Commentary

There Is No Pass for the N-Word

Jun 05, 2017

Comedian and television host Bill Maher got himself into a fair bit of trouble over the weekend after attempting to work the n-word into casual conversation with a guest on his HBO program, Real Time with Bill Maher. The exchange, with Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), started out fine but with a painful double lesson on racial epithet management.

Here’s a transcript, if you missed it:

Maher: Adults dress up for Halloween. They don't do that in Nebraska?

Sasse: It's frowned upon. We don't do that quite as much.

Maher: I gotta get to Nebraska more.

Sasse You're welcome. We'd love to have you work in the fields with us.

Maher: Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house nigger! <pause> No, it’s a joke.

Some in the audience laughed, some groaned. Senator Sasse appeared to laugh awkwardly but made no further comment. He was there, ironically, to promote his book, The Vanishing American Adult.

It’s clear to see that Maher was doing what comics tend to do. He waved his hands in mock horror, as to the mere thought of working in the fields was beneath his elevated status as a corporate slave? I don’t know. I think he just thought the field thing was odd and he went for it. Maher pushes buttons for a living and expresses opinions that regularly offend wide swaths of people.

By Saturday afternoon, HBO issued a statement of condemnation and removed the exchange from subsequent airings. Maher himself issued a serviceable apology later that day. “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.”

So here’s the first lesson: If you’re not black, you don’t get a pass to say either “nigger” or “nigga” in public. Ever. Not even if you think the joke is obvious. Not even if you once gave Jay-Z a leather-bound printed book containing every single one of his lyrics in a fawning interview.

The best explanation I’ve encountered lately as to why the word is problematic came in a tweeted stream from linguistics student Aliah Luckman. She explains in extraordinary detail how damaging the slur “nigger” has always been, why the diminutive form “nigga” came to be embraced by some members of the black community, and how to assess when or if to use controversial words. “[P]ragmatic competence is the ability to use language appropriately under various circumstances. These circumstances include the purpose for communicating, the relative status of those communicating, and the location of communication.”

If Brad, a white man, has a black friend who says it’s okay for Brad to use “nigga” in his home, Brad should not feel it’s okay to say the word at the mall. And if Brad accidentally belts out a Kendrick Lamar lyric at work, he should apologize.

You can read a more of Luckman’s thoughts here.

But now let’s turn to Sen. Sasse, who corrected his silence on Saturday in a series of tweets. “Here's what I wish I'd been quick enough to say in the moment: ‘Hold up, why would you think it's OK to use that word? ... The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It's therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it.’”

That brings me to lesson number two: If you hear something, say something. Yes, it’s hard. Bias does not announce its arrival, it just happens, and it's a shock to the system. (That’s why we train people to mitigate it.) But if you’re not prepared for Bill Maher, a habitual line-stepper, to say something hinky on your dime, then what hope is there for the rest of us?

I turned to Daisy Auger-Dominguez for advice. A long-time D&I practitioner, she was the Global Head of Diversity Staffing at Google and is currently an SVP of talent acquisition at Viacom. She recommends taking a moment to find your voice. “I find that folks don’t respond in the moment mostly due to fear – sometimes for your own safety, or how it may impact your standing with the aggressor, or a group of people,” she says. But it makes a big difference if you do manage to say something, and in the right way.

Here are Auger-Dominguez’s notes to raceAhead:

  • Like all feedback, it's helpful to deliver it in the moment or as close to the moment as possible.
  • People managers need to be prepared to discuss impacts of an offensive statement on the individual and a team. “Your comment offended XX. That kind of statement doesn’t motivate this person to behave differently and made them uncomfortable. It also doesn’t help others to think positively of you, or help our team collaborate better.”
  • If it’s a peer, be direct and candid and let them know from your experience how their voice affects others. Be specific about what you observed and how you experienced it. Stick to the facts.
  • There’s always chatter after a disrespectful event, and it’s not always constructive. Make sure to remind people to focus on how to do better next time, and emphasize available resources. These issues are complex; it’s easy to offend someone even if intentions are good. Acknowledge that. And keep listening to different perspectives.

"Fundamentally, workplaces should be respectful and safe," she says. While these moments can be awful, it's hard to overstate how much it means to people when tough issues are noticed and unpacked. And that changes a culture. If you still don't know what to say, "use the channels available to you in your company, typically your manager, HR business partners, employee conduct policies, help lines or emails," she said. "But speak up. Folks need support, especially the most marginalized and junior employees."

On Point

A CNN host assumed the Indian American winner of a spelling bee understood Sanskrit

In a conversation with Ananya Vinay, the 12-year-old the winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, CNN hosts Alisyn Camerota and Chris Cuomo engaged in the usual awkward banter about spelling. They asked her to spell “covfefe” the now famous tweeted typo from President Trump. And then Camerota joked about the origin of the word. “It’s a nonsense word. So, we’re not sure that its root is actually in Sanskrit, which is what you’re probably, uh, used to using, so, I don’t know. Anyway,” Camerota said. Vinay, is from California and is of South Asian descent. Even more instructive than the gaffe was the microexpression that flashed Cuomo’s face as it happened. He knew.

Washington Post

Building a diverse company is harder than it looks

Sallie Krawcheck, the CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest, a digital investment platform for women, shares an important story in her recent opinion piece for Fortune. When faced with hiring two strong candidates at her firm, she confronted what she now sees are some limits in diversity thinking. "In my experience, even the most well-meaning and diversity-positive individuals are, let's face it, implicitly drawn to working with people like themselves," she says. "Candidate A, who was unlike most of the team in any number of ways—beginning with her mohawk. And Candidate B, who is a lot like the team members we already have in place." She unpacks the dynamics behind the scenes when the hiring managers picked Candidate B.  “If we overruled them, they would feel disempowered; they might not feel that they had as much ‘skin in the game’ if Candidate A failed,” she wrote. Click through for the outcome.

Fortune

The future Obama Presidential Center names a director

She is Louise Bernard, the outgoing director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library. Bernard was a member of the design team that created the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and was also an adviser for the International Museum of African American History in Charleston, S.C., which should begin construction later this year. Described in glowing terms as a “luminary” and a “superstar,” Bernard will be responsible for bringing the Obama legacy to light in a lasting narrative that engages the public in new and interesting ways. The Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in 2021.

Chicago Tribune

Wonder Woman is even more wonderful than you might imagine

Here’s a spoiler-free review from a special critic, Vincent Schilling from Indian Country Today. The self-described Native kid turned comic-book nerd had never seen a faithful representation of an indigenous character in comic book form. So, when he went to an early showing of Wonder Woman, he wasn’t expecting much. “What I didn’t expect was to be overcome with emotion when Eugene Brave Rock’s character ‘Chief’ met Wonder Woman, who was spectacularly portrayed by Gal Gadot,” he writes. “Why? His first words to her were in Blackfoot. Even better, he introduced himself as Napi, the Blackfoot demi-god who is known as a trickster and a storyteller.” The filmmakers took no short cuts when it came to authentic storytelling. The Calgary Herald explains the research Eugene Brave Rock did to inform his character, all with the blessing of director Patty Jenkins. “He grew up on the Kainai First Nation in Alberta and wanted his character to pay tribute to his own tribe’s contributions to the First World War.”

Indian Country Media Network

The Woke Leader

To stem the rise in hate crimes we must speak up

The dramatic increase of hate crimes, brought into sharp focus by the stabbing death of two people on a light rail train in Portland, Ore., can be directly traced to the rise of President Trump, says Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent. Though it may be no comfort, this dynamic is not new. “Throughout American history, the ascendance of political racism—the use of explicit prejudice to energize voters and win elections, often as a backlash to the social and economic advancement of black Americans and other nonwhite groups—has brought corresponding waves of racial violence,” he says. He walks through a helpful list of how white resentment has been “weaponized” throughout the decades, noting that they are always tied to a political climate that normalizes racism and defines the country in narrowly ethnic terms. “This is why social and political sanctions against racism have historically been so important,” he says. “[W]e tolerate the public expression of racism at our own peril. Embedded in racism is an eliminationist impulse that grows out of the explicit call for exclusion. In the right environment, under the right conditions, the call to remove ‘others’ can become a drive to destroy them.”

Slate

A new Instagram account aims to better show everyday life in Africa

The EverydayAfrica Instagram feed is as diverse as the continent itself: A wedding set-up in Capetown, South Africa, a young robotics student in Dakar, Senegal, a young food vendor in Cairo, Egypt on the first day of Ramadan. Female boxers training in a makeshift gym in the Katanga slum in Kampala, Uganda. The photos, taken by a number of photographers have been turned into a book. BBC tracked down several of the photographers to learn more about how the photos were made. "There was something I relished about seeing such a mundane activity as shoe shining going on normally as the fear of Ebola faded," Ricci Shyrock said of her photo of a man trying to look spiffy in the dusty streets of Conakry, just before Guinea was declared Ebola-free.

BBC

Investigative report: The North Carolina prison system is rife with corruption and abuse

The Charlotte Observer is running a five-part investigation into the North Carolina prison system, “a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina’s prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.” There is absolutely no good news here, but outstanding and dogged reporting that deserves to be amplified. It’s a major issue for taxpayers, who pay up to $1 billion a year to fund the corruption, and even more when the state reaches settlements with abused inmates. “Lawmakers placed many of the state’s 55 prisons in rural areas where it’s hard to recruit employees. And they have failed to provide officers competitive wages,” reports the Observer. As a result, corrections officers are under-trained, sometimes former criminals who profit illegally through the sales of drugs and other contraband. Note: Some of the stories of abuse are brutal.

Charlotte Observer

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. FORTUNE may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions