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Guest column: It wasn't just Bill Maher's use of the N-word that was offensive

Wednesday, June 14, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Detroit Free Press
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This article by Susan Grettenberger, professor and Social Work Program Director at Central Michigan University and member of NASW-Michigan, was originally published by the Detroit Free Press.

 Bill Maher has elicited a storm of reactions to his recent "joke" using the N-word.  For those who somehow missed it, this happened in an interview with Senator Ben Sasse, R-Neb.:  “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us,” Sasse joked.  Maher responded, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house [N-word].” For every person who is offended, there seems to be someone who wishes others would just get over it. Maher has offered an apology, acknowledging he was completely out of line, that the word he used was offensive.

 

 What strikes me in the whole furor that erupts in such incidents is the lack of understanding on the part of those not part of the community affected by slurs, whether the targets are racial, gay related, Islamic or other. The dismissal of objections as political correctness points to a lack of empathy for those affected. This is about more than slurs, by the way, including such symbols as the Confederate flag, also part of a flurry of reactions over the past year.

 

Let’s start with the flag.  If the symbol of a flag were not potent, why would people become so offended about a slight to the American Flag?  People react on both sides precisely because symbols do matter. Symbols, whether objects or words, carry tremendous emotional meaning to those who use them and those who see, hear and experience them.

The N-word carries its own deep and ugly past, used to demean and intimidate people of African ancestry, but Maher gave it an extra little twist, spring-boarding off Sasse’s seemingly innocent comment inviting Maher to come work in the fields of Nebraska. Maher then referred to himself as a house "N-word," language directly referring to the different roles that slaves played on plantations. This was a joke about being a slave, as if that is something funny. It could be funny, to someone who has no connection to slavery personally. However, for those who carry the legacy of slavery it is difficult to find this anything but hurtful and violating.  

 

Although he laughed at the time, Sasse later made an appropriate, carefully worded statement rejecting what Maher said and wishing he himself had spoken up in the moment. I suggest this response was sincere. Like most people, he focused on the word Maher used, recognizing its inappropriateness but not catching the casual acceptance of slavery.  “I’m a house slave, not a field slave’ would have offended me just as much as the actual language.  Finding slavery unfunny is not political correctness.  Aside from the fact that the legacy of U.S. slavery continues to shadow the lives of even the most privileged African-Americans, slavery still exists globally because its economic benefits still exist. There are estimates that, globally, as many as 30 million people are currently enslaved.  As many as a third of them are children, and many slaves, including children, endure sexual exploitation. (See the U.S. State Department June 2016 report on Trafficking for more information.

 

 Free speech is protected and should be, although jobs aren’t always.  Maher has a right to joke about anything he wishes, and his right should be protected. Comedians are one source of political commentary and provocation, as evidenced here.  In response, we who are less affected personally must find sufficient empathy and openness to learn from such incidents and change for the better if we are to resolve the legacy of oppression of African-Americans. 

 

 Susan Grettenberger is professor and Social Work Program Director at Central Michigan University. She is vice president of social policy for the National Association of Social Workers-MI Chapter, and president of the Michigan Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Educators. 


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