By Ellen McGirt
June 5, 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.”


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