Celebrity apologies—increasingly frequent in our era of Internet-driven accountability—are always an awkward ritual. But the most graceless kind might be the apologies based on a spectacle of racial catharsis, in which a white penitent is guided by a black person through a process of self-reflection or self-reproach. Take, for instance, the famously stilted Beer Summit, of 2009, a détente, mediated by President Obama, between Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the police officer who had arrested him as he was entering his Cambridge home. Or, more recently, consider Katy Perry’s conversation with the popular activist DeRay McKesson, during her weekend-long live-stream, about her track record of viewing other cultures as costumes that can be put on and slipped off. “I listened and I heard and I didn’t know,” she said. Their talk felt laudable and silly in equal measure.
A particularly peculiar display took place on Friday night on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” when a parade of black guests was brought on air to chastise the host for his flippant use of the phrase “house nigger” in a segment the week before. In that episode, Maher interviewed Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican everyman who was invited on the show to talk about his new book, “The Vanishing American Adult.” Maher admired Sasse’s underlying argument, about the haplessness of millennials. They bantered: “No, adults dress up for Halloween. They don’t do that in Nebraska?” Maher said. Sasse responded, “It’s frowned upon. We don’t do that quite as much.” There was laughter from the audience. “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more,” Maher replied. Sasse joked that Maher was welcome to come work the fields. Maher responded with his own joke: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger!”
Some viewers on Twitter quickly called for Maher to be fired, arguing the obvious: that no white man should say the word “nigger.” Many observed that Maher’s offense could not have been unintentional, since it squared with his long-standing distaste for politically correct language. The morning after the show aired, HBO released a statement saying that it had removed the comment “from any subsequent viewings of the show.” A personal statement by Maher landed soon after, and it read as though the comedian himself, and not a publicist, had written it. “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”
The exchange between Sasse and Maher barely surprised me. Perhaps I had been prepared by Maher’s rhetoric about Muslims, whom he has blamed for the rise of ISIS. But, out of bemused curiosity, I tuned in for the apology tour, anticipating that Maher might invoke, as politicians in his situation invariably do, “the real racists.” The episode was a weird, effortful absolution, one that left me wondering just whom Maher’s apology was intended for. The comedian opened with tongue-in-cheek sheepishness: “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst.” He was then joined by the black academic Michael Eric Dyson. Both men referred to the fact that they were friends. “I want you to school me. I did a bad thing,” Maher said. “People believe what you did last week was an unconscious reflex,” Dyson said. “Nobody would ascribe to you any malicious intent, but that’s the point—that it grows out of a culture that reflexively identifies that particular word with some heinous acts in history.” Dyson patiently lauded Maher for being “on the front line” of the struggle against unsubtle racism. At the outset, Maher seemed genuinely embarrassed, apparently willing to relinquish some control in order to receive an extraordinarily mild talking-to. Not for long, though: “I don’t want to pretend that this is more of a race thing than a comedian thing,” he said to Dyson at one point, growing cocky. “Comedians are a special kind of monkey.”
It’s diversion, and not atonement, that comes most naturally to Maher. His defensiveness surfaced at telling moments, underscoring Dyson’s observation that there are psychological reasons aside from hatred that could lead a white man to make a mistake like Maher’s. Maher apologized for the way that the word “nigger” can bring pain. But what he would not explore is the way the word seemed to bring him a linguistic thrill. Maher has ridiculed young black and brown people for their sensitivities about questions of language. (In February, he mocked students at Berkeley for protesting Milo Yiannopoulos’s hate speech.) Yet in defending himself he seemed to invoke the very gains of identity politics he’s previously derided. “I’m not here to make excuses, but the word is omnipresent in the culture,” Maher said. The statement echoed a rant he delivered sixteen years ago, on an episode of “Politically Incorrect,” in which he argued that he should be allowed to say the word “nigga” because it had been “co-opted” by “the culture” into a term of endearment. Maher did not go so far as to flex this bankrupt idea last week, but he did come close.
The panel segment that followed Dyson’s interview convened the analyst David Gregory, the former congressman David Jolly, Bernie Sanders’s former press secretary Symone Sanders, and the rapper Ice Cube. Sanders and Ice Cube were less gentle in their rebukes. “I think we need to get to the root of the psyche,” Ice Cube said. “It’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they’re a little too familiar. Or, guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two that made them Kool-Aid every now and then, and then they think they can cross the line. And they can’t.” Ice Cube was clearly alluding to Maher’s past troubled relationships with black women. The rapper’s appraisal seemed to bother Maher, who denied Ice Cube’s claim that his language bore any resemblance to that of “redneck truckers.” Sanders pointed out that “it was mostly black women who were enslaved in the house, who were raped, who were beaten daily.” Maher tensed, seeming to grasp that he had lost command of the narrative. He gave the last word to a white male Republican, who repeated a point that has come into vogue since Trump’s early surges in popularity. The new Administration, Jolly said, had reoriented “our” concerns; it was people who use “irreverent words” and _don’t _apologize—the “real” racists, you might say—who deserve scrutiny.
Maher thanked Jolly, wrapping up the segment as if a resolution had been reached, and the palpable yet silent comfort between the two men crystallized for me what was so tiring about the hour-long march of contrition: Maher’s black guests had done much of the work.