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My 2 Cents: The N-Word Controversy

My response to the backlash Bill Maher received for using the N-Word. Written By Keaston White

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So every time this subject of the N-word comes up, I get pretty passionate. I watched Real Time with Bill Maher last night when Senator Sasse made the comment about Bill working the fields with him, and I knew what was coming. I knew that was the perfect setup for the kind of punchline Bill said. However, he is the wrong person to say it.

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I know many wondered why he still has a job, yet others lose their careers. Make no mistake, he needed to apologize. But given his long-standing advocacy for people of color, his financial contribution to President Obama’s campaign, and close ties to the black community, I would not call him a racist. He is just another example of someone who gets too comfortable and cozy with his position and the women he dates, that he thinks he gets a ''hood pass'' – and he doesn’t. Not to mention, Bill is from the old school of raw comedy, so much so that he used to host a show called Politically Incorrect. I tend to agree with him generally about the over-political correctness, but not in this case. I contrast him with someone like Bill O’Reilly who, at best, has a history of racial insensitivity. If O'Reilly had made the joke, I would consider it racist. So Bill Maher gets a small pass, as long as he learned his lesson. But this is part of a much bigger problem that really grinds my gears…

Regarding the N word, we as black people tend to place a lot of responsibility on other races (particularly white), without consistency, which makes us look very hypocritical. Most black people, even those who say “nigga,” tell white people "Just don’t say it.” Then I come across black people who allow their white friends to say it because to them, “anybody can be a nigga because it means someone’s ignorant.” What’s worse, I’ve heard black people call their white friends “nigga.” Remember Training Day where Denzel Washington calls Ethan Hawke “my nigga?”

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Also, Chris Rock gave comedian Louie C.K. his blessing to say the word freely (which he does in some of his stand-up comedy).

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And don’t even ask me how it became okay for Latinos to say it. So then, what if a white person who was given this pass, rolls into the wrong neighborhood and gets beat up for saying it? Is that fair? Moreover, rap songs are so infested with the word that it’s hard for anyone to sing the lyrics without stumbling over the word. Which brings me to my biggest issue…

The black community, MY community that I love so much, has created this false sense of power by “re-claiming” the word “nigger,” changing it to “nigga.” But how much power have you taken back if every time the wrong person says it in any context, you still get angry. The negativity of the word still controls your emotions. Why? Because like the late Dr. Maya Angelou said...

the N-word is “like poison, whether you take poison from a vial or pour it into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison.”

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As I see it, the only way to take control of the word is to abandon it outside of historical context, and learn to let the anger go, because the purpose of that word at its creation was to demean, dismiss, and anger black people. When I am called a nigger, it doesn't anger me because I know that I am not one. THAT is power. In fact, I’m more offended when I hear black people use it around me, as a “term of endearment.” To me it shows a lack of consideration and appreciation for our ancestors who were called niggers right before they were beaten, burned alive, mutilated, or hanged. So for me, there is nothing endearing about the word. I find words like “brother” and “sister” endearing. Lastly, I don’t applaud the youth for using the word. I don’t see a conscious decision from them to take control of the word. I think it just becomes a part of their vernacular that they’ve adopted from hip hop culture. They don’t know enough about the explicit and graphic violence that was used with this word to oppress our ancestors, due in large part to the fact that it was not taught in schools. Director Lee Daniels directed The Butler because his kids knew more about the story of Anne Frank than they did about the Civil Rights Movement.

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I'm glad that we've had more films now to expose the truth and bridge the disconnect. I really hope that one day we can remove this verbal crutch, but it sadly it doesn’t look that way. I would just like to leave you with this powerful message and hope that you let it marinate...

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UPDATE 6/10/17:

I watched Real Time with Bill Maher last night, and was happy to hear Bill's extended apology and willingness to let the respectable Michael Eric Dyson take him to task. However, I am glad Bill did not allow him to turn his bad joke into something that it was not. As Bill owned up to his mistakes, Dyson felt compelled to then go over the same points as if Bill had not acknowledged them, and his demeanor began to look condescending.

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But what incensed me was Ice Cube's commentary.

"It's our word now..."

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No Ice Cube, that word does not belong to you or me or anyone. It is a terrible word that no one should use outside of historical context. I have respect for Ice Cube, but he sounded like a child on a playground arguing over the word like it's a toy. And though I agree that Bill straddles the line of appropriateness, I think it is very wrong to compare him to a "redneck trucker." I watched Bill getting understandably agitated. Ice Cube further illustrated my point when he says a white person saying Nigga sounds like venom to him. No matter how many ways he has used the word over the years, it still holds the same power over him. So how has it become a tool?

And if we really want to talk about the black struggle and what is offensive, I was extremely offended by Ice Cube's movie Barbershop. For starters, they made the one black guy who sought higher education look like a pretentious jerk who thought he was better than the members of his own community. But the worst offenses were the ways two of our biggest Civil Rights leaders Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were depicted.

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I understand the filmmakers' point that the barbershop is a place full of politically incorrect differing opinions. But the films jokes were not worth reducing our leaders, who were on the front lines of our fight for equality, in such a way that belittled their contributions. At the end of the movie, Cedric the Entertainer's character said, "Martin Luther King was a hoe." I sat there in the theater hearing this, and watching the white people next to me laugh. All I could do think, how do we expect other people to respect our black leaders if we don't? His character also said that Rodney King deserved the brutal beating by the police. None of these "jokes" were funny. The filmmakers didn't even have the decency to cut those parts from the film, at the request of the families of the Civil Rights leaders and prominent black leaders. The film would have been just as funny without them. But to conclude with an earlier point, I think if Ice Cube wants to stop white people from saying the N-word, he should by talking to other black people like Chris Rock, who allow people like Louie CK to say it.

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