplistic approach.
As the video above indicates, Maher did not use the actual "n-word" but rather "house nigg_ _ ," which associate professor of English and comparative literature John McWhorter maintains "is a word that developed from 'nigger,' but has a different pronunciation and also a different meaning." Addressing the controversy over Larry Wilmore's reference at the 2016 White House Correspondents' Dinner to President Obama as "my nigga," McWhorter argued
These days, many seem to think that the intent of the person using the N-word is less important than the offense taken by the hearer. But there are times when hearers might reconsider the offense they are taking, especially because language submits only reluctantly to policing.
Let's police the use of the N-word as a slur, but not a word that started from it but now means "friend," and not people only talking about, rather than using it.
While linguistic pespective is provided by a live English professor, history perspective may be provided by a deceased activist. At Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm X explained
So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called "Uncle Tom." He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro.
The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master's second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master's house--probably in the basement or the attic--but he still lived in the master's house.
So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, "We have good food," the house Negro would say, "Yes, we have plenty of good food." "We" have plenty of good food. When the master said that "we have a fine home here," the house Negro said, "Yes, we have a fine home here." When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he'd say, "What's the matter boss, we sick?" His master's pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master's house out than the master himself would.
But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses--the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.
If someone came to the house Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," naturally that Uncle Tom would say, "Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?" That's the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," he wouldn't even ask you where or how. He'd say, "Yes, let's go." And that one ended right there.
Still, Bill Maher shouldn't have made his remark. If comments like that are not eradicated or at least universally condemned when uttered, we might one day vote in as President of the United States someone who believes he can own a black person.