The ‘N’ Word: A Psychological Perspective on Bill Maher in the Outhouse & the Reappropriation of the ‘N’ Word

I’ve given much thought to the most recent ‘N’ word controversy over late night, cable talk show host Bill Maher’s use of the term — referring to himself as a “house Nigger.” He had the extreme misfortune of having quite possibly been baited by Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, whom he was hosting at the time. Nevertheless, his response was solely his and as such, his responsibility alone.  That said, y’all know I’ve always maintained my own unapologetic way of thinking. So let me explain why for me, not only is Bill’s apology absolutely accepted, but also why I am not so sure he even needed to give one.  

  1. Context matters:  As a social scientist, I’ve been trained to never look at a behavior in isolation; behavior is best understood within the context in which it occurs. Context always matters when trying to understand or explain a behavior. By looking at behavior in context, behaviors that would initially appear grossly malicious could be mitigated. To wit, society has traditionally given passes for even the most egregious acts. Even the heinous act of murder, when understood within a context, can be absolved. In this particular case, the context was within a comedic forum. It was meant to solicit laughs, albeit at a group’s expense. Notwithstanding that fact, the context, and the intent absolutely matters.
  2. Can we really own a word? Our very own, very beloved, and ofttimes ‘spokesman for the cause’ Ice Cube made a statement in the midst of his public castigation of Maher. He argued regarding the ‘N’ word “It’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.” Is this the basis of our argument? Are we as Blacks saying that only we have license to use this word? And more importantly, is this a word we really want to own? Even more importantly, why would we want to? The ‘N’ word has historically been used to denigrate, to humiliate, dehumanize, and to separate Blacks from our white cohort. The word has been used to remind us that as Blacks we are ‘other;’ that we share nothing in common —  not even humanity, with our oppressors. And some still use the word maliciously against us to date. And so my point is simply, why would we want to “own” such a terribly offensive and historically hateful word?  This sort of undoing of the negativity associated with this word is mere wishful thinking. 
  3. And what about artistic license? Comics and other actors have long since been excused and given a pass for doing and saying things out of mainstream expectation. We have even given them a pass to use the ‘N’ word. As a wanna be artist myself, I agree with Maher’s point that as a comic, the comedic mind sometimes reacts and responds very quickly; almost reflexively when it recognizes an opportune moment. And at times the mind reacts and the mouth instinctively opens; at times inappropriately so. Not at all saying that there should not be a line that should be drawn. Boundaries are always a good thing. Comics must realize that some things simply aren’t to be joked about. But if we draw the line, then it’s a hard-line. And ANYONE who crosses the line must pay the piper. This brings me to my next point:
  4. And what about Richard?: My clearest memories of the late, great comedian Richard Pryor include his very liberal use of the ‘N’ word — in every other sentence it seemed; both as a term of endearment and to demean other Blacks. And so my point is simply, because one is Black, does one have automatic license to very freely use the word? Because Biggie or Tupac or Ice Cube use it as a point of reference or a term of endearment towards others who look like them, should that somehow make it ok for them to use it? I disagree vehemently with this type of cherry picking (at best), and terribly faulty logic. Folks, we cannot pick and choose. There is no shade of gray here — not on this issue. If the word is bad —  historically and continuously, then it is what it is. And NO ONE GETS A PASS. 
  5. Reclamation…REALLY?: When did Black America adopt this word?  When did this word begin to have a much less negative connotation and meaning? For as much as we say we use it to denote a certain fondness and belongingness for those individuals in our group (affectionately referred to as “My Niggers”), we African Americans also use it to disrespect and demean each other. We Blacks also use the word to refer to other Blacks who are seemingly less refined, more hoodish, thuggish, and quite frankly less ‘civilized’ than we might think we are.  This type of behavior and use of the word is an interesting psychological conversion; indeed, a form of the psychological defense reaction formation. Psychologically, this behavior from more seeming ‘refine’ Blacks also represents an identification with the aggressor — whereby the word as a tool of hatred and in its most pejorative sense against each other — just as whites have always used it against us.  In sum, we must take responsibility for this. Let us stop pretending that the word somehow has magically lost its negative power. We must own the truth of the ‘N’ word. It is a hateful word. Period. There is no reclamation or reappropriation that can happen here. There is nothing positive that can come from such a reprehensible word. There is no undoing here. No matter how hard we wish for it to be so.

No, I don’t give Bill Maher a pass. But Ice Cube, Jay-Z, Issa Raye, or myriad other Black don’t get one either — nor should they just because they are Black.  If using the word is wrong for Bill, then it’s wrong for anyone irrespective of their color. We must stop perpetuating double standards; they always somehow boomerang back at the user anyway. We must recognize the moment we have here. In fact, why don’t we use this teachable moment to change the American vernacular, and to erase this hateful word from the lexicon. 

Be well. 

The Good Dr. Nik

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The Good Dr. Nik, aka Dr. Nicole Alford, is a DMV-based Clinical Psychologist, writer and blogger, media commentator, and compassionate activist. For more information about her services, follow her @theGoodDrNik on all social media platforms, and visit her website at http://www.TheGoodDrNik.com

 

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