Bill Maher, host of Real Time on HBO, was forced to apologize this week when he used a racial slur during an interview with Senator Ben Sasse. The Nebraska senator suggested that Maher come to Nebraska to "work in the fields," to which Maher responded "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house nigger." His audience gasped, widespread outrage followed, and HBO condemned the remark and promised to edit it from future broadcasts.
"I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment," Maher said in a statement. The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry." It's unclear what Maher's future at the network holds, though he will return for another episode this Friday.
Maher's recent "live moment" with a racial slur for blacks was preceded years ago by an extended insistence that white people should be able to use the word. This occurred on August 22, 2001 on Maher's previous TV show, Politically Incorrect. Maher's guests were Sarah Silverman, David Spade, Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, and Anne-Marie Johnson, actress and activist. The discussion of anti-black racism grew from a debate between Silverman and Aoki — the previous month, Silverman made on Late Night with Conan O'Brien that some Asian-Americans perceived as racist.
The relevant comments begin at 9:06 in the video above. Maher argued that "nigger" had become an acceptable slang word for anyone to use, thanks to its appearance in music. "Blacks have an issue [that] whites cannot say this word," he said. "I disagree. This word has changed... according to culture."
When Anne-Marie Johnson, who is black, disagreed, Maher remarked "I wouldn't even know that you were black if you didn't tell me," presumably to undercut her authority on the issue of racism. "I love when white people try to define African-Americans," she responded. "I think I'm only one on this stage who's qualified to talk about the meaning of the word, how it hurts, how it doesn't hurt, where it's used, the history of it. Because I live it everyday.
"It's in every song on the radio," Maher countered. "Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. It's in every song. People come up to me and say 'BIll, you a nigger.' But I can't say thank you, or say 'Please don't use that word?'"
Johnson cited the continuing existence of hate crimes, which Maher disputes. "History changes," he said. "Words change."
The FADER has reached out to HBO for comment.
Thumbnail photo by Jason Kirk for Getty Images