Comedian Bill Maher is the liberal that people love and hate at the same time. He has an opinion on nearly everything and has enough money that he doesn’t have to care what you think.
Recently, Maher spoke about the racial controversy involving cooking queen Paula Deen. Unless you’ve been on vacation to Mars, you probably heard that Deen lost her show on the Food Network after admitting to the use of racial slurs in the past. Deen is a white woman born in Georgia in the 1940s, so we have to admit that her admitting that she’s used the n-word falls under the “no duh” category. Nearly everyone in Georgia, at that time, referred to black people as n*ggers, we just have to accept that.
But Maher went a step further, not only stating that Deen should possibly be given a pass for being a woman from the south born before the civil rights movement, but even asked if rap records should be banned because hip-hop artists also use the n-word.
I’m never really sure what to think about Bill Maher. He comes off as the white guy with a very narrow definition of blackness that tends to include a whole lot of thuggin, smoking, drinking, shooting, and other ignorant, stereotypical stuff. I’ll never forget when Maher asked Dr. Cornel West if he was getting b*ooty calls on Saturday nights, and said that the first black president is someone he expected to shoot a BP executive for spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
As to his point about Paula Deen, I tried to hear where Maher was coming from. My friend Roland Martin made a similar argument, stating that we can’t get angry at Deen for using the n-word, given that so many rappers use it without consequence. I would also be included, by some, to be part of the “Paula Deen forgiveness” camp after my recent comments about Paula to Anderson Cooper earlier this week.
To be honest, I don’t consider Paula Deen to be the poster child of American racism. The most devastating racism in America is structural, and has little to do with white people who call me a n*gger. The root of black oppression doesn’t lie with people calling us dirty names, but instead lies with universities that won’t admit black students unless they can throw a football, corporations that don’t hire black managers, or prisons that have become blacker than most HBCUs. Paula Deen is the least of our concerns.
But while Paula Deen shouldn’t be crucified entirely, the truth is that she represents a part of American history that cannot be tolerated. My perception of Deen is that she could actually be a decent human being, but the idea that she hasn’t yet been challenged to improve her racial sensitivities and cultural competence over time is entirely unacceptable. In some ways, she reminds me of the college students here at Syracuse University (where I am on the faculty) who did a racist newscast a few years ago. Their racial ignorance was allowed to fester because our country puts little effort into teaching people about the value of racial respect and equality.
Now, back to Maher. Because Bill is such a “cool white guy,” I suspect that some negro has given him an honorary black card at some point that he loves to pull out of his behind whenever he needs it. You know, this is the kind of license that allows him to speak on issues in the black community as if he’s “one of the brothas” (Bill Clinton has one too). In fact, I dare say that Maher probably thinks he’s blacker than me because I am a nerdy college professor and he dated video vixen Karrine Steffans (who also dated Lil Wayne and pretty much everyone else in the hip-hop music industry).
Bill makes a good point that black people regularly overlook the disrespect shown to them by toxic and negative hip-hop music. It’s very similar to the way we overlook violence against black men if it comes at the hands of another black male. Had Trayvon Martin been shot by a black man, no one would be talking about his case right now. Hip-hop has to be confronted, which is part of the reason I helped to push Mountain Dew to end its relationship with Lil Wayne a month ago. We can never accept the glorification of genocide, addiction and incarceration.
But one thing that must be admitted is that there is a very big difference between a rapper using the n-word and an old white woman from the south saying the same thing. The meaning of words often change due to the context and character of the commentator. That’s why the Chinese word “ma” has a whole host of meanings, depending on who says it, when they say it, what part of the country they are from and the inflexion in their voice. In this regard, there is merit to those who argue that the word “n*gga” has a different meaning from the word “n*gger,” or that the phrase “wussup my n*gga?” used by a black man in New York can have a different meaning from the very same phrase being stated between a Crip and a Blood in South Central Los Angeles.
But these nuances are also stated with the understanding that we’re better off not using the phrase or any variant of it in the first place. However, we can also say that Paula Deen’s use of the word DOES INDEED have a very different meaning from the rapper Young Jeezy. You might hate having to admit this, but you can’t argue that Paula and Jeezy’s use of the n-word means the same when they say it. At the same time, this subtle variation is too difficult to explain to white people, which is why we probably need to stop using any form of the word in any context.
Another point about Paula Deen that we have to understand is that Paula was not taken off the air by black people. It wasn’t the outrage in the black community that led to the loss of her show. Actually, it was the discomfort of (mostly white) executives at the Food Network, who didn’t want their brand to be associated with a person with such a “complex” and tarnished public image. So, Maher can’t blame black people for Deen’s removal or somehow make the argument that getting rid of Paula Deen should mean that all rappers should be censored. The censorship of an artist is very different from telling a cook to get a show on another network. We’re comparing apples and oranges.
In fact, I dare say that black people have almost no say in any of this. The Food Network didn’t remove Deen because we were offended. They removed Deen because some white people got offended. We also have no say on what happens at Universal Records or any other hip-hop music label when it comes to the artists whose music floods the brains of our children. In fact, nearly all of the programming decisions at Radio One, BET, Clear Channel, etc are being made by white people. This, my friends, is the root of American racism. It is the creation of a world where black people have no say in the shape of the environment around them because, for 400 years, white people have hoarded all of the wealth, power and influence. That’s why Bill Maher has a show on HBO, and I probably never will (unless I morph myself into Kevin Hart or something).
The bottom line is that this incident can be used as a teaching and learning opportunity for everyone involved. Paula doesn’t have to be crucified, but she can’t be let off the hook. The Food Network should be challenged to consider adding a more diverse set of decision-makers to their staff to produce shows that are more reflective of the American melting pot. Paula’s fans should be given the opportunity to love their favorite cook, but to also be encouraged to grow in their racial understanding. But as far as considering the Paula Deen controversy to be a meaningful forum on race in America, we haven’t even scratched the surface.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the lecture series called Commercialized Hip-Hop, the Gospel of Self-Destruction. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.