Bill Maher got in trouble last week for gratuitously using the N-word on his show. Ice Cube does an excellent job of explaining why it is never a good idea for people who are not black to use the word, except in very narrow circumstances, such as where there is an academic discussion about the word, its history, and its effects and even then only when its use is unavoidable. I have had long discussions about racism without ever having to use the word even though its presence hung in the air and was almost palpable. The fact that you have close friends or intimate partners or even spouses who are black does not give you a pass. Discussions about whether Maher is a racist or not obscure the important point that Ice Cube is making.
Despite his own apology for using the word, Maher was clearly uncomfortable at being told some uncomfortable truths. Marlow Stern helpfully provides a transcription of some of Ice Cube’s comments and some background on Maher.
“I accept your apology. But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche,” Cube explained. “Because I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar—or they think they too familiar—or its guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two who made them some Kool-Aid every now and then, 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, man. And 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 gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back. I know they’re tryin’ to get it back.”
The hip-hop maestro was referencing Maher’s history of dating black women, and how he may have gotten “too familiar” and felt that it entitled him to cross certain lines of propriety. One of Maher’s exes Karine Steffans, who is black, once said of him “Bill wants someone he can put down in an argument, tell you how ghetto you are, how big your butt is and that you’re an idiot. That’s why you never see him with a white girl or an intellectual.”
With that being said, Cube wasn’t done. “And I’m not talkin’ about you, Bill. But I’m talkin’ about guys who cross the line every day because they got some black homies, they got some friends, they think it’s cool. And it’s not cool because when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feels like that knife stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it,” he said.
Watch the full segment. It’s worth it.